Rita could herald record hurricane year: WMO
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Rita could herald record hurricane year: WMO

Reuters | September 23, 2005
By Stephanie Nebehay

Hurricane Rita, bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico coast, will wreak extensive damage and could herald a record number of ferocious storms over the Atlantic this year, the United Nations top expert warned on Friday.

Nanette Lomarda, acting chief of the tropical cyclone program division at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), also said the number of category 4 and 5 storms over that ocean had nearly doubled over the past 35 years.

But it was "premature" to say the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the past decade -- fueled by higher sea surface temperatures -- is attributable to global warming, she said, adding that more research was needed to establish any link.

Rita, a Category 4 hurricane, was heading northwest across the Gulf, with winds near 140 mph (220 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Rita was expected to make landfall late on Friday or early on Saturday, threatening stretches of Texas, Louisiana and the heart of the U.S. oil industry.

"Damage is expected to be rather extensive. Hopefully the evacuations have been done, we could probably save a lot of lives. But you can't say there will be zero deaths," Lomarda told Reuters in an interview at WMO headquarters in Geneva.

"Since we are now at the 17th storm, and we have two more months to go, there is a likelihood that it will go beyond 21, which would be a record. The last time we had 21 named storms (over the Atlantic) was in 1933," she said.

Sixteen hurricanes were recorded over the Atlantic in 2004.

The next tropical cyclone, named Stan, is gathering over the Atlantic, Lomarda said. If Tammy, Vince and Wilma follow, then the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta etc) will be used to name any storm with winds exceeding 63 km (39 miles) per hour.

Hurricanes whip up winds from 118 km per hour (74 mph), leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Katrina, which struck Louisiana and Mississippi three weeks ago, killed at least 1,066 people and displaced as many as 1 million.

FIERCER IN THE PACIFIC

In the Pacific region, where they are known as typhoons, storms are often fiercer and cover a much larger area than an Atlantic hurricane, according to Lomarda. There are some 30 per season, which runs throughout the second half of the year.

Typhoon Saola, the 17th this year in the Pacific, is bearing down on Japan and could approach the Tokyo region at the weekend, the country's meteorological agency said.

Typhoon Damrey, the 18th, swept away from the northern Philippines on Friday after killing at least 16 people across the main island of Luzon, civil defense officials said. It headed for southern China and Hong Kong with high wind speeds.

"Hurricane warnings are never issued lightly, they must be taken seriously," said Lomarda, who is from the Philippines.

"If emergency managers tell you to evacuate, they are telling you to save your life. Property can always be replaced."

Rita was headed just east of Galveston and Houston -- the nation's fourth largest city with a population of more than 2 million -- but its destination was unclear.

The U.S. hurricane center said it could move gradually to the northwest during the next 24 hours. The storm has shifted slightly during the past day, heading northwest, then slightly east, then back on a more northwestern path, leaving communities along the Gulf uncertain who was likely to bear the brunt.

Cyclones over the Atlantic were even more frequent in the first half of the century, but then declined between the 1970s and mid-1990s, according to Lomarda who sees "cyclical trends."

"It was during the low hurricane frequency in the 1970s and that so many people were lulled into moving into hurricane-prone areas, believing they were safe," she said.

It now costs an estimated $1 million dollars to evacuate a single mile of shoreline, or an average $150 million-$400 million per hurricane event to implement evacuation plans.

"Hurricane plans are the price of living along a coast -- or should I say paradise," Lomarda said.

(Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Galveston, Texas; Manny Mogato in Manila; and Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo)

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