Friday, May 27, 2005

Experts say South Florida, Orlando storm risks up

Source: Orlando Sentinel

A UCF statistician and his Georgia colleague say their forecast is more useful than others.

South Florida is more likely than normal to feel hurricane winds this season, based on predictions to be released today by a University of Central Florida professor and a Georgia colleague.

"It doesn't mean they are definitely going to get hit, but they should be on slightly higher alert," UCF statistics professor Mark Johnson said.

The odds are worst in such cities as Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Naples -- about a 1-in-10 chance, according to Johnson and colleague Charles Watson of Kinetic Analysis Corp., an engineering firm in Georgia.

Residents in those areas, Watson said, have "a lot higher chance of getting whacked."

Based on more than 150 years of weather conditions, all of South Florida and much of Central Florida stand about a 20 percent to more than 67 percent greater chance than normal of seeing hurricane damage, the team predicts.

Although the two men have studied hurricanes since 1996, this is the first time they are releasing their findings to the public. They bill their odds-making approach as more useful than the numerical storm predictions touted each year.

They have set up an Internet site -- hurricane.methaz.org -- that they predict will be updated more often than official forecasts as storms approach.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting at least seven hurricanes during the 2005 season, which starts Wednesday, with at least three of those becoming major storms. NOAA's expectation of a six-month period more active than normal roughly matches the latest forecast by William Gray, the Colorado State University meteorologist who popularized hurricane-season prognostication.

Gray was one of the first to conclude that sea-surface temperatures, sea-level air pressure, east-west wind speeds and other global weather factors influence hurricane activity. Johnson and Watson factor these things in, too, but ask a different question.

"I don't care whether there's five storms or 10 storms or 15 storms. What I care about is, is my home going to get hit," Watson said.

For instance, in an average year, Miami Beach residents have a 7.5 percent chance of being hit by hurricane winds. This year, the researchers predict it's more than a 1-in-10 chance hurricane winds will hit that city. The risk has jumped 34.7 percent.

For Naples, it's worse. Chances of hurricane winds hitting there are normally about 1 in 16. This year: 1 in 10. That's about a 60 percent increase in risk.

For the northern part of the state, the outlook is better: St. Augustine residents have low odds normally: just a 3.1 percent chance of getting hit. But it's 1.4 percent this year -- a nearly 55 percent decrease in risk.

Panama City, Apalachicola, Cedar Key and Pensacola face slightly better-than-average odds, too, they say. But Orlando -- which stands a 1-in-25 chance of being hit normally -- is facing almost 1-in-20 odds. That's a 22.5 percent jump in risk.

Johnson and Watson entered the hurricane-prediction business after doing long-term storm-damage estimates, mostly for government agencies and businesses. Clients wanted to know where to safely erect buildings, how much to charge for home insurance or where to hide an ocean oil rig during stormy seasons.

Soon they discovered that their methods allowed them to predict storm activity and damage estimates on an annual basis after compiling spring weather patterns.

They say their damage-tracking methods have outpredicted the major weather services, such as when Hurricane Charley chewed up parts of southeast and Central Florida in August.

Last year, for instance, the researchers say, their data forecast that the entire state was more prone than normal to being hit, and Florida suffered one of its worst storm seasons ever. This year, the southern half of the state has an elevated risk.

More-precise and -timely predictions could prove vital to amusement parks or airports trying to decide whether to shut down for hours or days.

"We just want to help with anything that cuts down risk," Watson said.

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