RALEIGH — William Gray of Colorado State University is one of the most well respected hurricane experts in the world. Since 1984, he's used weather patterns to predict the number of storms each hurricane season.
Statistics show he's pretty accurate. Gray has predicted the exact number of hurricanes four times, has missed the total by only one hurricane three times and has been off the mark by two storms five times.
What is Gray's prediction for the 1997 Atlantic hurricane season? Eleven tropical storms that will produce seven named hurricanes; three of the five hurricanes will be intense.
``We're entering a new era in hurricanes,'' Gray said Friday, releasing a new forecast that supports his earlier predictions for above-average hurricane activity.
``We're undoubtedly going to see more destructive hurricanes, maybe not this year, maybe next year,'' he told the Governor's Hurricane Conference in Tampa. ``In the next 10 to 20 years, we're going to see hurricane destruction like we've never before seen.''
On average, 9.3 tropical storms, 5.8 hurricanes and 2.1 major hurricanes form each year. If Gray is right, this will be the third year of above-average hurricane activity in the Atlantic region, which includes the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November.
He believes the new era in hurricanes will look much like the period from 1947 to 1969, when the United States was pounded 17 times by powerful hurricanes. Those storms pummeled coastlines from Texas to New York's Long Island, killing nearly 2,200 and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Hurricane activity calmed down in 1970. Since then, only three monster storms have hit the United States: Gloria, Hugo and Andrew. But that less-intense trend was reversed in the past two seasons, Gray noted.
In 1995, 19 tropical storms were recorded with 11 becoming hurricanes. Last season, nine hurricanes formed from 13 tropical storms although most veered away from the U.S. coastline.
Gray predicts the hurricanes will become more destructive, not only because the cyclones are becoming more intense, but also because of the rapid buildup of people and property along the southeast coast.
His predictions are based on a number of global weather conditions, including the El Nino effect, a warming of the Pacific whose long-range effects include a decline in hurricanes in the Southeast.
Gray said the pattern grew faster then he expected, but he doubts it will slow hurricane activity this year because other patterns in the Atlantic Ocean are so ripe for high hurricane activity.
``We don't think this El Nino is going to progress much stronger and it may even weaken,'' he added.
-- From staff and wire reports