Florida in dread of Arthur's deadly whisper

The start of the annual hurricane season along the east coast is a tense time for millions of Americans, writes Phil Davison

Miami - Arthur. The name sounds harmless enough, hardly that of a mass killer and home-wrecker. But then again, that's what they said about Andrew.

Down the eastern US seaboard and on the Caribbean islands, everybody is waiting for Arthur. That is the name assigned in advance to the first tropical storm of the 1996 Atlantic hurricane season, which began on Saturday and lasts until November.

He may not yet even be a whisper of wind off north-west Africa and he may grow to nothing more than a tropical storm with 40mph gales. On the other hand, he might just blossom into a hurricane with winds of 130mph, like Andrew, the scourge of southern Florida in 1992.

Last year's first hurricane of the season, Allison, was the earliest in recorded history, battering Florida in the first week of June.

Once Arthur has been and gone, he will be followed by a "female" storm, Bertha, according to a pre-agreed alphabetic list of alternating men's and women's names. Next will be Cesar, then Dolly, Edouard, Fran, Gustav, Hortense, Isidore, Josephine, Kyle, Lili, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paloma, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred. The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are always left out. The names are meant to be "politically correct," reflecting the cultural diversity of the eastern US and Caribbean.

(Tropical storms were all named after women for the quarter century until 1978, the height of the women's liberation movement, when US weatherpersons bowed to pressure and agreed to use alternating men's names).

After the second-worst storm season in history last year - with 19 tropical storms, 11 of which became hurricanes - meteorologists in the US and the Caribbean are bracing for another bad year. Some fear global warming and other climatological changes could produce more and stronger hurricanes and, with them, deadly tornadoes, wave surges and the flooding of highly populated beach areas.

A report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicted that global warming would bring more powerful hurricanes, driving larger surges of water and raising the Atlantic Ocean by six inches over the next 30 years. That may not sound like much but it could prove catastrophic in low-lying US coastal areas where more and more people - often elderly - are taking up residence.

"Global warming is real and is already having an effect," a geologist, Harold Wanless, told the Miami Herald newspaper. "We are at the beginning of a catastrophic revolution for low-lying and coastal areas."

The busy city of Miami Beach is little more than a long sandbar connected to mainland Miami by causeways. Yet, despite Florida's vulnerability and track record, authorities have serious problems convincing residents to prepare.

In a recent poll, almost 60 per cent of Florida residents said they would not evacuate in the face of a major hurricane.

During evacuation warnings last year, surfers took to the waves and you could even see people trying, with some difficulty, to light barbecues on the beach.

In the National Hurricane Centre, outside Miami on the edge of the famous Everglades swamps, some 80 meteorologists are preparing for the onslaught. Whatever happens, they are in the best place. The concrete, one-storey centre was built to withstand not only the worst hurricanes but even missiles, since it is designed to be a bunker and nerve centre in the event of any disaster.

Inside is a generator and fuel and food supplies for its staff for 10 days.

When Arthur and successive storms approach, Dr Bob Burpee, the centre's director, will again become a familiar face in the US and, via CNN, around the world.

Beside him will be a large-screen monitor showing an image of a cartwheeling blob in the Atlantic.

That image is relayed from two geostationary satellites, meaning they are in orbit at the same speed and direction as the Earth, so that their images appear to be taken from a stationary point.

Back-up to the satellite images comes from the so-called "Storm Trackers," an intrepid group of US air force personnel and scientists who fly planes into hurricanes to get vital information. Crew members are strapped into special harnesses like motor racing drivers while the hurricane tosses their plane up, down and sideways.

"You get the crap kicked out of you and you think you're going to meet your maker," said John Pavone, the man in charge of the "Storm Trackers".

This season, the trackers took possession of a new Gulfstream jet which will allow them to fly through the "head" of hurricanes, typically at a height of around 40,000ft.

Until now, the Air Force's converted WC-130 Hercules transport planes and the scientists' Orion turboprops have been able to fly at only half that height.

The higher view, say the experts, will allow them to improve by around 20 per cent the accuracy of their predictions as to where a hurricane will hit land. Such information can be vital for saving lives.

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