Hurricane season officially begins in the Atlantic region on June first and authorities along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines are urging people to be prepared. Hurricane experts, using climatic data and computer models, are predicting an active season this year, but no one knows when or where a devastating storm might strike in the months ahead.
Headlines in recent weeks have warned that this year's hurricane season could be a repeat of last year, which was the most active season on record. The damage caused by two hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, is still very much in evidence along the Gulf coast from Alabama to eastern Texas.
In such hard hit areas as New Orleans people worry that recovery efforts could be severely set back by another storm. But Greg Romano of the National Weather Service, who is currently assigned to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, says it is too early to predict where storms might go this year. "There really isn't any way scientifically, this early in the season, to know where hurricanes are going to make landfall or go. That really is dependent on where the hurricane or tropical storm forms and the oceanic and atmospheric conditions at the time that would steer the storm towards or away from land," he said.
Romano says even if big hurricanes form in the Atlantic, they may not pass into the Gulf of Mexico with the force that Katrina and Rita had last year. He says predictions of relatively active or less active seasons are useful as a broad guide, but that what really matters is the specific path of a real storm and how close it is to where you are. "It only takes one hurricane in your neighborhood to make for a bad day for you. We saw, certainly, in 1992, which was a year of low hurricane activity, we had Hurricane Andrew, which was a Category Five, devastating parts of south Florida," he said.
Romano says the best thing people in coastal areas can do is prepare well in advance of any storm. He says calls for evacuation and other measures will come from emergency management offices in each state. "The role of the National Hurricane Center, as well as the local National Weather Service forecast offices, is to provide the meteorological information about the storms so that emergency managers can make decisions on behalf of their citizens," he said.
Here in Texas, state officials are still putting together some of the last details of their hurricane preparedness plan. One plan called for evacuation of up to 40,000 people with special needs to Dallas, in north Texas. These would be poor people without transportation, the elderly and disabled. But officials in Dallas say they do not have facilities for that many evacuees. State officials are still working on that problem.
Last year, highways leading out of Houston were jammed with vehicles as Hurricane Rita approached and state officials have promised to avoid that problem this year by starting evacuation earlier and by making all roadways leading inland one-way, in the direction leading away from the coast.
In New Orleans the official plan also calls for a massive mandatory evacuation if a storm is headed towards the city. Such a plan might work better than it did last year simply because less than half the people displaced by Katrina last year have returned to the city. Many of the areas that were flooded last year remain abandoned and full of debris.
Breaches in levees that caused flooding last year have now been repaired, but a new study published in the scientific journal Nature shows that parts of New Orleans are sinking and that the levee system may not be able to protect them from future flooding.