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Hurricane season was easy for U.S., not others

For a second year in a row, the United States escaped a severe hurricane hit, but for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, the 2007  season ending on Friday was hardly benign.
This building in Limones, Mexico, was destroyed by Hurricane Dean last August. Glitzy resorts on the Mayan Riviera were spared, but vulnerable Mayan villages were exposed to the full fury of one of history's most intense storms.
This building in Limones, Mexico, was destroyed by Hurricane Dean last August. Glitzy resorts on the Mayan Riviera were spared, but vulnerable Mayan villages were exposed to the full fury of one of history's most intense storms.Eduardo Verdugo / AP
/ Source: news services

For a second year in a row, the United States has escaped a severe hurricane hit, pushing memories of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans further back into the past.

But for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the 2007 hurricane season ending on Friday has hardly been benign.

"No, not at all. The consequences for the poor have been very high," said Judy Dacruz, a representative in Haiti of the International Organization for Migration.

The 14 tropical storms that formed in the Atlantic this season killed more than 200 people in Martinique, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to often impoverished and vulnerable communities throughout the region.

U.S. experts and media have labeled initial predictions the six-month season would be busier than normal "a bust" because only one weak hurricane struck the United States — a far cry from 2005 when a record 28 storms formed, 15 of which strengthened into hurricanes, including Katrina.

Humberto, a Category 1 storm that hit Texas and Louisiana in September, was the only hurricane to hit the U.S. coast this year — and the first to strike the U.S. in two years. It was blamed for one death and $30 million in damage.

The season's 14 named storms were above the long-term average of 10 per season but were on the low end of the 13 to 17 that federal government scientists predicted. The number of hurricanes, five — or six if you count Tropical Storm Karen, which most weather experts expect will be posthumously upgraded — is about normal. And the two major hurricanes were also below the three to five predicted.

Short-lived storms
Also, most of the storms were perplexingly short-lived, lasting on average just 2.4 days, the lowest ratio since 1977, according to a noted hurricane season forecasting team at Colorado State University.

"Our 2007 seasonal hurricane forecast was not particularly successful. We anticipated an above-average season, and the season had activity at approximately average levels," Philip Klotzbach, Bill Gray and other CSU forecasters said in an end-of-season report on Tuesday. The CSU team had predicted there would be 17 storms this Atlantic hurricane season, which typically runs from June to November.

Gerry Bell, a hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the season was relatively quiet largely because La Nina, a cooling of the water in the Pacific that normally boosts the formation of hurricanes, had weaker-than-expected effects.

Bell said that this marks the second "near normal" season in a row. However, storm activity tends to go in cycles, and he said the Atlantic is still believed to be in a more active hurricane period that began in 1995.

Record for 2 Cat 5 storms
In the Caribbean and Central America, though, few were breathing sighs of relief.

In the Mexican town of Mahahual on the Yucatan Peninsula, Hurricane Dean destroyed a cruise ship pier which had been a key source of income. "Windows, doors, electrical systems — except for the basic structure of the hotel, everything was destroyed by Dean," said Rodolfo Romero, owner of the boutique Hotel Arenas.

Dean, which became a maximum-strength Category 5 hurricane, killed at least 27 people as it roared through the Caribbean in August and struck the peninsula.

Hurricane Felix in September also became a Category 5 storm on the five-step scale of hurricane intensity, killing 102 and leaving another 133 missing in Nicaragua, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.

Dean and Felix were the first two Atlantic hurricanes since records began in 1851 to make landfall in the same season as Category 5 storms.

The last storm of the season, Noel, soaked the Dominican Republic and Haiti, killing more than 150 people as rivers broke their banks and surged through towns.

"It's been very busy, especially in Central America but also in the Caribbean," said Tim Callaghan, a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. "We have provided disaster assistance to Dominica, Belize, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico."

Even when no actual storm was swirling somewhere, unusually heavy rainfall characterized the wet season, washing away roads in Jamaica and flooding sugar fields in Cuba.

A rain-swollen river burst its banks at the end of October in Mexico, leaving four-fifths of Tabasco state under water and 800,000 homeless.

"The hurricane season was more intense this year on a regional level as there were states of alert in every country," said Walter Wintzer, director of the Guatemala-based Center for Disaster Prevention in Central America.

Apathy in U.S. next year?
In the United States, the average season has raised fears among emergency planners that they will be fighting public apathy and overconfidence when they warn people to prepare for next year.

"Now that we've gone a couple of years without major hurricanes will the public be more apathetic before the next hurricane season? The answer is absolutely," said Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "The further we get away from these types of events ... the more complacent people become, and that's the challenge we have to continue to fight."

Similarly, Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said the industry saw about a 20 percent increase in the number of flood policies sold in Gulf Coast states in the two years after Katrina. But about one in five new policies is not being renewed, he said.

"People believe they've rode out the worst of the storm, so to speak," Hartwig said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

He warned that the failure of homeowners to renew their policies is "a tragedy in the making."