ARLINGTON, Virginia (CNN) -- Forecasters predict the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season will be "near-normal," with four to seven hurricanes likely, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday, less than two weeks before the season begins.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters predict a 'near normal' hurricane season.
"While we cannot prevent hurricanes, we can prepare, and we must," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told reporters at Reagan National Airport, just outside of Washington.
The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through the end of November.
Locke said it is likely there will be nine to 14 named storms, with four to seven of those becoming hurricanes. Of the hurricanes, NOAA predicts that one to three will be major hurricanes -- storms classified as Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale of storm intensity -- with winds of 111 mph or higher.
In 2008, there were 16 named storms and eight hurricanes, five of which were major. It was among the busiest and costliest seasons to date, with about $54 billion in damages, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Learn more about hurricanes and how you can stay safe »
The weather agency had predicted a total of 12 to 16 storms last year.
NOAA's predictions for 2009 are similar to those of four other organizations: AccuWeather, (13 named storms and eight hurricanes), Colorado State University, (14 named storms and seven hurricanes) WSI Corp. (13 named storms, seven hurricanes) and Weather Research Center (seven named storms, four hurricanes).
Competing climate factors are shaping the 2009 seasonal outlook, NOAA said, saying enhanced rainfall over West Africa, warmer Atlantic waters and reduced wind shear encourage greater storm activity.
Should El Nino develop in the equatorial eastern Pacific this summer, or if ocean temperatures in the eastern tropical Atlantic stay cooler, storm activity could be diminished, NOAA said.
The weather agency will release an updated hurricane outlook in August, ahead of what it says is historically the peak period for hurricane activity.
Newly appointed Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate emphasized that people who live in coastal areas should prepare for the hurricane season.
"We cannot tell you where a hurricane is going to hit this year, and there's a lot of our coast that hasn't had a hurricane in decades. People grow up in areas and haven't had a hurricane, and live in a hurricane prone area and don't realize it," Fugate said.
"Hurricane season is upon us, and to anyone who lives or works in hurricane-prone areas, to any of you who have family or friends in hurricane prone areas, NOAA's message is clear -- be prepared, have a plan," NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said.
The first named storm of the Atlantic season will be named Ana.
CNN's Greg Clary contributed to this report.
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