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1995: the year of the hurricane

NO SOONER had Hurricane Opal blown itself out late last week, ending up as torrential rains over New England, than a new threat was gathering force in what is becoming a record season for fierce Atlantic storms. Tropical storm Pablo, building up in the mid-Atlantic, started to approach hurricane force as Opal's predecessor, Hurricane Noel, was threatening the Azores.

Never, since hurricanes and tropical storms were first named after successive letters of the alphabet, have meteorologists in the western hemisphere got as far as P. With two months of the hurricane season to come, this year has already recorded the fourth highest tally since records began in the 1870s. On a month-to-month basis this is the most tempestuous season for more than 60 years.

Experts predict that hurricanes will get stronger and more frequent and cause more damage in coming years. Some believe global warming will make things even worse. Insurers fear that climate change will cause them huge losses, bankrupting much of their industry.

Hurricane Opal, the third to slam into Florida this season, was one of the fiercest storms ever to hit the Gulf Coast, with winds approaching 150mph. It killed 17 people in the southern US and at least 10 more in Mexico. More than 100,000 Americans were forced to leave their homes, two million lost electric power and a space shuttle launch was postponed.

The damage in Florida alone - some $1.8bn (pounds 1.1bn) - made this the third most expensive hurricane in American history. When destruction in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina is added, Opal may well overtake 1989's $5.8bn Hurricane Hugo and come second only to the $16.5bn Hurricane Andrew of 1992.

This year's season started earlier than ever when Hurricane Allison hit the Florida coast in June The tally since then reads like a roll call at a meeting of Psychopaths Anonymous. Dean hit Texas in late July, Erin killed 11 people in the Florida Panhandle in early August, Felix killed nine in Bermuda and the mid-Atlantic seaboard some 10 days later, while Iris killed three people in the eastern Caribbean towards the end of that month. Luis hit the Leeward Islands at the beginning of September and Marilyn destroyed 80 per cent of homes on the island of St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.

Pablo was yesterday 600 miles off the West Indies and moving westwards. It was still too early to predict its final course, but the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami warned: "People should pay attention because anything could happen." Pablo is the 16th named tempest in the Atlantic this year (they are rated as tropical storms when their winds reach 39mph and as hurricanes at 74mph) and the first ever to begin with a letter P. Naming begin in 1951 using the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc). In 1978 meteorologists began giving them female christian names, hurriedly changing after protests to both sexes a year later. "We did not have phonetical correctness then," says Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Centre, "but the equality movement was in full flower."

Only once since the naming began have there been more tempests in a season: there were 18 in 1969, but meteorologists omitted to name three of them. But this year is expected to overtake it before the season is out, making it the second stormiest on record, after the 21 recorded in 1933.

It is, however, a quieter year in the Pacific. There have been no named tempests in the central Pacific at all so far this year, compared to the usual four or five. They have reached J for Juliet in the eastern Pacific, which is somewhat below average, and are rather above the average number in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, where the names have reached S for Sybil.

Professor William Gray, of Colorado State University, who earlier this year predicted a record hurricane season, believes that the storms will now get worse, after 25 years of relative calm. He forecasts that the end of the lull will bring the US "hurricane destruction as never before experienced" because of large-scale development along vulnerable coasts over recent decades.

He dismisses global warming as a cause of this year's storms, but some scientists believe that the weather will get more tempestuous as the oceans heat up: the London Meteorological Office, for example, expects them to increase by 50 per cent as global warming takes hold.

This is causing alarm in the insurance industry, which has already been heavily battered by natural catastrophes in recent years. Twenty-one of the 25 largest insured catastrophes in the US have occurred in the last decade, driving companies out of business, and Munich Re, the world's largest re-insurance group, has warned that climate change is likely to create new records for damage.