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National Hurricane Center Predicts Up to Six Major Hurricanes

May 22, 2006 at 11:35 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: A look at what could complicate the mayor’s job: the outlook for hurricanes as the season begins. Earlier today, I spoke with Richard Pasch, senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

Richard Pasch, welcome. You are predicting four to six major hurricanes this year. How does that compare to what we experienced last year?

RICHARD PASCH, Senior Specialist, National Hurricane Center: Last year, we had seven major hurricanes, but we also had 28 named storms last year, which was by far the most active hurricane season in history.

We’re not forecasting a repeat of last year. You never predict those kinds of record-shattering seasons, but the conditions we’re looking at out there right now, it doesn’t look very good, if we’re trying to avoid having more hurricanes develop out there.

The Atlantic waters are warmer than normal, not as warm as they were last year, but still warm, and the upper winds look like they’re becoming favorable, with weak vertical shear, and that would encourage development and intensification of hurricanes.

We don’t have an El Nino episode in the Pacific to offset any of these favorable conditions. That could produce some shearing winds, as well. We don’t see that. The La Nina, or cold-water episode in the Eastern Pacific, is starting to fade or is pretty much faded away, so it’s kind of a neutral condition out there. But overall it looks, unfortunately, like we’re going to have another busy year.

Likely to have an active season

GWEN IFILL: But if we had more hurricanes last year than were predicted, is it fair to assume there will be more hurricanes this year than you're now predicting?

RICHARD PASCH: Well, I don't think you can look at it that way. You could just say there's more uncertainty at this stage.

Last year, actually, our forecast at the beginning of the season in late May wasn't quite as much as what we're predicting this year. So, you know, it's a question of certainty.

Last year, we weren't sure that the El Nino event wasn't going to develop and hinder development of storms. This year, we're just saying this far in advance we need to hedge our bets a little bit and not say with absolute certainty it's going to be really a high number of storms. But as I said, it does look favorable for an active season.

Storms verses major hurricanes

GWEN IFILL: Distinguish what you mean for us between named storms and major hurricanes?

RICHARD PASCH: OK, named storms are any system that reaches tropical storm strength or greater. That's sustained winds of 39 miles per hour or higher. Hurricane means that the tropical cyclone has acquired sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher.

Major hurricanes mean they have sustained winds greater than 111 miles per hour, 111 miles per hour or higher. Those are the hurricanes that we call Category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. And they're the ones that do the majority or cause the majority of the damage, if they strike land.

GWEN IFILL: In a briefing earlier today, one of your colleagues said that there was an expectation that we are in an unusually active period that could last for 10 or 20 years. Does that mean that it's just going to get worse and worse and worse?

RICHARD PASCH: Well, we're not saying it's going to worse and worse, but it's going to stay bad, more likely in any year than good. Strong El Ninos, the warm-water episodes of the Pacific, can disrupt activity, such as 1997. It was a quiet year; 2002 was a relatively quiet year.

So those years are examples of -- but it's still hopeful that you can get a quiet season in the midst of this active multi-decadal cycle we're in. But we can just hearken back to the 1940s, and '50s, and early '60s, when we had lots of major storms and a lot of hurricanes hitting Florida, in particular, for an example of one of those other active periods.

Culture of preparedness?

GWEN IFILL: I know that you guys felt last year that you predicted a lot of what we saw come to pass, especially with Katrina, and that people were maybe just not listening. Do you sense that there is a culture of preparedness, to use a term I heard today, that has set in as a result of what we saw last year?

RICHARD PASCH: I think it has to have that effect. I don't think there's any question the human nature is such that they would respond to the kind of scenes of catastrophe that they saw out there, and the amount of misery, and the amount of death and destruction caused by these storms that they're saying: We need to take some action this time. We're not going to let this happen to us again.

There is always a percentage of the population that fails to respond adequately. We know that; it's unfortunate. We never seem to get quite the evacuation response that we'd like or that emergency management and local government officials would like.

But, by and large, I think the effect of last year, if there's anything good that can be said coming out of last year is that there's an awareness level I think that's extremely heightened.

Louisiana is not ready

GWEN IFILL: However, the officials in Louisiana are saying that their infrastructure is still bad or that they are still not returned to pre-Katrina levels. What can individuals be doing?

RICHARD PASCH: Well, individuals need to do their part maybe more so than, but everybody needs to do. This is to have a hurricane plan, know, "What am I going to do if another hurricane is threatening to strike, if the prediction is for it to make land fall near me and I'm in the hurricane warning area?"

And it depends on your situation. If you're on the Mississippi coast living on one of those trailers, clearly you're not going to be able to stay there during a hurricane. No mobile home is safe during a hurricane. So your situation and your plan is you're going to have to get out and take whatever possessions you have to protect them, because there's a possibility that this trailer can be totally destroyed.

If you're in an inland location in a well-constructed building, and you're not in a recommended evacuation area, then you need to make plans of saying, "OK, you need to stay, because you want to avoid getting involved in a massive traffic jam of people evacuating."

But you need to have a supply, a hurricane kit of drinking water, non-perishable food, fuel, and things of that nature for at least a three-day period so that you can survive on your own without any outside assistance. So the hurricane plan varies from individual to individual, from household to household, but everybody should have one if they're in the hurricane zone.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Richard Pasch of the National Hurricane Center, thank you very much.

RICHARD PASCH: OK. You're welcome.