The tropical storm name game

Wondering when your name will be used for a tropical storm? If it has not appeared in the last six years, chances are remote that you'll ever see it.

All hurricanes are given names to help identify storms and track them as they move across the ocean. There can be more than one hurricane swirling at a time, so storms are named to avoid confusion.

Different strokes

Tropical storms get a name when storm strength and sustained winds top 39 mph. Different categories of storms indicate wind strength and levels of damage: Category 1, 74 mph to 95 mph, damaging winds; Category 2, 96 mph to 110 mph, very strong winds; Category 3, 111 mph to 130 mph, dangerous winds, extensive damage; Category 4, 131 mph to 155 mph, extremely dangerous winds, devastating damage; Category 5, more than 155 mph, catastrophic damage.

What's in a name?

For hundreds of years, hurricanes in the Caribbean were named after the saint's day on which the storm occurred. An Australian meteorologist began naming storms after women before the end of the 19th century. In 1953, the U.S. National Weather Service, which tracks hurricanes and issues storm watches and warnings, began using female names for storms.

In 1979, the name list was revised, and now every even-numbered storm has a man's name. One name for each letter of the alphabet is selected, except for Q, U, Y and Z. For Atlantic hurricanes, the names are derived from the languages that people speak in a particular part of the world. For the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, the names come from English, French, Spanish and Dutch.

One banished, one born

The World Meteorological Organization uses six lists in rotation. The same lists are used every six years.

A name is deleted when it has been used for a deadly or costly hurricane, and a new one is added. So, in 2014, Gonzalo, Isaias and Paulette will replace Gustav, Ike and Paloma, all of which struck in the 2008 season.

That destructive trifecta of banished storm names joins 1989's Hugo; 1995's Luis; 1999's Floyd; 2003's Ida; 2004's Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne; and 2005's Katrina, to name a few.

If all 21 names are used in one season, as they were in 2005, subsequent storms are identified by the Greek letter alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so on.

Meet the new kids

The 2009 list, which will repeat in 2015 if no names are retired, contains the names Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, Erika, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Joaquin, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Theresa, Victor and Wanda. -- G.N.M.

The six-month hurricane season, which officially began on June 1, was preceded by a tropical depression that ignored the calendar and formed 310 miles south of Providence, R.I., on May 28, entering the record books as the most northerly of such storms ever to form.

However, it dissipated somewhere over the cool waters of the mid-Atlantic without ever getting a name. Meteorologists called it a fish storm, because it remained at sea, posed no threat to land and only the fish saw it.

It did, however, serve as a wake-up call and a vivid reminder that a new season of dangerous weather was unfolding.

A flurry of activity in late May or early June generally is not a sign of things to come, according to Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Although August and September traditionally are the peak hurricane months, last year's Tropical Storm Arthur formed near the coast of Belize on May 30, killing five and causing $78 million in damage.

Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, followed the late-summer scenario, forming off the coast of Africa in mid-August and eventually intensifying into one of the strongest Category 5 storms in history, ravaging Florida with wind gusts of 160 mph and causing more than $26 billion in damage.

Until then, the 1992 season had been fairly serene, with just a couple of tropical depressions. In fact, weather forecasters had predicted just one major storm that season, and history proved that they were spot on with Andrew.

So what's in store for 2009?

Foul-weather factors

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a near-average season, which is 11 named storms with six hurricanes, of which two could become major. NOAA's forecast this year calls for nine to 14 named storms. Four to seven will be hurricanes, and one to three will be major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph.

Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead seasonal forecaster, figures there is a 70% chance of the forecast being right. It all hinges on enhanced rainfall over Africa, warmer Atlantic waters and reduced wind shear.

Veteran forecaster William Gray at Colorado State University differs somewhat with NOAA, calling for 11 tropical storms, including five hurricanes, two of which will be major.

Then there's the El Nino factor, a system in the tropical Pacific that has important consequences for weather around the globe. According to NOAA, a weak or neutral El Nino raises the ante for a higher number of damaging storms in the Atlantic region.

Bell cautioned that the forecast is a general guide to expected activity and in no way indicates where or when hurricanes might make landfall.

"The seasonal outlook represents our best knowledge of the climate signals," Bell said, adding that NOAA suffers a lack of "horsepower in computers" to advance forecasting to the next level. Supercomputers with greater capability are needed to expand NOAA's capability.

NOAA requested approximately $13 million from the government for its 2010 budget, much of it tagged to requests for computers to help predict the intensity of storms rather than just tracking them.

Already, one casualty of the 2009 hurricane season is the "skinny black line," long seen on TV weather maps and storm websites showing a hurricane's projected path.

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, favors a graphic that displays the cone of the storm, which represents the projected path of its center.

"Too many people mistakenly use the line to determine how they will respond to the storm, like whether to evacuate or not," Read said.

Gray and his colleague Phil Klotzbach warned hurricane-watchers not to get too wrapped up in forecasts that try to predict if a season will be more or less active than usual.

"It only takes one bad hurricane, like Andrew, to make it a bad season," Gray said.

This year they're calculating that South Florida has a 32% chance of seeing landfall of a major hurricane. The probability of a major hurricane making landfall along the U.S. coastline is 54%, compared with the last-century average of 52%. The Caribbean, they say, has an "average" probability of a major hurricane strike.

NOAA and the Colorado researchers will update and revise their forecasts, if necessary, in midsummer.

Last season was a doozy, producing 16 named storms, eight hurricanes, four major storms and millions in damages. Hurricanes Gustav, Ike, Paloma and other storms pounded parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. relentlessly for weeks on end.

Several Caribbean resorts still are shuttered, including the Courtyard by Marriott, Grand Cayman; Brac Reef Beach Resort, Cayman Brac, reopening later this year; and Four Seasons Nevis, which is scheduled to reopen Nov. 1.
Effects of a major hurricane's devastation can linger for years, even decades.

Derelict Mullet Bay Beach Resort remains an eyesore in St. Maarten, a visual reminder of Hurricane Luis in 1995, as rumors continue to swirl regarding its future. The fate of the former Hyatt Regency in Grand Cayman also is in question. The resort fell victim to Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Haiti, for one, won't soon forget last year's season. That impoverished country still is cleaning up from Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, back-to-back storms that killed more than 800 and moved mountains of mud down denuded hillsides, engulfing entire communities. Nonstop heavy rains flooded villages, knocking down fragile homes, stranding residents, washing away streets and pounding the coastlines.

Cuba was pounded by Gustav, a Category 4 storm, in late August, and in November by Paloma, another Category 4 monster that whacked Cayman Brac and Little Cayman en route to Havana. It destroyed more than 1,400 homes, leaving $300 million in damage, and became the second most intense hurricane ever recorded in that month.

Hurricane Ike leveled Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos, Great Inagua Island in the southeastern Bahamas and the northeastern coast of Cuba on Sept. 7 before slamming into Houston and Galveston, Texas, and parts of the Gulf coast a week later.

The storm killed 100, caused widespread coastal flooding, peeled off roofs, felled trees and power lines and wreaked an estimated $21 billion in damages, $3 billion in Galveston alone. NOAA considers Ike to be the third costliest natural disaster in the U.S., after Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992.

Rebuilding in Galveston will be a five-year process, according to Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. Although the tourists are back, not all the residents are, and repair of the city's famed sea wall along the vulnerable shoreline, ravaged by a 14-foot-high storm surge, still is under way.

A wrecked pickup truck juts at a crazy angle on a damaged pier as a grim reminder of what the hurricane season can bring. Four blocks in from the beach, devastation still can be seen, a reminder of how much work remains to be done.

All in all, there were eight Atlantic hurricanes and storms last year that caused an estimated $1 billion in damages and left more than 1,000 dead, with 80% of those falling victim to flash flooding, according to the National Hurricane Center's Read.

Preparing for the worst

In the weeks preceding this year's hurricane season, flood-prone communities issued grim warnings about making adequate preparations in advance of any storm.

The state of Virginia eliminated the sales tax for a week on batteries, lanterns, generators and foul-weather gear, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency launched a Twitter account and YouTube and Facebook pages to reach people with hurricane information.

Jamaicans commemorated a month of disaster preparations with national church services. In every year since 2001, Jamaica has faced direct threats from hurricane activity. Last year, Gustav was still a tropical storm when it moved along Jamaica's south coast, killing 15 and causing millions of dollars in damage.

No one is blase about this season. President Obama highlighted his concern about hurricane preparedness on a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters, where he was briefed by FEMA's newly installed chief, Craig Fugate, a Florida emergency response veteran.

Obama told the group that he would be very angry if, after a disaster, federal officials said they had been unprepared or didn't have a plan, according to a FEMA official.

The Bush administration and FEMA were widely criticized after 2005's Hurricane Katrina, when the agency showed up late and unprepared. The government's disaster response functions have since been strengthened.

The State Department has issued its annual hurricane alert to U.S. citizens in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean and Mexico, urging those in storm-prone regions to prepare a waterproof disaster kit with water, first aid supplies, prescription medications, vital documents, battery-powered radios and nutrition bars.

Travelers abroad were urged to register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, let family members know their whereabouts and contact their tour operator and travel agent, hotel staff and local officials for evacuation instructions if necessary.

If all this sounds very dire, there is a silver lining. TripAdvisor's annual hurricane survey of more than 1,000 travelers revealed that 65% are likely to travel to a storm-susceptible destination this summer or fall. The reason? Great deals, big savings.

In fact, 25% of respondents said that air and hotel discounts of more than 50% would be enough to entice them to visit a hurricane zone this storm season.

"Despite some reluctance to visit hurricane-susceptible destinations, a large number of travelers are willing to roll the dice if the price is right," said Michele Perry, TripAdvisor's vice president of global communications.

Click here for the current list of resorts offering cancellation policies during the hurricane season.


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