by the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

According to the NOAA, Hurricane Katrina cost approximately $60 billion in insurance losses to the Gulf Coast region - almost triple the $21 billion in insurance losses from Hurricane Andrew, the second costliest hurricane, which struck south Florida in 1992. 

This year's hurricane season, from June 1 to Nov. 30, already looks grim. Experts at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center project a 75 percent chance the season will be above normal. They predict a strong La Nina - which favors more Atlantic hurricanes, while El Nino favors fewer hurricanes - will cause three to five major hurricanes.

Also a factor is a phenomenon called "the tropical multidecadal signal" - the notion that two or three decades of lessened storm activity are followed by two or three decades of increased activity. The period since 1995 has wreaked conditions for more hurricanes.

Yet despite signs of a rough hurricane season ahead, a surprising phenomenon is occurring: People are increasingly moving to the Atlantic coast. Census Bureau data shows that in 1950, 10.2 million people were threatened by Atlantic hurricanes; today more than 34.9 million are threatened, according to USA Today.

"The areas along the United States Gulf and Atlantic coasts where most of this country's hurricane-related fatalities have occurred are also experiencing the country's most significant growth in population," the National Hurricane Center report confirmed.

But since coastal communities won't stop corralling newcomers, the report concluded that communities themselves should take action.

Jim O'Brien, professor emeritus of meteorology and oceanography at Florida State University, said emergency managers and policymakers should address the hurricane issue by enforcing stricter building codes, readdressing evacuation strategies and educating people about the imminent problem.

However, more drastic action must be taken to stop people's risky behavior, according to Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The coastal migration is made possible, he said, through an unwise mix of state and federal policies, like government regulation of property and flood insurance (which covers storm surges), and federal disaster relief given to flooded regions. While such policies help people in the short term, Emmanuel explained, they also enable the risky behavior to continue.  

Scientists have long feared America's vulnerability to hurricanes because its shores are lined with some of the nation's wealthiest residents. Emanuel, in conjunction with nine scientists, released a July 2006 statement about the U.S. hurricane problem: "We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current debate over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention."        

 

Preparedness Challenge

Paul Milelli, director of public safety for Palm Beach County, Fla., contends that global warming's effects may inherently force people to change their ways.

"If we start having to build homes to meet a 200 mph wind, the cost would probably stifle some growth," he said, "and then [there's] the fear factor of people moving in."

Because the county uses an all-hazards approach, emergency planning won't change much with global warming in the equation, he said.

"The economy is just going to be affected tremendously, and that, to me, is going to be the biggest concern. Because we can prepare our people for a hurricane, whether it's a Category 1 or a Category 5, and how we prepare the people really doesn't change - except that as the categories get higher, we start asking people to make their plans earlier and earlier."

For a statewide evacuation, Floridians would have to begin leaving days before the hurricane hit - a logistic impracticality. 

"It's bigger than me. It's bigger than what I can plan for as

Jessica Weidling  |  Staff Writer