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Epsilon Strengthens, But No Threat

Tropical storm Epsilon strengthened into a record 14th hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, two days after the 2005 season officially ended. Forecasters said it posed no threat to land.

"This is only the fifth hurricane we've had in December in more than 120 years," said National Weather Service hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart.

"Generally this late in the year winds in the upper level of the atmosphere are strong enough to strip the strength of storm," Stewart said, "but about every 20 years or so, the atmosphere allows it to happen."

No hurricane has been known to hit the United States between December and May. The latest hurricane to form in the Caribbean occurred Dec. 30, 1954, he said.

Epsilon had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, the threshold for categorizing a storm as a hurricane, at 10 a.m. EST, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Its top sustained winds were near 65 mph earlier in the day.

It continued to turn away from Bermuda, but it could still cause dangerous surf conditions, forecasters said. It was centered about 955 miles, east of Bermuda. Forecasters said Epsilon was moving northeast near 14 mph.

No other major storms appeared on the horizon, Stewart said.

The Atlantic hurricane season lasts six months and officially ended Wednesday. Epsilon is the 26th named storm of the busiest hurricane season on record.

Forecasters say 2006 could be another brutal year because the Atlantic is in a period of frenzied hurricane activity that began in 1995 and could last at least another decade.

Government hurricane experts say the increase is due to a natural cycle of higher sea temperatures, lower wind shear and other factors, though some scientists blame global warming.

CBS News correspondent Jim Acosta reports that forecasters fear the hurricane hyperactivity could drag on for another two decades.

"I would like to be able to stand up here and tell you that next year will not be any more severe than this year," said Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., administrator of NOAA. "But I can't do that."

The 2005 season obliterated many long-standing records:

In 154 years of record-keeping, this year has had the most named storms (26, including Tropical Storm Epsilon), the most hurricanes (14), the highest number of major hurricanes hitting the U.S. (4), and the most top-scale Category 5 hurricanes (3).

Katrina was the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1928 (more than 1,300 dead) and replaced 1992's Andrew as the most expensive one on record ($34.4 billion in insured losses).

Total insured losses from hurricanes this year were put at $47.2 billion, above the previous record of $22.9 billion set last year when four hurricanes also hit the U.S., according to risk-analysis firm ISO.

Wilma was briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of minimum central pressure (882 millibars). It also was the fastest-strengthening storm on record — its top sustained winds increased 105 mph in 24 hours in the Caribbean.

Forecasters exhausted their list of 21 proper names (Arlene, Bret, Cindy and so on) and had to use the Greek alphabet to name storms for the first time.

The worst damage, of course, was inflicted by Katrina. Miles of coastal Mississippi towns such as Waveland and Gulfport were smashed. Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water after its levees broke. The world saw families stranded on roofs and hungry and thirsty refugees stuck in the Superdome and Convention Center. Bodies lay on streets for days or floated in the fetid floodwaters. Hundreds of thousands of people have yet to return to their homes — or have no homes to return to.

So far, Congress has approved $62 billion in mostly short-term relief aid, and estimates put the cost of rebuilding at up to $200 billion.