By Charlene Porter
U.S. coastal areas on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have been forewarned of an active hurricane season. U.S. forecasters expect three to six major hurricanes during the season from June 1 to November 30.
U.S. officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the 2013 hurricane forecast May 23.
“NOAA predicts an above normal and possibly an extremely active hurricane season,” said Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA’s acting administrator, at a May 23 press conference.
Scientists at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center analyzed various trends and climate patterns to forecast a 70 percent likelihood that 13 to 20 tropical storms will develop in the Atlantic Ocean with winds of 39 miles per hour (63 kilometers per hour) or higher. About seven to 11 of those are expected to develop winds of 74 mph (119 kph), the delineation between a tropical storm and a hurricane.
A strong West African monsoon is one factor likely to contribute to an active season, the forecast says, along with warmer-than-average water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
The Pacific-born El Niño system can act to suppress the likelihood of hurricanes in some seasons, but that pattern is not expected to develop in 2013, forecasters said.
The annual hurricane prediction is neither a scientific exercise nor a game of chance. Officials say its real purpose is preparedness, to encourage hundreds of millions of residents in the Atlantic storm zone to draw up emergency plans and lay in supplies to sustain their households for at least 72 hours.
Supplies of water, food, batteries, flashlights are all important, said Joseph Nimmich from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But having a prearranged evacuation plan is among the most important elements for preparedness. Knowing when to evacuate a place that lies in the path of a raging storm is an important part of that plan, Nimmich said.
“Whether it is an evacuation on the shoreline or inland flooding, not evacuating is [why] we lose most people,” according to the FEMA official.
Sullivan also cautioned against a sense of false safety for those who live some distance from a coastline. Four land-falling hurricanes in 2012 proved that an inland address can still be in harm’s way.
“Damage from every one of these  storms reached well beyond the coastline. We often see strong winds, torrential rains, flooding and tornadoes can threaten areas far inland,” Sullivan said.
Reporters batter the officials with questions about where or how many storms may strike land, but the science in its current stage doesn’t go far enough to allow those predictions. Sullivan does say that technological and methodological improvements in the near future may allow greater accuracy in predicting where and how soon storms may strike. More improvements to forecast models and data-gathering methods are coming into use this season. In July, NOAA will bring a new supercomputer online that will be capable of providing a 10-15 percent improvement in predictions of storm intensity.
A devastating tornado that occurred May 20 in Oklahoma was an unseen presence in the room as officials discussed the likelihood of disasters yet to come in 2013. Despite the enormous property losses and extensive infrastructure damage, Sullivan said she is confident that National Weather Service forecasters did save lives in Moore, Oklahoma.
Some 2,400 homes in Moore and nearby Oklahoma City were damaged by the storm, 10,000 people were directly affected, but fatalities remained relatively low given the magnitude of destruction. Just 24 Oklahomans lost their lives, and Sullivan says the 15-minute warning that forecasters issued on the approaching tornado helped minimize loss of life.
May 26 to June 1 is National Hurricane Preparedness Week, when NOAA will be offering advice on hurricane preparedness in English and Spanish to help people living in hurricane-prone areas.