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‘Major’ hurricane on the horizon

It’s about time for another big one — an Andrew or Hugo — a hurricane so vicious and destructive that it becomes part of the lore of our time.

“We’re overdue for a major hurricane,” says Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

A “major hurricane” is one with winds of 111 mph or greater. They account for just 20 percent of the storms that hit the U.S. coast, but they cause 80 percent of the damage. The last major hurricane to hit Miami was Andrew 12 years ago. It devastated south Miami with a 17-foot tidal surge and winds clocked at more than 140 mph.

Andrew — upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane in 2002 — caused $15.5 billion of insured damage, the most ever recorded. If it came ashore today 10 miles north of where it did in 1992 and with winds 15 mph stronger, it would leave $53 billion in damage in Miami’s downtown, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

“We’ve just been incredibly lucky,” says hurricane specialist Richard Pasch. And Miami isn’t the only city that would suffer vast damage in a direct hit by a major hurricane. The institute predicts a Category 4 storm would cause $45 billion in damage to New York City, a Category 5 $42.5 billion to Galveston, Texas, and $33.5 billion to Hampton, Va.

Even more worrisome, though, is the loss of life if a major storm hit Miami Beach, the Florida Keys, South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, or the Texas coast, and residents of low-lying areas were slow to evacuate.

“We’re very fearful of complacency,” Pasch says. “The loss of life with the storm surge would be tremendous.” Pasch fears complacency because we have been in a cycle of greater hurricane activity, but we have experienced far fewer hits than in the past.

Dr. William Gray, hurricane forecasting’s guru, points out that the annual incidence of landfall in Florida and along the East Coast was nearly twice as great from 1900 to 1966 as from 1966 to 2003. Gray says we’ve just been plain “lucky” that an upper-air trough has been settling in along the East Coast during hurricane season, turning westward-moving storms north up the coast instead of into it.

“It cannot be presumed that this recent downturn in U.S. major hurricane landfall events along the Florida peninsula and East Coast will continue,” writes Gray. “We must expect a great increase in landfalling major hurricanes in the coming decades.”

Gray predicts eight hurricanes this season, three of them major at Category 3 or stronger. He forecasts a 71-percent probability that a Category 3 or greater storm will hit the U.S. coast this season (compared to an average 52 percent historical probability last century), a 52-percent probability for peninsular Florida (31 percent last century), and 40-percent probability for the Gulf Coast and Florida Panhandle (30 percent in the 1900s).

Gray’s forecasts stress the danger of major hurricanes, but even lesser storms are killers. Floridians breathed a huge sigh of relief last September when Isabel, a monster Category 5 hurricane, veered northwest away from them. When Isabel finally came ashore at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, it was a severely weakened Category 2 hurricane, yet its surge and flooding killed 17 people and caused $3 billion in damage.

“All hurricanes are dangerous,” Pasch says.

Robert Koch, general manager of River Bend Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., bought a 51-foot Formosa sailboat salvaged from the mess left after Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami’s Dinner Key Marina. The hurricane’s 17-foot surge picked the boat up and skewered it on two 20-inch-diameter pilings. The pilings punched through the bottom and broke out through the deck, one passing through the saloon, the other through the galley. Bow in the mud and stern high and dry on Dinner Key’s Pier Six, the Formosa was immortalized in many of the photographic accounts of Andrew’s mayhem. Koch still has the boat, and it remains a very concrete reminder of a hurricane’s raw power. Koch says it took him six years to bring the sailboat back to life.

Koch’s marina has a hurricane plan. When a storm reaches the Bahamas and aims for South Florida, his crew rolls into action. Located several miles up Fort Lauderdale’s New River, River Bend probably won’t face a big surge, but Koch says the winds remain a menacing adversary. His crew removes sails and canvas from the boats, and doubles lines. They tie vessels off in spider-web fashion, away from piers and pilings, and tighten jackstands beneath boats stored landside. They gather up debris that could become deadly projectiles in high winds.

Koch says he’s ready when a hurricane threatens. However, others are not. On the residential canals lacing Fort Lauderdale, 30-, 40- and 50-footers are tied up at docks behind expensive waterfront homes. Koch used to live in the city’s Mandarin Isles district, where boats abound.

“At no time during the many years I lived in the Mandarin Isles did I ever see anyone double up on their lines,” Koch says. “People were totally complacent.”

That’s what worries Richard Pasch.