FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When Tropical Storm Alberto rolled out of the Caribbean in early June making a beeline for the Florida Panhandle, the oddsmakers perked up.

So did online gamblers, as betting started on the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. They can wager on how many hurricanes will form, how strong they will be and even how many will pummel storm-weary Floridians.

In a culture where you can bet on “American Idol” winners, whether Britney Spears is heading for marital breakup or bliss, or where Brangelina will adopt their next baby, it was only a matter of time before gamblers could lay down cash on fickle Mother Nature.

Gambling operators who offer the hurricane odds say hurricane betting is a natural; the weather is unpredictable, but there is a strong history of hurricane data to mine to determine odds.

They also point out that people are fascinated by powerful, scary storms.

That might be, but Isabel Ulrich, 68, whose roof was torn off her home by Hurricane Frances in September 2004 and who spent a year living in a FEMA trailer in her driveway, doesn’t see the draw. She says she understands the thrill of betting on a football or basketball game, or on a dog or horse race, but she says there’s no entertainment value to betting on a hurricane.

“The only thing is an addiction, and people who are addicted just bet on anything,” Ulrich says. “If you bet on horses, at least you see your horse winning and at least you had a good time for a few minutes. But for a hurricane, does that make sense?”

The gamblers, or amateur meteorologists as they may be, are not directly betting on misery – the amount of damage, the loss of life – but experts say they would if they could.

“People, unfortunately, would bet on that. There is betting on death pools outside of our industry. It’s relatively popular,” says Christopher Costigan, president of the online gambling news Web site

Online gambling operators are tapping into that. They say Americans are gambling more on so-called “proposition” – or prop – bets, like whether Al Gore will run for president in 2008. These prop bets became more popular with the 2004 presidential election, and online gambling sites are grabbing more business with offbeat prop bets outside of traditional sports wagers.

“When people see things reported, it generates interest and people want to gamble on it. We had success with “American Idol,”‘ says Dave Johnson, CEO of, an online gambling site.

Hurricanes, he notes, have been good for business. “This has been one of the most successful proposition bets we’ve put out.”

Before Tropical Storm Alberto, had four wagers available on the hurricane season. Their oddsmakers expanded the wagers in response to demand, and nearly 2,000 bets have been placed so far, Johnson says.

One online gambling site,, offers odds on how many Category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes will hit Florida and the United States mainland, as well as the total number of storms that hit the mainland.

The U.S Justice Department maintains that these wagers are illegal, but some debate that. There is virtually no regulation of the offshore betting sites.

Johnson says his operation is sensitive to the catastrophic losses from Hurricane Katrina.

“We are not doing anything with landfall. We are not doing anything with destruction. We are not doing anything with loss of human life. We are drawing a line,” Johnson says. “We’ve had opportunities in the past to do dead pools, and we have never done that at WagerWeb.”

Even some gambling opponents don’t think it’s morbid to bet on hurricanes.

“Its not like it’s a bunch of nuns who start running a bingo parlor. They are going to make a buck any way they can,” says C.B. Forgotston, a Louisiana political activist who opposes legalized gambling and who lost his home in New Orleans during Katrina.

“Nothing surprises me about people’s desire to gamble. It’s hard to get upset about that. People just bet on everything. People will bet on two birds sitting on a line and which one will fly off.”

(c) 2006 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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