Busy ’09 hurricane season

As residents of the Cayman Islands wait for cold Christmas breezes hurricane prognosticators are warning that 2009 will be a busy season.

William Gray and Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University predict that next year will have 14 named storms, with seven of them becoming hurricanes. Three of those are expected to become major storms with winds of 111 mph or higher.

That would make 2009 slightly less active than 2008.

The long-term average is 10 named storms and six hurricanes, with two growing into major storms.

Some reasons behind the expected above-average season are similar to those for last year – higher than normal water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and the lack of an El Niño in the Pacific Ocean.

An El Niño, which forms when water across a vast stretch of the equatorial Pacific rises several degrees above normal, stunts the formation of hurricanes.

Also, hurricane experts say we are in a period of active hurricane seasons that started in 1995 and could last another decade. Since 1995, 13 of 14 seasons have had more storms than the long-term average.

In December 2007, Gray and Klotzbach predicted 13 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes for 2008.

The season that ended Nov. 30 had 16 named storms, eight hurricanes and five major hurricanes.

The Cayman Islands received damage from Hurricane Gustav in August, but the worst storm of the season came late in the year when Paloma dealt a major blow to Cayman Brac.

Forecasters had expected Paloma to strike the southern and western coast of the largest island in Cayman as a lower-power Category 3 storm Friday night. However, the storm’s track took a bizarre shift to the northeast Friday afternoon and evening, pushing it east of Grand Cayman and on a collision course with Little Cayman instead.

The hurricane struck the Sister Islands as a monster Category 4 storm early Saturday.

Up to 1,000 people were left homeless on the Brac after the storm’s late track to the east moved Grand Cayman out of the storm’s path and caused it to instead slam into the Sister Islands, packing maximum sustained winds of up to 140mph with gusts estimated at over 160mph.

The Brac took the brunt of the massive storm, which obliterated whole buildings and inflicted mild to severe damage on an estimated 90 per cent of buildings across the Island.

The total of all storms in the 2008 season makes this year the fourth most active since 1944, when aircraft started flying into hurricanes. Only 2005 (with 28 storms), 1995 (with 19 storms) and 1969 (with 18 storms) were more active.

Gray and Klotzbach will issue five more forecasts before the end of the 2009 season: 7 April 7, 2 June, 4 Aug., 2 Sept. and 1 Oct.