PHILADELPHIA – William A. Wagner Sr. lives in the heart of the Florida Keys, a splendid crescent of barrier islets that constitute one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the nation.
Sometime in the next few months, it also could become one of the scariest places in the nation.
Last week, hurricane experts issued a worst-possible forecast for Floridians and other coastal residents: Expect a near 100 percent chance of another active, unnerving and frightening hurricane season, followed by at least 10 or 15 more.
Apprehension is as much a part of hurricane season as satellite images of spinning cloud masses. But this season, which begins officially on Thursday, will be different.
It will be different for residents and homeowners on the built-out coasts and eroding barrier islands, and for emergency managers. Who knows what nature will do for an encore after a season unprecedented for destruction, a year that exhausted the alphabet and incited fresh concerns over global warming.
The bills are being tallied, but so far the amount given out by Federal Emergency Management
Agency for 2005 hurricane damage alone – just more than $21 billion – is about what it spent for all disasters in the 1950s, â€˜60s, â€˜70s and â€˜80s. That is a combined total, adjusted for inflation.
Wagner, 71, a diminutive man who for 26 years has been the county emergency official responsible for getting residents and tourists out of the Keys when hurricanes approach, worries that something worse could happen this year, closer to home.
“We’ve had a lot of close calls,” he said.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to get clobbered,” he said. “We could lose thousands of people.”
“I can smell the anxiety level of people,” says Stanley B. Goldenberg, a government hurricane researcher who lives about 95 miles to the north, in Miami.
Goldenberg doesn’t scare easily. He flies research missions into the eyes of storms for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and he stayed in his home for the siege of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“In all the hurricane-affected areas,” he said, “people are shellshocked.”
Obscured after the tragedy of Katrina and New Orleans was the fact that for the last two seasons, Florida, which juts precariously into the prime storm waters, has been a hurricane punching bag. In any other year, Wilma, which grew to a monster Category 5 storm with winds up to 175 mph before battering South Florida in October, would have been the big story.
Outside New Orleans, where the death toll was the worst in the United States since the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900, the 2005 season caused unheard-of destruction, said Asbury H. Sallenger of the U.S. Geological Survey office in St. Petersburg, Fla. For example, Rita destroyed the small town of Holly Beach, La., once called “the Cajun Riviera.”
“I’ve seen severe storms destroy every fourth or fifth oceanfront house,” he said. “What I have never seen before was the elimination of entire communities as occurred during 2005.”
The 25-mile-long Chandeleur Island, a barrier strip that protects the mainland about 60 miles east of New Orleans, lost up to 90 percent of its land mass. Elsewhere, hurricanes smashed down dunes, making shorelines all the more defenseless against storm waves.
Future storms, and lots of them, are all but a certainty, hurricanes experts warn. The 2006 season should be a busy one because of favorable conditions in the atmosphere, the tropical Pacific, and the Atlantic Basin, which includes the North Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
The shearing winds that can snuff out tropical storms that grow into hurricanes should be minimal. The surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific are near normal, a condition favorable for Atlantic storms, and the Atlantic sea-surface temperatures remain abnormally warm, suggesting a generous supply of fuel for hurricanes.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Colorado State University forecaster William M. Gray are calling for well-above-average seasons. Gray, some of whose methods are used by NOAA, sees five Category 3 storms, those with winds of at least 111 m.p.h. That’s double the usual number.
If there is a silver lining, Gray said that odds are against high numbers of major land-falling hurricanes. In the last two years, upper-level steering winds happened to drive hurricanes into the Gulf and Southeast coasts, ending a long run of incredibly good luck, and that is unlikely to happen three years in a row.
Still, he sees a 4-in-5 chance that at least one Category 3 or higher will make U.S. landfall, and it could be more than one. On average, only two major hurricanes hit land every three years.
What is even more disturbing for coastal communities is that the basin appears to be in the middle of an active hurricane cycle that could last 10 years to 20 years, part of what Goldenberg and his colleagues identified as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation.
They attribute it to slow changes in the Atlantic that result in alternating quiet and busy periods that can last 20 or 30 years. A busy hurricane period in the 1950s and 1960s was followed by a lull from roughly 1970 to 1994 that ended emphatically in 1995.
Hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, publicly disagrees with that analysis. He says the busy period is here in perpetuity because of global warming. He argues that Atlantic hurricanes respond to warming in the Northern Hemisphere and that a more or less permanent warm period has begun.
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Gray, Goldenberg and others strongly dispute Emanuel’s take. Alberto M. Mestas-Nunez, a coauthor of the hurricane-cycle paper, has said the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation link is unmistakable. “It’s very robust, no matter how you look at the data,” he said.
Emanuel also is among researchers who contend that hurricanes are getting stronger. However, Gray and others say they see no such evidence and have said those findings are based on faulty data.
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Human beings are definitely a factor in hurricane damage, say disaster experts Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado and Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University, but not because of greenhouse-gas emissions. “In the case of hurricanes,” they write, “the continuing development and urbanization of coastal regions around the world accounts for all of the increases in economic and human losses that we have experienced.”
Much of the coastal building occurred during the most recent hurricane lull period, which began in 1970 and ended in 1994.
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Wagner said that along with what might happen, he has another major worry. Despite the horrors of the last two seasons, he still could have trouble persuading the 100,000-plus residents and tourists to leave the Keys.
Last season, the county had issued so many evacuation orders that by the time Wilma came along, some residents chose to ignore the call to leave. “We got a poor response,” he said. Wilma spared the Keys the worst of its effects, but it was a close call.
Only one bridge links the Keys to the mainland, and about a third of the people are clustered in Key West, the town farthest from the mainland. By necessity, the county has to order evacuations 36 to 48 hours before a storm would hit, and it is usually impossible to predict where a storm is going to hit that far in advance.
Said Wagner, “I deal with two of the most unpredictable elements known to man: Mother Nature and human nature.”
(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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