The Atlantic hurricane season kicks off today, and the forecasts from NOAA are not promising:
They predict anywhere from 14 to 23 named storms to form in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Of those named storms, eight to 14 should become hurricanes, including three to seven "major" hurricanes with wind speeds above 111 mph.
This prediction is the highest of any that federal forecasters have made since they began issuing seasonal hurricane forecasts in 1998.
To be fair, these forecasts don't have a great record, but given what else is happening in the region, they are cause for concern. I hate to use that hackneyed cliche, "perfect storm," but the potential for environmental and humanitarian catastrophe this year does seem particularly worrying.
First there's the gulf spill. Scientists don't know exactly how hurricanes will affect the oil slick -- it could push more oil toward Louisiana's fragile marshlands, but could also assist in the biodegradation process. Either way, it would certainly disrupt the recovery effort, and the precedents aren't exactly promising:
The lone precedent, experts agree, is the summer of 1979, when storms hampered efforts to contain a spill from a Mexican rig called Ixtoc 1 that eventually dumped 140 million gallons off the Yucatan Peninsula. Hurricane Henri, a Category 1 storm, damaged a 310-ton steel cap designed to stop the leak that would become the worst peacetime spill in history.
A bad hurricane season is also more bad news for Gulf Coast states already struggling with the loss of fishing and tourist revenue from the oil slick.
But that's nothing compared to Haiti's situation. Still reeling from January's earthquake, the country is still far from prepared for hurricane season, the Miami Herald's Jacqueline Charles reports:
Some 1.5 million homeless earthquake victims remain under tents and tarps in at least 1,200 camps across the country. Roads remain cluttered with rubble. The Haitian government has designated only two new emergency relocation camps. And few hurricane-resistant transitional houses have been built as the government and international aid groups continue to wrestle with land issues: how to get more of it, how to put up temporary houses and how to get camp dwellers with safe homes to return, or seek higher ground
Initially, the U.S. military designated nine camps, including the Petionville Golf Club, as priorities because some 29,000 people in them were considered most at risk of being washed away with flash floods and landslides.
Since then, the International Organization for Migration has determined that engineers must inspect 120 camps in Port-au-Prince because of concerns about flooding, landslides or standing water from heavy rains. The inspections will determine the measures needed to reinforce the camps, said Shuan Scales, the agency's camp planner.
At the same time, IOM has removed more than 263,000 cubic meters of garbage and sludge from more than six miles of storm drains -- some haven't been cleaned in 15 years -- to reduce the risk of flooding in the capital.
The four storms that hit the island during the 2008 season left more than 800 dead, wiped out 60 percent of the country's harvest, and left entire cities uninhabitable. Thanks to the earthquake, the country is even less prepared for flooding this year. The international community doesn't usually get advance warnings of natural disasters. This is a pretty damn big one.
NASA via Getty Images