Hurricane Season Intensifies with Worse to come.

BY THE TIME HURRICANE Charley made its way north to New Brunswick on the evening of August 15, it was a mere shadow of itself. Forty-eight hours prior, Charley had wreaked devastation on the state of Florida, leaving thousands homeless, killing 23 and causing an estimated $9.6 billion in damage.

Hurricane Season Intensifies with Worse to come.

BY THE TIME HURRICANE Charley made its way north to New Brunswick on the evening of August 15, it was a mere shadow of itself. Forty-eight hours prior, Charley had wreaked devastation on the state of Florida, leaving thousands homeless, killing 23 and causing an estimated $9.6 billion in damage. In Saint John, however - despite the precautionary flood watches issued earlier - it was just another rainy late-summer night.

The calm came as a relief to Atlantic Canadians, who've had their share of trouble with storms recently. Only two days earlier, Tropical Storm Bonnie had caused flash-flooding in northwestern New Brunswick, resulting in backed-up sewers, flooded basements and the death of at least one person. In Halifax, many are still recovering from the physical and economic effects of last September's Hurricane Juan, the most destructive Atlantic Canadian storm in more than a century.

Still, experts are saying the worst may be yet to come for the eastern seaboard. For the seventh year in a row, meteorologists are forecasting an above-normal number of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean. Due to abnormally warm ocean temperatures in the tropics, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that 12 to 15 tropical storms will form during this year's season, which began in June and peaks in September. Of those storms, six to eight are expected to become hurricanes, with two to four reaching "intense hurricane" status.

For eastern Canadians, this means the threat of another Juan is very real, says Bob Robichaud, a weather preparedness meteorologist for the Atlantic Storm Prediction Centre in Dartmouth, N.S. Normally, he says, hurricanes form in the tropics and the Gulf of Mexico and travel north, losing their intensity by the time they hit the cool waters off the Canadian coast. But this year, particularly around Newfoundland, the waters are one to three degrees warmer than usual. "We're concerned about a situation where one of these hurricanes comes up and moves over an unusually warm patch of water before making landfall, similarly to what happened with Juan," Robichaud says.

As such, the word on everyone's lips is "preparedness." Last year, meteorologists were alarmed to find that, despite more than two days' notice that Juan would touch down in Nova Scotia, thousands failed to heed the warnings. "It was a nice weekend in late September," says Robichaud, "and people were out enjoying themselves. That, combined with the fact that we hadn't had a hurricane of that calibre in a really long time, meant that people just didn't react as we had hoped." In response, Environment Canada has implemented new measures to heighten hurricane awareness. "We're doing a lot more outreach work with the media and the Emergency Measures Organization," says Robichaud. Also, they've introduced a new set of hurricane and tropical storm watches and warnings. "If people hear them, they'll know to expect these conditions within 24 hours."

According to Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a not-for-profit research institute based in Toronto and London, Ont., the annual cost of natural disasters is doubling every five to 10 years. This, he says, is due to climate changes that are causing more severe weather conditions, and to the fact that more people are living in high-risk areas.

Still, he says, much of the damage caused by a hurricane is preventable if people take protective measures, such as investing in a disaster supply kit and hurricane-proofing their homes with protective window films, covered oil tanks and reinforced chimneys. "The cost of basic prevention is not expensive," says Kovacs. "The key is knowing how to keep yourself safe. If we could have prevented even half of the damage caused by Juan this way, it would've helped a lot."

Maclean's August 30, 2004