On South Padre Island, worries aren't welcome. Cares and concerns are blown gently to sea and grown men spend days playing in the sand. "It's just not in my nature to worry too much. It could be my downfall someday," says a man who calls himself "Amazing Walter".
CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod reports, that downfall could come sooner than he thinks. Hurricane season starts next week and according to forecasters, South Padre Island is long overdue. "[It's been] over 19 years since we've had a direct hit, that can't go on forever, that s not really natural," says Richard Hagan of the National Weather Service (NWS).
"Since then we've just all been in denial here," laughs Walter.
NWS director Jack Kelley, Dr. James Baker, undersecretary of commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and FEMA director James Lee Witt all agree that the hurricane season should be "busier than normal."
Baker says the average season in the Atlantic region brings nine tropical storms, six hurricanes and two intense hurricanes. But with "favorable conditions for hurricanes," the area should expect more strikes.
Baker stopped short of predicting specific locales, but if hurricane expert William Gray is right, South Padre could be in for quite a summer.
Gray, a Colorado State University professor, is known for his accuracy in forecasting hurricanes. He's predicting 14 tropical storms and 10 hurricanes for the season, the most he's ever predicted. Four are expected to be intense with winds of 111 mph or more.
A lot has changed on South Padre Island since Beulah, the last killer storm, hit the area 32 years ago. What was then a sleepy beach town has exploded into a bustling vacation spot that swells to 100,000 people on any summer Saturday.
Quaint beach bungalows went out with a long ago tide. Steel reinforced cement fortresses go up in their places. Thicker beams, deeper pilings, and tougher codes guard against the complacency that threatens the island after two decades without a hit.
Even though the number of cars crossing the causeway has doubled in just the past 10 years, there is still only one way off the island. "It's a barrier island with only one bridge and we just need a second access in case of an evacuation, in case of a hurricane," says mayor Ed Cyganiewicz.
Up and down the gulf coast you'll hear the same kind of apprehension among other public officials. Last year's Atlantic storm season was the deadliest in 200 years. Hagan says it's just a matter of time before those worries become a reality, "If we don t get a hurricane eye landfalling somewhere on the Texas coast this year, we will have set the most consecutive years ever since we've kept good records without a hurricane eye landfalling on the Texas coast."
"This time next year I hope I can say, 'Boy we got away with it last year.' Now we re hoping to get away with it this year," says Amazing Walter.
Peple like Walter scare James Lee Witt who says that awareness of the potential dangers is key to the public. He's afraid that many people may not heed hurricane warnings. Those who tried to ride out storms last year realized afterwards that they made a mistake. You can replace material things, Witt says, but you can't replace a life.
"With the lottery of fear beginning, we at FEMA have a message and a promise," Witt says. The message: A hurricane will strike. His promise: "We will be there to help."
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff