Forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say they are expecting an average Atlantic hurricane season this year, with four to seven hurricanes.
But this year's forecast came with a lot of caveats and a call for the public to pay more attention to the risks posed by rising water, as well as wind and rain.
Government officials said they wanted to avoid a repeat of last year, when thousands of people near Galveston, Texas, refused to evacuate as Hurricane Ike approached. Dozens died from the storm surge, which pushed ocean water up over a 17-footl seawall and flooded thousands of homes.
Ike was one of eight hurricanes that formed during last year's season. The hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30.
This year probably won't be that busy, says Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead seasonal hurricane forecaster. "But right now there's considerable uncertainty," he says.
At the moment, the Atlantic is cooler than normal, which tends to discourage hurricanes, Bell says. Also, he says, temperatures in the eastern Pacific are rising, which could lead to the condition known as El Nino.
"If El Nino develops, that would act to suppress the hurricane activity," Bell says.
On the other hand, the Atlantic has been in a period of high hurricane activity for more than a decade. And early season forecasts have been wrong more often than they've been right.
It takes only one hurricane to make a devastating season, says Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He says people who live near the coast need to pay attention to approaching storms.
Read says a lot of people failed to do that before Hurricane Ike struck the Galveston area last year.
"Intellectually, they knew a storm was coming," he says. "But they didn't know what it meant to them."
Ike was only a Category 2 hurricane when it made landfall. But because of the storm's location and massive size, it pushed ocean water up over the the Galveston seawall, which is 17 feet high. Many people weren't prepared for the massive storm surge that flooded thousands of homes and businesses.
Dozens of people died because thousands ignored calls to evacuate.
More Clear Warnings
This year, NOAA is trying several new approaches to help people prepare for storm surges.
For example, the Hurricane Center's Web site will include storm surge maps, so people can see how high the water is likely to rise in a specific place.
Advisories used to tie storm surge estimates to a hurricane's strength, which is a pretty crude approach, says Jamie Rhome, a storm surge specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
"Any subtle change in the storm's size, the storm track, the storm intensity or the forward speed can have a significant impact on where the maximum storm surge goes," he says
The new online maps will do a much better job of taking these factors into account.
"Had this product been used during Ike I think the public would have had a much clearer perspective of the threat," Rhome says.