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Florida braces for another active hurricane season

Florida enters the 2013 hurricane season on Saturday riding a seven-year quiet streak.

But quiet, as last season showed, is a relative term when it comes to the tropics, which are expected to produce a higher-than-average number of named storms over the next six months. Last year, South Florida and the rest of the state once again dodged a direct hit from a hurricane but didn’t exactly escape unscathed. Ask anyone in Sopchoppy.

Tropical Storm Debby popped up in the Gulf of Mexico on a Sunday morning in June persuading computer models it was heading west toward Texas, with the small Florida Panhandle town nowhere near the forecast cone. By that same evening, forecasters had it heading in the opposite direction toward the Florida coast.

Debby’s winds faded but some 30 inches of rain pushed rivers over their banks and even had sinkholes — in the words of Wakulla County emergency services director Scott Nelson — “puking backwards” as aquifers spilled over like springs. Flooding blocked roads and bridges, cutting off a town of some 12,000 people for several days and inundating hundreds of homes across rural North Florida.

Unlike Superstorm Sandy, Debby won’t go down in record books. But a minor storm still had a serious impact, killing 10 people in three states and causing $250 million in damage. In hurricane season, Nelson said, there is no room for complacency: “We have to be prepared regardless of what the error cone shows.”

It was a message that Miami-Dade political leaders and emergency managers, joined by Gov. Rick Scott, stressed on Thursday during a news conference to mark the start of the season, which runs from June 1 to Dec. 1

Mayor Carlos Gimenez urged residents to heed evacuation orders and assemble enough food, water and supplies to last at least 72 hours.

“All of us hope this will prove to be a quiet storm season but just hoping things will go well really isn’t a plan,’’ he said.

There were 19 named storms last year and experts are predicting another busy season in 2013, continuing what has been an active cycle over last decade.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, which issues the government’s annual pre-season forecasts, warns there could be from 13 to 20 named storms this year compared to the average of 12. Seven to 11 could become hurricanes, with up to six becoming major hurricanes with wind speeds topping 111 mph.

While there is no predicting where storms will go before they form, last year underlined that old adage that there is no such thing as a minor tropical storm.

In late May, before the season officially opened, Topical Storm Beryl swamped the Jacksonville area with 10 inches of rain, triggering flooding and widespread power outages. Debby soon followed.

Then there were surprisingly damaging brushes in South Florida from the fringes of Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy – but from water, not wind. The spiraling outer bands of Isaac, far off in the Gulf of Mexico, flooded communities in western Palm Beach County. Sandy, rolling over the Bahamas, chewed out a chunk of beachside A1A in Fort Lauderdale.

The gusty center of a storm isn’t always the center of action, said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County. Hurricanes can also spin off twisters and produce flooding from deluges or storm surge.

“Most of us think of tropical storms and hurricanes as big wind machines and they are but they’re more than that,’’ Knabb said. “We can’t focus solely on that and forget about the water hazards.’’

It was infamous Sandy that drove home the frightening risks of surge, pushing the ocean across New Jersey beach towns, into the streets and subways of Manhattan and up rivers along much of the Northeast coast. Surge was responsible for most of the 72 deaths and $70-plus billion in damages, Knabb said.

In the wake of the devastating storm, forecasters and emergency managers will be stepping up the focus on the deadliest of hurricane threats, urging residents in risk area to come up with an evacuation plan and pack up if the call comes.

“The one thing we see pretty consistently in all of the storms is the tendency of people to underestimate the damage potential of storm surge,’’ said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management and former director of Florida’s Emergency Management Division.

Earlier this month, Miami-Dade County unveiled new evacuation maps developed with more accurate surveys and more sophisticated computer models that revealed vast new swaths potentially at risk from storm surge, putting nearly three-quarters of the population in potential hurricane zones. The NHC is also working on new, easier-to-understand surge projection maps that forecasters hope to roll out by 2015.

Still, even in Florida, the most storm-prone state in the nation, emergency managers and forecasters worry about the short memory of the public. It’s been seven seasons since the last hurricane struck the state — Wilma, which tore a gash across the state from Naples to Melbourne in October 2005. But it was the last in a string of eight that shredded the state in 2004 and 2005.

Knabb stressed that there is no way for scientists or forecasters to say if Florida is due or when the quiet streak will end. Except, it will end sometime, he said.

“We know that hurricanes, and major hurricanes, will come back to Florida,’’ he said. “It’s not a matter of if but when. We have been fortunate but preparing like we will be hit is the right thing to do.’’