Scientists are expecting twice as many hurricanes as normal in a looming storm season that stands to stoke political tensions over the cost of disasters months after Congress opened the vault to pay for Superstorm Sandy.
The season beginning June 1 has a 70 percent chance of producing seven to 11 hurricanes, of which three to six could be Category 3 or higher with winds of at least 111 miles an hour, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced yesterday.
The prediction describes 2013 as a potentially dangerous year with several climate characteristics favorable for the creation of hurricanes all in alignment. Last year, warm Pacific Ocean temperatures encouraged the hurricane-taming condition known as El Niño.
That dynamic is absent this year as average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are matching up with warmer sea surfaces in the Atlantic, which is about 0.8 degree Fahrenheit above normal, said Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane forecaster at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.
"There are no mitigating factors that we can see that will depress the [hurricane] activity," he said yesterday. "El Niño is not expected to develop this year. In total, the climate factors that we have and the computer models all point to an active or very active hurricane season."
The prediction is well above the seasonal average of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes described as Category 3 or higher.
Despite the appearance of Sandy last year, the outlook comes after a drop of intense landfall hurricanes in the United States. The last Category 3 or higher storm to strike an American shoreline was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which caused about $108 billion in economic losses.
'Our policies are stupid'
NOAA's forecast does not predict whether the storms will make landfall. That depends on specific conditions that are impossible to determine before a storm forms. Scientists also don't identify areas of the country that might be at greater risk this year.
But with the possibility of "an extremely active hurricane season" on deck, Kathryn Sullivan, the acting NOAA administrator, warned coastal residents to heed evacuation orders and prepare for the worst.
"The news today really is not about percentages and ranges," Sullivan said. "The important news today for all of us is about preparedness. Now is the time to think ahead about the hurricane season that's coming."
The forecast comes five months after Congress approved more than $50 billion to rebuild long stretches of coastal New York and New Jersey following Sandy, which was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm just before it crashed into the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012.
Large segments of the Senate and House opposed the relief legislation, exposing political divisions about whether taxpayers should pay for projects in the wake of a storm that strengthen infrastructure and communities from future disasters.
Offsetting relief spending with cuts to other areas of the budget is a recurring theme among some Republicans, especially those from inland states.
"Well, we've incentivized everybody to build in areas where the biggest disasters are gonna be," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who pointed to national flood insurance and beach nourishment projects as examples. "Our policies are stupid, regardless of what the weather change is. We have policies that increase our risk."
A National Catastrophe Fund?
Coburn favors higher public insurance prices and fewer infrastructure programs on barrier islands to cool coastal development.
But the inland interests of some lawmakers clash with the risks of their coastal counterparts.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), whose state's public insurance program carries $403 billion in exposure to loss from hurricanes, supports a plan for a federal reinsurance program to ensure that Washington provides relief when a huge storm crashes into the quickly urbanizing state. That would take the guesswork out of passing disaster relief legislation after a storm.
"This is why I've advocated for a national catastrophic fund, [but] you just can't get other senators in other states who are not in a hurricane threat to pay any attention to it," Nelson said.
"But if we ended up with the big one hitting a major metropolitan area, it could be a $100 billion insurance loss storm," he added, pointing to a Miami landfall. "The overall cost to the federal government would be that much again. So it could end up being a $200 billion storm."
He hopes it doesn't happen this year but concedes that as June approaches, he begins "fidgeting."
Environmental groups, meanwhile, worry that a federal reinsurance plan could lead to more coastal development by providing subsidized rates that discount the climbing risks of sea-level rise and higher storm surge.
Another Sandy in the same location?
Bell, the NOAA meteorologist and top forecaster, said current research shows that climate change might have increased the wind speeds of today's hurricanes by 1 percent or so.
"That's insignificant. That's only about 1 mile an hour on a 100-mile-an-hour hurricane," he said, noting that larger increases, from 3 to 11 percent, are predicted by 2100.
"A bigger potential impact is rising sea levels," he added. "Because if the sea levels rise, and now you bring in a hurricane at high tide with a big storm surge, maybe now the water could be high enough to overflow barriers and create more flooding."
The good news is that people might be able to outrun the intensifying impacts of climate change on hurricanes -- sometimes literally. By evacuating, hardening homes and avoiding precarious places for building, coastal residents can probably minimize rising climate risks, Bell said.
On the downside, that can be an expensive and drawn-out goal. In the meantime, another storm like the one that raked the East Coast last fall, or worse, might arrive over the next several months.
"The ability to have another Sandy a year later in the same location exists," said Joe Nimmich, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"This is a very dangerous hurricane season, and if you're not prepared and you don't listen to the warnings and the evacuations, you're likely to be a statistic."