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NOAA predicts two or three hurricanes to hit U.S.

By Thom Patterson
CNN

story.hurricane.jpg
In 2004, the Atlantic season produced nine hurricanes, one more than NOAA forecasters had predicted.
FACT BOX
Atlantic storm names for 2005:

Arlene
Bret
Cindy
Dennis
Emily
Franklin
Gert
Harvey
Irene
Jose
Katrina
Lee
Maria
Nate
Ophelia
Philippe
Rita
Stan
Tammy
Vince
Wilma

Source: NOAA/National Hurricane Center

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National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
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(CNN) -- The nation's weather agency predicted two or three hurricanes could hit the United States this year, based on an Atlantic season forecast released Monday.

Overall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts seven to nine hurricanes during the coming season, June 1 to November 30. Last year, four hurricanes slammed the Florida coast, causing scores of deaths and tens of billions in damage.

"It is difficult to make any kind of an accurate prediction of how many of these will strike land," said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. "But I think statistically you can look at the fact that when seasons are more active, and we have a higher level of hurricanes, you have a higher chance of hurricanes striking the United States."

"So I would expect two to three perhaps striking the United States," Lautenbacher said.

The forecast said three to five of the hurricanes will be major storms ranked Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength.

NOAA's 2004 forecast proved to be fairly accurate. It predicted six to eight hurricanes, two to four of which would be at least Category 3, which have winds of 111 mph to 130 mph.

In reality, six hurricanes reached Category 3 strength or higher, out of the nine storms that eventually were designated hurricanes.

Four of the hurricanes -- Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- hit Florida directly, and one indirectly within just six weeks. It is believed the four storms caused more than $40 billion in damage.

Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Center said scientists were looking at warmer ocean temperatures as a possible factor in this year's forecast.

"The issue, really, this year is the anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic," Lepore said.

Warm water provides fuel for tropical storms to increase strength and become fierce hurricanes. The surface temperatures of the Atlantic are warmer earlier this year than they were at the same time in 2004, Lepore said.

An average Atlantic season produces six hurricanes, Lepore said. "Just for historical perspective, we were actually below average in the decades of the '70s, the '80s and half-way through the '90s," he said. "That is, less than six hurricanes on average per season."

Since 1995, the Atlantic hurricane seasons have been above normal except for the El Nino years of 1997 and 2002.

CNN's Douglas Wood contributed to this report.

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