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Expert: Katrina-like storm not likely -- for now

/ Source: Reuters

The 2006 hurricane season is not over yet, but the chances that a calamitous storm like Katrina could form in the Atlantic are fizzling, according to the head of the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Max Mayfield, the man who warned the Bush administration of a catastrophe as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, said the El Nino weather phenomenon had suppressed storm activity this year.

“The later you get in the season, certainly as you get closer to November, it’s rare to have a major hurricane,” Mayfield said from the bunker-like hurricane center. Major hurricanes are those that reach Category 3 strength and above on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of storm intensity.

But Mayfield cautioned that the millions of people living on vulnerable U.S. coasts or in the Caribbean should not let down their guard, as the El Nino pattern -- an unusual warming of Pacific waters -- would not last long.

“That’s a temporary thing, usually a one-year event,” Mayfield said.

“Everybody I know says we’re still in this active period that will likely last another 10, 20 years or longer, even without invoking global warming.”

Forecasters had predicted that the six-month Atlantic hurricane season that began on June 1 would be more active than average, although less hectic than record-busting 2005, when 28 tropical storms spawned 15 hurricanes. Among them were Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- the most powerful Atlantic hurricane recorded.

But so far this year there have been just nine storms, of which five strengthened into hurricanes with winds of at least 74 miles per hour.

The average since reliable hurricane records began in 1851 is 10 tropical storms per year, with six becoming hurricanes.

None of this year’s hurricanes has struck the United States, bringing relief to Americans shocked by Katrina. Katrina swamped the levees protecting New Orleans, causing $80 billion in damage and killing 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“It’s not like we haven’t had major hurricanes,” Mayfield said, referring to two storms that reached Category 3 this year but curved harmlessly over the Atlantic. “There were two bullets out there, they just didn’t hit anybody.”

Mayfield, set to retire in early 2007 after 34 years at the hurricane center, said that El Nino atmospheric conditions had been in effect over the Atlantic for much of the summer.

He said the El Nino conditions this year led to atmospheric conditions that were too stable for strong storms to form.

The hurricane center director said he could not pronounce the 2006 season definitively over before the end of November. He recalled that in 1984, also an El Nino year, Hurricane Lili formed in December and lasted until Christmas Eve.

“So it’s still not over. But I would think the message here is the last thing we want to do is start forgetting about hurricanes now,” he said.