With the tenth anniversary of one of the worst storms ever recorded striking U.S. shores around the corner, federal forecasters on Wednesday warily predicted a slow hurricane season for 2015 but also cautioned coastal residents to be ready.
Forecasters said they expect the season, which officially starts Monday, to produce six to 11 named storms, with three to six becoming hurricanes. Of those, they predict that up to two could become major storms packing winds of at least 111 mph. Forecasters have no way of telling in advance where — or if — any of those storms might make landfall.
“Low average doesn’t mean no pitches get thrown our way,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Kathryn Sullivan in announcing her agency’s annual preseason prediction. For example, she said, “1992 had a low average, and talk to folks in [Miami-Dade] County about Andrew.”
Sullivan joined New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to make the forecast at the city’s emergency operations center, just blocks from the Superdome that became a shelter of last resort during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The storm killed more than 1,800 people and occurred during a record season that generated 28 named storms.
For 2015, forecasters based their prediction in large part on warming waters in the Pacific caused by an El Niño weather pattern. The El Niño should limit hurricanes from forming during the peak months of the season in August, September and October, said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead forecaster.
If Florida dodges a hurricane in 2015, it will mark the 10th season without a storm, a lucky streak that officials warn may not last. The 2014 season churned up eight named storms. Six became hurricanes. Only one, Gonzalo, grew to a Category 4 storm — the first in the Atlantic since 2011 — but it remained far from the U.S. coast. The production hewed closely to the preseason forecast, which projected eight to 13 storms and just one or two major hurricanes.
Since 2008, Bell said, NOAA forecasters have accurately predicted five of six seasons. And while scientists can’t tell in advance whether a storm will make landfall, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami have become far more accurate in predicting a storm’s path once it forms, Sullivan said.
“The reliability of our hurricane forecast — track and strength — is usually spot-on,” she said.