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Florida Has Had A Hurricane Lull, Expert Says

April 15, 2014

By Kevin Spear

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Florida`s last hurricane was Wilma in 2005, which also was the last major storm -- a Category 3 or stronger -- to hit U.S. shoreline.

It`s been a nice break of nearly a decade -- a record -- without hurricanes for Florida. But Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, has a warning he repeats often and without hesitation.

"Florida has been just lucky, quite frankly, because we`ve had periods in the past where we`ve gone many years without hurricane landfalls. But the hurricanes have always come back to Florida and they will again," Knabb said Tuesday during an interview at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando where topics varied from pre-storm satellite data to post-event debris removal.

"Hurricane activity does not fit into nice boxes or into nice patterns. It`s very cyclical," said Knabb, director of the hurricane center in Miami since 2012.

The past several years have been quite busy for storms less potent than a Category 3.

"The U.S. has still experienced major impacts when you consider Ike in 2008 in Southeast Texas, Irene in 2011 in the Northeast and Debby, Isaac and Sandy in 2012," Knabb said.

And 2010 was a very active year for hurricanes, though none made a U.S. landfall.

Apologizing if his message comes across like a cliche, Knabb said the lull has had a price in that many Floridians don`t know much about storm evacuations, don`t know how well their homes are insured and don`t have an overall plan for survival.

"A lot of people in storm-prone areas might be thinking, `I can handle this,` but I think they might be underestimating their risk," he said.

The hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Researchers at Colorado State University predict nine named storms, with at least three of those being hurricanes.

Forecasters expect a global weather pattern called El Nino to kick in later this year, whipping up winds that can beat down hurricanes.

If that holds true, the season would be significantly quieter than average, although forecasters are quick to point out that Hurricane Andrew clobbered Miami-Dade County in an otherwise unimpressive 1992.

"I do fear there are a lot of people who are not going to be prepared for the next hurricane, and there will be a next hurricane in Florida," Knabb said.

The center director said he is concerned for even storm-weary Floridians, including those who experienced the extraordinarily busy seasons in 2004 and 2005, which saw Hurricane Charley`s pummeling of Central Florida,

"A vast majority of people don`t have a complete understanding of why they need to evacuate," Knabb said. "A lot of people think it will be based on how strong the winds are. But the main reason people will be told to evacuate is due to storm surge."

Knabb said people are often distracted by hurricane categories.

The Saffir -- Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale classifies storms according to their wind intensity; a Category 1 has winds of at least 74 mph and a Category 5 starts at 157 mph.

"They may have a certain tolerance for the category they think they can withstand and the category they can`t, thinking `for a Category 3 I`ll stay, but for a 4 or 5 I`ll leave.`"

"In reality, the answer doesn`t have much to do with the category," Knabb said. His hurricane center and emergency managers promote the warning phrase: "Run from the water, hide from the wind."

The director said his center and other researchers have improved their accuracy in forecasting the path of a hurricane.

But since the flurry of storms in 2004 and 2005, the ability of forecasters to predict the strength or intensity of a hurricane "hasn`t gotten any better," he said.

"We are using new models and new ways of using aircraft data to try to crack that nut and there are some encouraging results," Knabb said. "Maybe within the next decade, we will see that needle start to move and our intensity forecasts will be better."

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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Story image: Infrared satellite image of Hurricane Wilma crossing the South Florida coast from October 24 at 7:32 AM EDT (1132 UTC). Courtesy of the Miami-South Florida NWSFO

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