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1999 Atlantic Hurricane Season Is Mercifully Over

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring their pre-season forecast "right-on," the nation's top weather officials marked the end of a busy 1999 hurricane season on Tuesday.

The season, which led to months of cleanup, officially ends Tuesday and supports forecasters' long-term prediction that several decades of relatively quiet Atlantic storm seasons are over.

"We have turned the corner ... out of a period of less hurricane activity into a time of more hurricanes," National Hurricane Center Director Jerry Jarrell said.

Cycles of more or fewer storms typically run in 20-to-30-year periods, Jarrell added.

Last spring, the Hurricane Center issued its first-ever seasonal forecast, calling for a busier than normal storm season. There were 12 tropical storms, eight of which became hurricanes, compared to a normal 10 storms of which six become hurricanes.

John J. Kelly Jr., the National Weather Service director, noted that this year - as in most recent years - most of the hurricane deaths were the result of inland flooding rather than coastal winds or storm surge.

The agency needs to teach the public to view hurricanes not as a one-spot event but as a large area of wind and rain, he said.

"There is no bigger natural disaster than a hurricane," added D. James Baker, head of the Weather Service's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

All of this season's major hurricanes - Bret, Cindy, Floyd, Gert and Lenny - were Category 4, characterized by top sustained winds of 131 mph to 155 mph.

"We've never had five Category 4s all in one year before," said Max Mayfield, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center. "We've had 20 major hurricanes over the last five years, and that's a record."

Hurricane Floyd was the most destructive in the United States in 1999, destroying or damaging 12,000 homes. It caused more than $6 billion in damage in North Carolina alone and was blamed for at least 56 deaths.

Lenny, which developed swiftly into a hurricane Nov. 14 in the waning days of the six-month season, killed 13 people in the Caribbean. Preliminary damage totals have reached $182 million.

Colorado State University professor William Gray, renowned for accurate hurricane season forecasts, had one of his best years. He and his team predicted 14 named storms and nine hurricanes.

A Nov. 24 summary from Gray's team said the atmosphere and ocean conditions blamed for increased hurricane activity seem to run in 25- to 50-year cycles. Things were slow from the 1970s until 1995, so the early decades of the 21st century could be busy ones.

"Our method is to look at the past and assume the future will be like the past," said Gray, who examined data from 1950, 1955, 1961, 1964 and 1995, when climate signals were similar to this year's.

"There isn't enough work being done in studying how the atmosphere has worked in the past as sort of a tool to better climate prediction," said Gray, whose research has been hampered by funding cuts.

Short-term forecasts, while improving, still are not as good as Mayfield would like them to be.

"The sad truth is that the average track forecast error in 24 hours is about 100 miles," he said. "What that means is we could still be forecasting a hurricane to hit the Keys or up at Cape Canaveral and it could still come into Miami."

That may help explain why traffic jams turned short journeys into odysseys as people drove inland, fleeing Floyd. Officials in several southeastern states are working on ways to ease future evacuations, but Mayfield offered a simple suggestion.

"We really need to try to evacuate tens of miles rather than hundreds of miles," he said.

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