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Mild hurricane season predicted; 1969 superstorm Camille downgraded

By Eliot Kleinberg - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

A pattern of warm water in the Pacific Ocean and similar atmospheric conditions to other calm hurricane seasons led experts on Thursday to project a below-average 2014 storm season.

Dr. William Gray and other soothsayers at Colorado State University, in their first crack at predicting this year’s storms, said that they expect a below-average season: nine named storms, with three becoming hurricanes and one of those a major hurricane at Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, with top sustained winds of at least 111 mph. The historical average for 1981 to 2010 is 12, 6½, and two, respectively.

The team also gave a 20 percent chance a storm would strike somewhere on the U.S. East Coast, including the Florida peninsula; the average for the past century is 31 percent.

Thursday’s prediction should not be taken as a planning tool, except to encourage people to prepare as if they will be hit by a storm.

One factor in the prediction: evidence of an El Niño, a pattern that includes warm ocean water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, that can bring stormy weather out west but tends to limit formation of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic.

The United States has gone eight years without a landfall, the longest stretch since reliable landfall records began around 1878. The last hit here: Wilma in 2005.

Even as prognosticators this week are weighing in on what the 2014 hurricane season might hold, researchers have declared a new winner in the grim category of the strongest storm to ever strike America. And it was in Florida.

It came 45 years after the fact, but researchers have reassessed and now say the monster hurricane Camille wasn’t quite as strong as previously thought when it struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969.

The National Hurricane Center said this week it dropped Camille’s top sustained winds from 190 mph to 175 mph, sliding it to second place, behind the unnamed 1935 Labor Day storm (185 mph), which smashed the Florida Keys, and tying it with South Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (175 mph).

The three are the only storms at Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale to have struck the continental United States since 1900.

The difference between 190 mph winds and 175 mph winds might be analogous to being struck by a passenger train vs. a freight train. Camille plowed into the Mississippi coast on Aug. 17, 1969. Storm surges, winds and flash floods killed 143 on the Gulf Coast and 113 in Virginia floods and caused $1.42 billion in damage.

The new Hurricane Center study also dropped Camille’s central barometric pressure from 909 millibars to 900. Because it can be measured indoors, scientists have for years used as a storm’s measuring stick just how low pressure went. It’s about 1,015 millibars on a calm day, about 980 in a Category 1 storm. The 1935 storm holds that record as well, at 892.

The new study also concluded Camille became a tropical storm 18 hours earlier than thought.

In coming up with the new number, there was no smoking gun, researcher Christopher Landsea said Thursday. In fact, he conceded the figure is plus or minus about 15 mph, the exact amount by which the historical stat was changed.

Landsea said historical researchers found overlooked readings, conducted analyses not in use in the 1960s, and basically took a vote.

That’s pretty much what they do now as well, Landsea said.

After all, we’re talking about hurricanes. Accurate wind readings, on anenometers that weren’t blown away or smashed by flying 2-by-4s, are rare, even in the 2010s.

That was how Camille’s wind speed was determined in 1969. It was more of a guess,” Landsea said.

The closest official reading was 115 mph at a weather station some 70 miles inland. But, Landsea said, researchers know the rate at which storms’ winds decay after landfall and can extrapolate. Also, a research plane had recorded 200 mph winds aloft and an oil rig just offshore measured 130 mph winds.

Landsea, formerly of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division and now with the National Hurricane Center, has been working for years at both places, heading NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Database Reanalysis Project.

For a dozen years, researchers across the world have dug through both modern records and dusty files to try to learn about five centuries of hurricanes.

Hurricanes have undergone scientifically significant study only during the past century or so. Researchers argue that basing conclusions on such a small statistical sample would earn a grad student an F. That’s why they’re trying to fill in the pieces.

Although researchers now have automated weather stations, buoys, instruments dropped from jets, satellites and computers, centuries ago the only way anyone learned of a hurricane was when a ship telegraphed or, before that, limped into dock. But because ships usually were sailing away from storms, researchers missed parts or all of storms.

By cross-checking various documents, reports and memoirs, scholars have dramatically changed whatever official records were assembled.

The researchers have been going decade by decade starting with 1851, analyzing up to 10 seasons a year, and are up to around 1950, but because of the disputes over which hurricane was the strongest, decided to jump ahead to Camille, Landsea said Thursday.

Those killed by Camille in 1969, meanwhile, included some who thought a hurricane might be a time for fun.

A dozen people had gathered at the Richelieu Apartments, in the Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian, Miss. Stocked with food and drink, they were going to have a hurricane party. Another dozen Richelieu residents also opted to wait out the storm in their apartments.

While everyone else had fled inland, the group was bent on a wild ride. Besides, most forecasts had the brunt of the storm striking 100 miles to the east in the Florida Panhandle.

But Camille hit Pass Christian head-on. The next morning, there were no partiers. One of the 24 was found alive, clinging to a tree five miles inland. And no Richelieu remained. Just a slab.

Reporter Eliot Kleinberg, who’s covered hurricanes for the Post for a quarter century, will report Wednesday and Thursday, April 16 and 17, from the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando. Watch for tweets, blog postings, and web and print stories.

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