It's easy to forget this hurricane season: Plywood and shutters are gathering dust in garages across Tampa Bay, and no named storm has hit Florida.
So why does state meteorologist Ben Nelson say "it's a very active year"?
Because more tropical storms have formed early this hurricane season than all but four years of the last 150, Nelson said. And because we are now in the busiest part of the hurricane season.
Last week, experts raised their predictions for this year's Atlantic hurricane activity.
"It's likely that we're going to have more storms" compared to the relatively mild years of 2006 and 2007, said Florida emergency management director Craig Fugate. "Whether they'll come to Florida, we don't know."
No one can predict whether a hurricane will hit us during the June-through-November hurricane season this year. But this much is clear: When more bullets fire out of the machine gun, it's more likely one will hit you. And this year, the tropics are firing.
The NOAA, the federal agency that oversees the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, last week said there was an 85 percent chance that 2008 will be an above-average hurricane season. In May it set the figure at 65 percent. Also last week, noted hurricane researcher William Gray increased his forecast to 17 named storms for the year in the Atlantic region, compared to the 15 he predicted in early June.
Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay said in some seasons, the storms all seem to sputter out before they get started. This time, it's the opposite.
"We're in one of those years where everything just wants to develop," Clay said.
Which brings us to a perennial question: Is Tampa Bay ready?
"I don't even know where we would go," said Amanda Dell, 35, of Largo, when asked about hurricane evacuation plans. Dell, who is pregnant, said she and her boyfriend do not have an emergency hurricane kit for themselves or their children, who are 2, 5 and 10. She couldn't really explain why.
Karin Ryan could. "I've just been so busy I haven't had time," said Ryan, 64, of St. Petersburg. But then she thought about it for a moment, and realized she did have canned goods and a portable radio on hand. "I think I'm in pretty good shape, I really do," she said.
The Tampa Bay region does get slashed with tropical storms and other severe weather, but hurricanes have spared the region from a direct hit since 1921. That's good, of course, but it also worries emergency planners, who fear local residents have no personal experience with hurricanes and have failed to take the threat to heart.
"There is some complacency across the board," said Jim Martin, director of emergency management for Pasco County.
Anyone who doubts a hurricane could hit here should reflect back on 2004, several disaster planners said. That's when Hurricane Charley steamed up the Gulf of Mexico toward Pinellas County, but took a slight curve to the east and smashed Punta Gorda instead.
Pinellas emergency management director Sally Bishop said when she saw Hurricane Bertha, which began off the coast of Africa at an especially early date this July, she thought it was "probably an indication that it's going to be an active hurricane season." But she also said that doesn't really matter; a hurricane could smash into us even in a below-average year. She urges people to prepare like "there's one coming and it's going to be our problem."
Although it's rare for hurricanes to hit Tampa Bay, it's more common to face power outages, sometimes for days, when severe storms do pass through. That's one reason the planners suggest food, water and a portable radio for the hurricane kit. With the struggling economy on many people's minds, this year Pinellas officials prepared a video on how to stock hurricane supplies on a budget.
Tina Oliver of the Lealman area north of St. Petersburg said she always keeps extra canned food and water on hand, and has a portable radio. She even prepares for hurricanes when choosing a place to live.
"I try to move to a place where it's not a low-lying area," she said.