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Forecasters See Big Atlantic Hurricane Season

Forecasters See Big Atlantic Hurricane Season
MIAMI- US forecasters predicted on Monday that up to 15 tropical storms and hurricanes would form in the Atlantic and Caribbean this year, another busy season on the heels of one that hammered Florida with four hurricanes and swamped US oil production.

If the forecasters are right, the 2005 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, would continue a string of mostly above-average stormy seasons that began a decade ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in its annual hurricane forecast.

"Since 1995, conditions in the tropics have been very favorable for active hurricane seasons. Eight out of those 10 years were above normal and we expect this to be nine out of 11," NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said at a news conference in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

The Atlantic and Caribbean basin will see 12 to 15 tropical storms during the season, NOAA said. From seven to nine of those storms will become hurricanes and three to five of the hurricanes will be major ones, with sustained winds exceeding 110 mph (177 kph), the agency said.

An average hurricane season has 9.6 tropical storms, of which 5.9 grow to hurricane strength of 74 mph (119 kph). Of those hurricanes, 2.3 become major hurricanes.

Haiti, Grenada, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Florida were hard hit during last year's hurricane season, which produced 15 storms.

Hurricane Jeanne, a tropical storm when it passed near Haiti, triggered floods that killed about 3,000 people in the poorest country in the Americas. Ivan damaged about 90 percent of Grenada's housing stock.

Florida bore the brunt of the US impact. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne slammed into the state during a six-week period, causing about $45 billion in damage.

The storms killed 57 people directly in the United States and another 152 died from indirect but related causes. Nearly 10 million people came under evacuation orders, thousands of homes in Florida were damaged or destroyed and the state's citrus industry was hit hard.

Ivan was the most damaging on record for the US oil industry, destroying several oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and triggering massive underwater mudslides that damaged undersea pipelines.

Oil production from the Gulf of Mexico was reduced by 45 million barrels between September and February, according to the Minerals Management Service, contributing to last year's spike in energy prices.

The same climate conditions that fed last year's busy season, including warm sea temperatures, low wind shear and sea surface pressure, weak easterly trade winds and a favorable African easterly jet stream, are in place this year, NOAA said.

El Nino, the warm-water phenomenon in the eastern Pacific that tends to dampen Atlantic hurricane activity, is not likely to be a factor this year.

"El Nino, we are predicting, will be in a neutral state this year," Lautenbacher said. "We do not expect the El Nino conditions to play any role in this year's hurricane forecast."

Although the 2004 season did not produce a record number of storms, it marked the first time since 1886 that a single state -- Florida -- was hit by four hurricanes in one season. Nine of the 15 storms reached hurricane strength.

Story by Jim Loney

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