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Florida Riding A Lucky Streak As Hurricane Season Opens

June 1, 2014

By Jenny Staletovich, The Miami Herald

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June 01--The last time a hurricane struck Florida, we were in the midst of a Shaq attack, largely oblivious to a phenom in Cleveland named LeBron becoming the youngest player to score more than 50 points in a pro basketball game. Jeb Bush was governor. And about 27,000 Miami-Dade first-graders hadn`t even been born.

That may seem like ages ago in South Florida years. But in hurricane time, it`s just a lucky streak that forecasters warn could end anytime over the next six-month hurricane season, which officially opens today.

"We`re very vulnerable, so it`s a matter of when, not if," said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb.

Florida, hit more times than any other state, has not had a hurricane in eight straight seasons -- a desperately needed break after the worst two back-to-back years on record. But since then, there have been plenty of near misses fired from the Atlantic Basin, which experts say remains in a cycle of high activity.

In 2004, four hurricanes made landfall -- Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- the most recorded for the state in a single year. And 2005 was no cake walk: Three hurricanes crossed Florida that year including Katrina, on its fatal course to New Orleans, and Wilma, which slogged across the Everglades to leave a record-breaking 98 percent of South Florida in the dark and cause $20.6 billion in damage.

But since 2005, every hurricane has veered away from the peninsula -- either skirting the coast like Superstorm Sandy or simply fizzling. But the state has not escaped unscathed. Enough tropical storms made landfall to ring up millions in damages.

In 2008, Tropical Storm Fay zigzagged its way to a record four landfalls in the state, causing five deaths and inflicting $560 million in damage. In 2012, Hurricane Isaac never made landfall in Florida, but its soggy tail whacked Palm Beach County, unleashing massive flooding that stranded some western residents for up to two days. Price: $71 million. That same year, Tropical Storm Debby dropped nearly 30 inches of rain on North Florida and the Panhandle, sending the Sopchoppy River over its banks and costing $250 million.

Then starting in 2010, there were three years of 19 named storms stumbling around the North Atlantic, ricocheting off the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean. In 2010, five hurricanes hit Mexico, killing dozens and costing $7 billion.

And then there`s Sandy, the hurricane that skipped past Florida to devastate a swath of the Northeast after becoming a superstorm when it collided with a winter storm late in 2012.

Sandy proved to be a moment of reckoning for coastal states. Katrina may have shed light on the dangers of flooding, but the bowl-shaped topography of New Orleans made it seem uniquely vulnerable. In the wake of Sandy`s 72 deaths in the U.S. and $50 billion in damage, the country undertook a serious reassessment. Efforts were made to streamline emergency response and relief. And Congress agreed to spend $476 million on improved forecasting tools, including storm surge maps the hurricane center will roll out this year from its storm-proof bunker on Florida International University`s campus.

The best use of the maps, forecasters say, is for planning. They`ll allow people to not only determine in advance whether they might need to evacuate, but track an escape route in case they wait.

"The only thing it doesn`t tell you is the timing of when that water is going to get there, and sometimes escape routes get cut off," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the popular website Weather Underground. "So you have to be aware of timing issues."

The modeling for the maps is so far conservative, with the chance of storm surge exceeding the amount indicated only one in 10, Rhome explained. Masters and others hope the center can improve accuracy.

"It`s a reasonable worst-case scenario. It`s not an explicit forecast because nobody can predict exactly how much surge there is going to be in a given spot," Rhome said.

The center plans to test and tinker with the maps this year and next before finalizing them. The center also plans to start issuing surge watches and warnings in 2015 to accompany wind warnings.

"Warnings have always been a call to action. They are our most formal and direct way of communicating," Rhome said. "The analogy here is if you`re standing in the road, I might tell you standing in the road is dangerous. That`s the graphic. The warning is telling you if you don`t get out of the road, you`re going to get hit by a car."

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(c)2014 The Miami Herald

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Story image: In this Aug. 24, 1992 file photo, a sailboat sits on a sidewalk at Dinner Key in Miami after it was washed ashore by Hurricane Andrew. AP Photo/Terry Renna, File

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