After 1995’s near-record hurricane season, experts figured 1996 couldn’t be as bad. But it was worse, killing more people and spawning stronger storms.
This year, hurricanes caused $4.1 billion in damage in the United States alone and killed 147 people in the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean islands, according to preliminary estimates from the National Hurricane Center.
And with this year’s season drawing to a close Saturday, experts are already looking ahead with apprehension to next year. They are expecting more storms, stronger hurricanes, more damage and even more deaths.
“Just get used to it, I guess,” said University of Miami meteorology professor Dean Churchill.
In 1996, there were six major hurricanes, those with winds more than 110 mph. The year ranked fourth in the 110 years the hurricane center has been keeping records. Average is two major hurricanes a year; in 1995 there were five.
This year, with 13 named tropical storms and hurricanes, ranked ninth. With nine hurricanes, 1996 ranked as the eighth-worst on record. An average year has five hurricanes, major and minor.
In the last two years, 11 major hurricanes formed - as many as in the previous nine years combined.
Overall hurricane activity for 1996 - a statistic that combines the number of storms, their strength and durability - is twice normal.
A disturbing sign to experts is that 1996 saw so many hurricanes despite the existence of two major atmospheric conditions that normally hamper storm development. Upper-level winds around the equator were coming from the wrong direction, and western Africa, where storms first develop as rain showers, was unusually dry.
Next year those conditions may not exist, leading Colorado State University professor William Gray to expect a busy storm season. He will release his 1997 predictions soon.
At the Florida Division of Emergency Management “everyone is just holding their breath for another Andrew,” state meteorologist Mike Rucker said of the hurricane that devastated South Florida in 1992. “We know it’s not if, but when, another Andrew strikes.”
Worst hit in 1995 were the Carolinas and Puerto Rico. Florida was spared, but scared by hurricanes Bertha, Edouard and Fran.
Churchill said, “They’re shell-shocked in the Carolinas, and (in Florida) we’re getting back to our blase attitude.”
With hundreds of thousands of new residents in Florida each year and three close calls that didn’t amount to any storm damage, Rucker fears people will go back to ignoring hurricanes.