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Hurricane Forecast: A Bit Above Normal

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AP / CBS
When it comes to hurricanes, good luck often beats good forecasting, and in the last two years, the U.S. has had plenty of both, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod.

"We've been very, very lucky. The last two years we've had well above the average number of storms and hurricanes, we haven't had any hurricanes to strike the United States," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.

This could be the year that good luck ends. Forecasters said there's an 80 percent chance of normal or above-normal activity, calling for nine to 13 tropical storms and six to eight hurricanes. Two or three of the hurricanes will be major storms with winds more than 111 mph.

Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council said the state used the recent relative calm to stockpile enough money for a rainy - and disastrous - day.

When Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida 10 years ago, it did $10 billion in residential damage alone. After years of anger about huge hikes in home insurance rates, Florida's now got $11 billion in the bank.

"What Florida's done is just awesome," Miller said.

The recent calm period has also seen big advances in forecasting and tracking the storms. It's now known hurricane winds can be one or even two categories stronger at the top of a high-rise condo than at the bottom. But the benefits in safety - like earlier calls for high-rise evacuations - are still limited by the never-ending development.

"A lot of other people have, perhaps, disaster amnesia. They just don't remember what a real hurricane can do," Mayfield said.

In any year with a forecast for above-average activity, there's always this to consider: Both the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history hit in years that saw below-average activity.

This year's prediction is less than the 15 storms that formed in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico last year, but is more than the 10 named storms that form in the average hurricane season.

The government forecast parallels one issued last month by Colorado State University Professor William Gray, a noted hurricane researcher. He said the Atlantic season will see 12 named storms, seven of which will become hurricanes.

Hurricane experts have said the Atlantic basin is in a period of heightened hurricane activity. Six of the last seven years have seen an above-average number of storms. The experts said warmer-than-normal Atlantic waters account for the increased activity in recent years.

But Gray said El Nino - the Pacific Ocean warm-water phenomenon that tends to dampen Atlantic hurricane activity - could have some impact on the coming season.

The 2002 season marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Andrew claimed 26 lives, damaged or destroyed 125,000 homes and caused more than $40 billion of damage when it hit south Florida and Louisiana in August 1992.

The hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.