Hurricane season finally ends, but is it actually over?

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MIAMI -- The destructive and record-setting 2005 Atlantic hurricane season wound to its official end -- at least on paper -- but no one is writing off this volatile season yet.

Although no hurricane has been known to hit the U.S., Mexico or the Caribbean between Dec. 1 and May 31, officials at the National Hurricane Center said that if conditions are right, a tropical storm could brew and form this month.

If very warm ocean waters and favorable wind patterns are right, we could have another storm. These factors accounted for many storms this season, said Gerry Bell, head of the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

Were in a cycle that began in 1995 and could last 20 years, Bell said.

On Dec. 2, Hurricane Epsilon churned through the central Atlantic, generating rough surf in Bermuda, well to the southeast.

Records toppled like tree branches this year. Including Epsilon, the season produced 26 named storms, surpassing the 1933 record of 21.

Of the 26 storms, 14 were hurricanes, and seven of them reached Category 3 status (winds above 111 mph). Katrina, Rita and Wilma were all Category 5 storms with 155-plus mph winds.

Next year could be just as bad, warned Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., a NOAA administrator. Historical trends say the atmospheric patterns and water temperatures are likely to force another active season upon us.

Tropical storm Arlene got the ball rolling on June 8, prompting watches in Cuba.

Dennis the menace

That, however, was nothing compared with the wrath of Dennis, a Category 4 menace in July that flooded Haiti, closed Jamaicas airports and wiped out power in the Florida Panhandle.

Preceding Dennis were tropical storms Bret, which damaged 3,000 homes in Veracruz, and Cindy, which pelted Louisiana.

Within days of Dennis, Hurricane Emily pummeled parts of Grenada, still in recovery mode from Ivans visit in September 2004, and forced tourists in Mexicos Yucatan region to evacuate glitzy play palaces for shelter in gymnasiums.

The volatile season was not even two months old when forecaster William Gray at Colorado State University revised his forecast from 15 named storms to 20.

Not every storm was a blockbuster. Franklin fizzled over the Atlantic in July, and Gert had a three-day shelf life.

Harvey disappeared over the North Atlantic. Irene roamed the Atlantic for two weeks and never made landfall. Jose came and went.

Three wicked ladies

But after slamming southeastern Florida on Aug. 25, Hurricane Katrina announced herself in the Gulf of Mexico with shrieking 175 mph winds, blasting into the record books as it smashed the levees of New Orleans and tore through Gulf Coast plantations on Aug. 29.

At last count, Katrina had killed 1,300 people and had caused at least $125 billion worth of damage -- although the tallies are by no means final -- making the storm the worst natural disaster to hit the U.S.

Prior to that, 1992s Hurricane Andrew was the costliest, causing $26.5 billion in damage.

Tropical storm Lee barely got ink; Maria headed east to Norway, where one woman died in a mudslide. Nate skirted Bermuda; Ophelia pounded North Carolinas beaches; and Philippe was harmless.

Then came Rita on Sept. 17, aimed squarely at the Florida Keys; Houston and Galveston, Texas; southwestern Louisiana; and, for a scary moment, New Orleans. Rita prompted an exodus of 1.8 million people from Houston, the largest mandatory evacuation in U.S. history.

Stan, a Category 1 storm, emerged five days later and turned toward Guatemala, spawning mudslides.

Tropical Storm Tammy flooded southern Georgia on Oct. 6 as Hurricane Vince formed in the Atlantic and made landfall in southwestern Spain, prompting incredulity among forecasters.

But it was not over yet. Up rose Wilma on Oct. 17, marking the first time that three Category 5 hurricanes had formed in the Atlantic basin in one season.

She was a doozy. Wilma rapidly strengthened into one of the most intense storms ever, lashing Cuba and Central America before bearing down on Mexicos Yucatan peninsula.

Tourists once again shuffled from luxury digs to spartan shelters as Wilma battered Cozumel and Cancun for two days with rain and 140 mph winds.

Wilmas next stop was storm-weary Florida. She made landfall on Oct. 24 on the West Coast, knifed across the state and tore into Fort Lauderdale. 

Its all Greek to us

Alpha, the first storm to get its name from the Greek alphabet, became the seasons 22nd tropical storm on Oct. 22 -- the most since record keeping began in 1851.

Alpha dumped rain in the Dominican Republic, Beta did the same in Central America, Gamma was responsible for two deaths in the Grenadines and Delta dawned in late November, headed for Africa.

Lautenbacher pointed out that the accuracy of predictions has improved dramatically in 10 years. Weve cut our errors by 50%.

Yet, even with good forecasts, Katrina showed us that not all people are able to evacuate, said David L. Johnson, director of the National Weather Service.

We have only six months to prepare for the 2006 season.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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