Thursday, May 25, 2006

New Orleans seen top target for '06 hurricanes

New Orleans seen top target for '06 hurricanes

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - New Orleans, still down and out from last year's assault by Hurricane Katrina, is the U.S. city most likely to be struck by hurricane force winds during the 2006 storm season, a researcher said on Wednesday.

The forecast gives the city a nearly 30 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane and one in 10 chance the storm will be Category 3 or stronger, meaning sustained winds of at least 111 miles per hour (178 km per hour), said Chuck Watson of Kinetic Analysis Corp., a Savannah, Georgia, risk assessment firm.

"Given the state of the infrastructure down there and the levees, gosh, that's just not good news. But that's what the climate signals look like," Watson said.

Watson, worked in partnership with University of Central Florida statistics professor Mark Johnson. They base their forecast in part on the paths of storms over the past 155 years and expected global climate conditions this year.

Wrapping up a two-day evacuation drill as the June 1 start to the hurricane season loomed, New Orleans' top emergency official said government, police and military are planning for storms with a sense of urgency, regardless of the odds.

A complete evacuation will be ordered whenever a Category 3 storm or stronger appears to be bearing down on New Orleans, and there will be no shelters of last resort within the city.

"I can't control Mother Nature. I can only control the people who work for me and the message to deal with the citizens of this city, and I need their cooperation to make this happen," New Orleans Homeland Security Chief Terry Ebbert said of the strategy to empty the city.


Watson and Johnson, who have worked with the oil industry and with state insurance regulators, also predicted that oil production in the Gulf of Mexico will be disrupted for a minimum of a week at a cost of between 7 million and 8 million barrels of oil.

Up to 25 percent of U.S. oil production in the Gulf was shut down last year and 20 percent is still out.

Watson gave a one in 10 chance that oil rigs will sustain enough damage to reduce production by 278 million barrels over the next few years, further escalating gasoline prices.

Watson and Johnson said a weak La Nina weather condition and warmer-than-normal Gulf of Mexico water temperatures were contributing factors. U.S. government weather experts say the La Nina phenomenon in place earlier this year has dissipated and should not be a factor during the hurricane season.

On Tuesday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the 2006 hurricane season was expected to produce 13 to 16 named storms, including four to six "major" hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher. No leading forecasters came close to predicting what happened in 2005, when 28 tropical storms spawned a record 15 hurricanes.

The 2006 forecast for News Orleans was worse than Watson's prediction for the city last year, he said. But for now, he considers the 2005 season an aberration rather than a trend or a definitive sign of effects from global warming.

"If it happens again this year or next year, then we're in a different climate world than we were in the last 100 years or so," Watson said.

Of 28 coastal cities evaluated under the forecast model, New Orleans ranked top with a 29.3 percent chance of experiencing hurricane-force winds in the 2006 storm season.

Other top candidates include Mobile, Alabama, with a 22 percent chance of being buffeted by hurricane-force winds, and the Florida cities of Key West and Pensacola, which both have a 20 percent chance.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Jones in New Orleans)