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FORT COLLINS, Colo.-Up to 11 tropical storms-three of which could be major hurricanes-could form in the Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean region over the next five months, warns a team of scientists.
The number of tropical storms expected this hurricane season, which typically runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, is up slightly from forecasts a year ago, though it trails the actual number of storms in 1996.
Underwriters and risk managers watch for and respect the hurricane forecasts, which are made throughout the year by a team of scientists led by Colorado State University Professor William Gray.
But the forecasts typically don't catch underwriters unprepared, since most insurers and reinsurers have been bracing for severe windstorms since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew caused an estimated $15.5 billion in insured losses in Florida and Louisiana.
"We put some degree of credibility in what Professor Gray does, but it doesn't affect what we do," said Michael Burke, vp and chief engineer of Allendale Mutual Insurance Co. of Johnston, R.I. Hurricane preparation is "not a seasonal thing for us. It's a long-term commitment."
If the prediction is accurate, the 11 tropical storms this year will mark the third consecutive above-average hurricane season, making the period between 1995 and 1997 the most active three-year hurricane period in the last 120 years.
On average, Mr. Gray's team reported, a hurricane season has close to nine tropical storms, of which six are hurricanes and two are major hurricanes.
Tropical storms are cyclones in which maximum sustained winds reach 39 to 73 mph. Hurricanes range in intensity from those with sustained winds of 40 mph to more than 155 mph, though major hurricanes are ones with wind speeds in excess of 111 mph.
The CSU scientists said the trend toward increased frequency supports their theory that the Atlantic Basin, which encompasses the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, is entering a new era of tropical storms and hurricanes.
From the 1970s to the early 1990s, hurricanes were fewer and less intense than in previous decades, Mr. Gray said. "Now it appears we are entering a period of increased hurricane activity similar to the late 1940s to the late 1960s," said Mr. Gray.
Mr. Gray's forecasts, however, do not predict whether or where a hurricane will make landfall.
Jim Welsh, senior claims consultant for American Insurance Services Group Inc. of Rahway, N.J., called landfall "the X factor, the great unknown."
The predictions by Mr. Gray's scientists at Colorado State are highly regarded.
In 1995, the team predicted 12 tropical storms and said it could shape up as the most active seasons for tropical storms in 25 years (BI, July 10, 1995); 19 named storms actually formed, the highest total in half a century. The team underestimated in 1996, predicting two or three intense hurricanes when six actually formed.
An above-average hurricane season does not automatically mean above-average losses.
"When he's talking active, he's not talking dollars," said Mr. Welsh said of Mr. Gray's forecasts.
"Seven hurricanes made landfall in '95 and '96, and caused $5.2 billion in damages. That's one-third of what Andrew cost in insured damage," said Mr. Welsh.
In response to Andrew's devastation, insurers fundamentally changed the way they do business.
"After Andrew, we found 80% of losses were preventable," said Mr. Burke of Allendale. "Andrew opened our eyes."
Allendale's loss control engineers saw, for example, that more firmly securing a building's roof, windows and glass walls could prevent property damage in a windstorm. In August 1992, Mr. Burke and four engineers went to Florida to assess the storm's damage and then compared the damage with the losses from more than 1,000 past storms.
"The truth is, 99 out of 100 individual buildings such as hotels and office buildings weathered the storm structurally," he said. "But if the roof comes off and the windows break, the real damage is water damage inside the building."
Within a year of Andrew, Allendale hired more than 100 engineers specifically trained to inspect roofs, roof coverings and the intensity of wind they could withstand, Mr. Burke said.
Another property insurer also learned valuable lessons from Andrew's destruction.
Due to loss prevention measures implemented in recent years, Arkwright Mutual Insurance Co. of Waltham, Mass., estimates it prevented up to $5 million in losses during last year's Hurricane Fran. Using the Internet and other sources, Arkwright's engineers track storms and then fax its clients a list of 20 to 25 details to check.
"Twenty-four to 48 hours before landfall, we send out an abbreviated fax," said Frank Suppe, vp and manager of engineering risk information at Arkwright. At that time, he said, the weather services know where the storm will hit.
This allows Arkwright to focus on its clients in the storm's path. "We don't send information to Philadelphia when the hurricane is going to Charleston," he added. "We don't cry wolf."
The checklist for last September's Hurricane Hortense, for example, included such advice as "protect/relocate vital records," and "have cash on hand for post-hurricane needs such as buying food and supplies, or paying employees and contractors."
"Today, you know much better than several years ago the direction a hurricane is going to take," said Charlotte Humphrey, director of risk management for Golden Corral Corp. of Raleigh, N.C., which has more than 440 company-owned and franchised restaurants in 38 states. "Now we know not only the specific state or states the storm will hit but cities."
This information is key to Golden Corral's ability to get through a storm. Hours before Hurricane Fran hit North Carolina last September, Ms. Humphrey said, she phoned Golden Corral's restaurants in Wilmington, near where Fran came ashore.
She reviewed closing procedures, advising the managers to fill sinks with water, and pack freezers and coolers with ice. "We made sure co-workers were going to safe areas," she added.