2004 U.S. Hurricane Season Among Worst on Record

November 30, 2004

Meteorologist James Franklin, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, has an unscientific but accurate observation about the 2004 hurricane season, which ends today.

"I'm still numb from it," he said. "That would be the primary observation."

Thousands of people in Florida probably are saying the same thing. The state was ravaged by four hurricanes from mid-August to late September. The storms kept Franklin and other forecasters very busy and prompted Max Mayfield, director of the NHC, to quip, "It almost seems like we've got a 'Kick Me' sign on the state."

Insurance adjusters and meteorologists are still crunching numbers and analyzing data, but two conclusions about this season are almost certain: Damages from the five hurricanes that lashed the United States—including Hurricane Alex, which brushed past North Carolina's Outer Banks on August 3—could exceed $25 billion U.S. dollars, and the season will go down as one of the most active on record.

Meteorologists have devised several formulas for calculating the energy produced by hurricanes during a season. The formulas combine a variety of data—including hurricanes' maximum wind speeds and their durations—to produce a measurement of a season's activity.

The National Hurricane Center uses a method called the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index (ACEI) to calculate a season's activity. Meteorologist Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami said researchers don't yet know whether the 2004 season will be the most active on record, but "it's definitely in the top two or three."

A hurricane is considered major when its winds reach 111 miles an hour (179 kilometers an hour). The 2004 season produced 16 named storms, including six major hurricanes.

"A Rare Statistical Event"

Landsea said the 2004 season will be comparable to 1950. That season produced eight major hurricanes and had an Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index rating of 270, the highest on record. By comparison, an average season's ACEI rating is between 76 and 120.

Before this year the only other season to approach 1950 was 1995, which produced five major hurricanes and had an ACEI rating of just under 270.

Meteorologist William Gray of Colorado State University in Fort Collins is a pioneer in long-range hurricane forecasting. He said the number of hurricanes striking land is what makes the 2004 season unusual.

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