Hurricane Season Blows Past, Quietly


MIAMI, Oct. 24, 2006 — -- It's not that they hoped for a hurricane at Kendall Lakes Ace Hardware, but they had to be ready just in case.

Exactly a year ago, Ralph Hitchcock sold 300 generators in one day as Hurricane Wilma approached Miami. Now his hardware store has 600 portable generators in stock, at a cost of $500,000, along with an additional $300,000 worth of stock in batteries, lanterns and other supplies as the hurricane season quietly comes to a close.

"I've got a lot of money out there," Hitchcock said.

Stocking up made sense this past spring when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a sobering forecast predicting yet another hyperactive season with 17 tropical storms, nine of them hurricanes -- and five of them major.

At the annual hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this spring, businesses scrambled to profit from hurricane anxiety.

Instead, it has been a long, lazy hurricane season with just half the number of hurricanes predicted and not a single one making landfall.

"Weather forecasting is a chancy business," said Hugh Willoughby, a professor of hurricane science at Florida International University. "It's gotten a lot better, but if you can't stand being wrong, you shouldn't be in the business."

So what happened this year?

Forecasters say there was no way to predict the El Niño rise of warm waters in the Pacific Ocean that is sending powerful winds into the Atlantic and decapitating storms before they can form.

The flawed hurricane forecast is very good news for New Orleans, where the Army Corps of Engineers now has another year to rebuild levies damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

It's also good news for the power companies -- one year ago today 6 million people in Florida lost power, exposing major weaknesses in the state's power grid.

"The less storms we have, the more time we have to strengthen the system, and the more it will be to the betterment of our customers in the future," said Mayco Villafana of Florida Power and Light.

But there is no good news for homeowners along the coasts who have seen insurance rates skyrocket.

"What insurers are able to do now is effectively to accumulate resources to pay future claims in what we expect to be similarly terrible hurricane seasons in 2007, 2008 and beyond," said Robert Hartwig, the chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute.

That's the storm cloud on the distant horizon, as forecasters say the long-term trend is for hyperactive hurricane seasons in the years to come.

And that will keep business owners like Hitchcock very busy, despite the weak storm system this year, he said his business was still up 43 percent, in part because of lingering hurricane repairs.

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