What hurricanes? Season turns out to be milder than predicted


What happened to the hurricanes?

In stark contrast to last year's record-breaking, 28-storm season, the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ended Nov. 30, fell far short of the experts' predictions for an active year.

The calamity that was forecast never happened.

There was nothing like Emily, Katrina, Rita or Wilma. There was no need to name storms after Greek letters because the list of proper names was not exhausted. There were five storms named after Greek letters in 2005.

Caribbean and Mexican resorts and several U.S. tour operators had readied for an active storm season, fashioning cancellation and trip-replacement policies that protected guests if a hurricane disrupted their travel plans.

No one is complaining, however, that the U.S. and the Caribbean got off easy this year.

A forecast released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in May called for 13 to 16 storms, of which eight to 10 would be hurricanes. The NOAA predicted that four to six storms would be Category 3 or higher (winds of at least 111 mph).

Here is the final tally for the Atlantic basin, which includes the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico: There were nine named tropical storms with winds of at least 39 mph. Five became hurricanes. None made U.S. landfall.

That's the fewest named storms to form in the Atlantic basin since 1997, when seven named storms formed.

Tropical Storm Alberto skirted the south Texas coast in June.

Ernesto gained hurricane status briefly over Haiti before weakening and simply drenching the mid-Atlantic states in late August.

Florence knocked out power in Bermuda in early September.

Two of the September storms, Gordon and Helene, evolved into major hurricanes with peak winds of 120 mph, but both stayed well offshore.

The remnants of Hurricane Isaac spun out over Newfoundland in early October without making landfall anywhere on its route north. With Isaac's last gasp, the 2006 Atlantic storm season came to an end.

Forecasters cautioned that the soft season was probably a fluke.

"We got a much-welcome break, but this is a one-season break," said Gerry Bell, the NOAA's lead forecaster.

Bell said the seasonal activity was lower than expected due to the rapid development of El Nino, which warmed the waters of the Pacific Ocean in late summer and put a damper on the Atlantic storm season by shearing off would-be storms before they strengthened.

This, combined with dry conditions over the Atlantic basin and dust-laden Saharan winds blowing off west Africa, where many hurricanes begin as thunderstorms rolling off the coast, helped steer storms away from land in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean.

It was a far different story in the Pacific, where storm activity was predicted to be slower than normal but was more active than ever, There were 17 named storms and 10 hurricanes, of which six were major. Fortunately, most of the big storms barely brushed Mexico's west coast. Resorts in the Cabo San Lucas area evacuated guests on several occasions as a precaution.

Bell urged people not to become complacent about the 2007 season, which starts June 1. The Atlantic region is still on a high cycle of hurricane activity that began in 1995. The high cycle could last another 10 years or more, he said.

"Only three years in the past 10 have produced below-average numbers of hurricanes," Bell said. "The years were 1997, 2002 and this year. Each year featured an El Nino."

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

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