Expert's advice? Hope for the best; prepare for worst
Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Fewer hurricanes will make landfall in the United States this year, but the Atlantic basin will have another busy hurricane season, Colorado State University's hurricane forecast team predicted Wednesday.
Regardless, Steve Letro, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's Jacksonville office, said Tuesday that North Floridians shouldn't let their guards down.
"Every year, we see these seasonal forecasts come out, but we really can't imply an awful lot from those about what will happen in any individual place," Letro said.
"We do know that over the last two years, the steering currents have changed in a way that makes it more likely for storms to affect Florida. Where in Florida? When?
"We don't know. And while we can look at steering currents over a whole season, it really comes down to what those currents will be like on the particular day an individual storm comes along."
Hurricane season starts today, sparking a flurry of preparation across the state and region.
The University of Florida's Physical Plant department is preparing by holding screening exercises and other shelter-preparation drills. The National Hurricane Center in Miami has prepared by bulking up its staff, increasing its number of forecasters from six to 10.
Gainesville Regional Utilities and Florida Power & Light Co. have prepared by making changes to equipment in damage-prone areas to make it harder for hurricanes to knock neighborhoods out of power.
Danny Hinson, an emergency management planner for Alachua County, said emergency officials have worked to equip new sites to beas shelters to increase the amount of shelter space available during hurricanes.
And residents have flocked to local home improvement stores to take advantage of the 12-day sales-tax holiday on hurricane-prep items, which ends today.
"We did really well," said Gayle Martin,operational a manager at Gainesville's Home Depot. "We sold a lot of generators - a lot of everything else, too, actually. We were very busy, especially last weekend."
But despite those preparations, Letro said, there's an underlying problem in the way Floridians are readying themselves for the hurricane season.
"It's kind of ironic," Letro said. "We're in a state that's seen seven hurricane strikes in the past two years, yet we have a complacency problem.
"Since we've seen so many hurricanes, just about everyone in the state has seen some kind of effect. So everyone thinks they're a veteran.
"The reality is that the worst of these hurricanes have only affected very small areas of the state. The rest of the people think they've seen the worst a hurricane can do, when really that's not the case."
For example, Letro said, Frances and Jeanne had weakened to tropical-storm strength by the time they hit Alachua County in 2004.
He pointed to Hurricane Charley, which knocked half of Orlando out of power and closed large parts of Walt Disney World when it cut through Central Florida as a low-grade hurricane.
"One of these days, we will see a large, strong one come across the Gainesville area, and it would be a real mistake to assume that what you saw in Frances and Jeanne would be similar to what you'd see from a storm like that," Letro said.
David Donnelly, Alachua County's assistant director of emergency management, said while the power outages, flooding and downed trees from Frances and Jeanne likely raised Alachua County residents' awareness about what hurricanes and tropical storms can do to non-coastal areas, it didn't prepare them for what even a low-grade hurricane can do.
"What people need to realize is that we've had two tropical storms," Donnelly said. "We're not even talking about a Category 1 hurricane.
"So the question becomes, What happens if we do have a Katrina-type event, or even just a Category 2 through Cedar Key?
"We all remember how bad it was with the power out in 2004. The stronger the storm, the more trees we'd see come down, and the longer time we'd spend without power."
That's why emergency and weather officials such as Donnelly and Letro are pushing preparedness. Letro said his main piece of hurricane advice will remain the same from year to year, no matter what NOAA and Colorado State University predict.
"Hope for the best," Letro said. "But prepare for the worst."
Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or email@example.com. Sun staff writers Jack Stripling, Karen Voyles and Lise Fisher contributed to this report.
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