MIAMI -- Here's the bad news about the quiet, almost peaceful hurricane season in 2009: Right away, people start thinking this is the norm. They start to relax and maybe even make fun of hurricanes.
"But," Mr. Read said in an interview, "You never know."
With all the satellites and aircraft and ocean buoys that help hurricane specialists figure out which way the wind is blowing, forecasters cannot confidently predict how storms will develop a year in advance. In fact, they are not entirely sure where a storm is going to go over any given five days. As a hurricane approaches land, they lay out a pretty wide swath of possibilities which they call the cone of uncertainty.
Hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University know very well about the imprecision of long-range estimates on hurricanes. But they are also concerned about complacency. So to keep up interest in hurricanes, they take a stab at what next season might look like. They say they see a busier than average run of tropical storms for 2010, including as many as eight hurricanes, possibly five of them major.
The Colorado forecasters, Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray said in a joint statement in early December that they think the El Niño condition that diminished hurricanes in 2009 will not affect the Atlantic hurricane zone in 2010. They put the odds of a major hurricane hitting somewhere along the coasts of the United States at 64 percent, up from the average probability of 52 percent.
Hurricane experts living near the coasts solve the problem of uncertainty in their own professional and private lives by always being ready for the big blow. They know where the shutters are and how to put them up. They have laid in plenty of bottled water and canned goods and their portable radio and flashlights have fresh batteries. The pros have already reinforced their garage door - which is one of the first things to crumple in a big storm. The garage door caves in and there goes the roof. Pretty soon you're looking at a skeleton of a house.
But for most people, hurricanes are not a business. They are some kind of nuisance that can turn into a huge dislocation and sometimes can even kill. But you get a couple of quiet years and the killer hurricane begins to look more like a nuisance. That's what Bill Read and other forecasters worry about after a year like the 2009 season that just ended in November: nine storms that got stronger than 39 miles an hour, three that kept building until they were up to more than 111 miles an hour - the low demarcation for Category Three hurricanes; and one storm, Hurricane Bill, that got up to 135 miles an hour, reaching Category Four status. Not one of the storms hit the United States with much force.
"We got precious little in the way of information" from the 2009 season that could serve as a warning or a lesson on the danger of hurricanes, Mr. Read said. "There was no unusual storm that gave us something that could be used to teach people about preparedness."
Hurricane experts say that we're in the midst of a cycle of generally heavier hurricane activity that began in 1995 and may run for a decade or two more. The nine storms in 2009 was a little below the average during the cycle. But the volume is not as critical as the direction. One big hurricane can make for a very bad year.
Emergency management officials around the hurricane zone, from Texas to the Carolinas, caution not to put much stock in hurricane performance in 2009. In Fort Myers, on the west coast of Florida, Gerald Campbell, the emergency planning chief for Lee County, told naplesnews.com: "It's just like the disclaimer on stocks-past performance is no indication of future performance."
Read at the Hurricane Center near Miami does not wish for hurricanes. He hopes for quiet years. But he does worry that quiet years feed complacency. There is already way too much complacency about hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is an example. New Orleans and the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi had not had much of a blow since Hurricane Camille in 1969 - nearly 40 years earlier. There had been a lot of nears misses and some flooding, but not enough bad stuff to rattle most people. So a lot of them just shrugged as Katrina approached. Nearly 2,000 people ended up dead.
"The further you get from experiencing an event personally- or close enough to watch it go by and learn from it," Mr. Read said, "the more people return to 'it's-not-going-to-happen-to-me mode."