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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Today the government delivered its forecast of the upcoming hurricane season.

GARY LOCKE: For 2009, the outlook for the Atlantic hurricane season indicates a near normal season is most likely.

BLOCK: Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke laid out the basics, since his department oversees hurricane forecasting. The government said this year is expected to bring fewer hurricanes than last year's total of eight, including one that devastated Galveston, Texas. NPR's Jon Hamilton has our story.

JON HAMILTON: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its annual forecast with a lot of caveats about both the number of hurricanes and their likely effect. Gerry Bell is the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster.

GERRY BELL: Right now there's considerable uncertainty in the forecast for both the Atlantic and eastern Pacific ocean temperatures.

HAMILTON: At the moment, the Atlantic is cooler than normal, which tends to discourage hurricanes. Also, Bell says temperatures in the eastern Pacific are rising, which could lead to the condition known as El Nino.

BELL: Some of the forecast models are indicating that El Nino could develop. If El Nino develops, that would act to suppress the hurricane activity.

HAMILTON: On the other hand, the Atlantic has been in a period of high hurricane activity for more than a decade. And Bell says this period is far from over. Also, early season forecasts have been wrong more often than they've been right. So Bill Read, who directs the National Hurricane Center in Miami, urged people who live near the coast to pay attention to approaching storms. That means looking at rising water levels, not just wind and rain. Read says a lot of people failed to do that before hurricane Ike struck the Galveston area last year.

BILL READ: When you talk to people that have been through hurricane like Ike, intellectually they knew a storm was coming at them, but they didn't know exactly what it meant to them.

HAMILTON: For example, many people weren't prepared for the massive storm surge that flooded thousands of homes and businesses.

JAMIE RHOME: So what we're doing this year is trying to move towards a better way of communicating storm surge by talking about height above ground level.

HAMILTON: Jamie Rhome is a storm surge specialist at the National Hurricane Center. Until now, he says, the public has relied primarily on storm surge estimates that compared water levels to normal tides. But that doesn't mean much to most people. Also, the estimates were based on a hurricane's overall strength. Rhome says that's a pretty crude approach.

RHOME: Because any subtle change in the storm size, the storm track, the storm intensity or the forward speed, even the subtlest of change can have a significant impact on where the maximum storm surge goes, meaning, who gets what amount?

HAMILTON: This year, 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.

RHOME: Had this product been used during Ike, I think the public would've had a much clear perspective of the threat for this given storm.

HAMILTON: Ike was only a category two hurricane when it made landfall. But because of the storm's location and massive size, it pushed ocean water up over the Galveston seawall, which is 17 feet tall. Dozens of people died because thousands ignored calls to evacuate. Federal officials say their goal is to keep that from happening again this year.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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