’09 Atlantic hurricane season begins quietly

MIAMI — The “skinny black line,” long a staple of forecasts showing a hurricane’s projected path, could be a casualty of the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season that began Monday.

While urging preparedness, the director of the nation’s hurricane center said he’s on a crusade against the line, which forecasters have long called misleading.

Bill Read said this year, people who go to the hurricane center’s Web site to track an approaching storm won’t see that line, just a graphic that shows a cone representing the projected path of its center. He’ll also urge local weather offices to use a line-less graphic.

Read said that over the last year he realized just how many people mistakenly use the line to determine how they’ll respond to the storm — like whether to evacuate or make other preparations.

“This way you don’t have that option. You have to think about it or assume that it’s somewhere in that swath, which is the correct way to think about it,” said Read, who is starting his second season as the center’s director.

The line could be interpreted as the storm narrowing in on a town or city while three days out from land it could really be targeting a whole section of coast.

Hurricane season runs from June to November and is typically busiest in August and September. On Monday afternoon, the center’s Web site showed the Atlantic Ocean quiet. A tropical depression formed last week but quickly dissipated.

Federal forecasters predicted a near-normal hurricane season with nine to 14 named tropical storms. The season is expected to include four to seven hurricanes with one to three likely to be major — Category 3 or higher, with winds more than 111 miles per hour. There were five major hurricanes last year.

Of particular concern this year is whether economic problems will make people less willing to purchase emergency supplies they may never use or leave their homes if a hurricane threatens.

In Miami, emergency managers for the first time prepared a sheet, “Hurricane Preparedness on a Budget,” with tips like shopping with 2-for-1 coupons, putting one item in the pantry and the second in a disaster kit. Gov. Charlie Crist, who visited a Home Depot in Tallahassee, released a statement saying, “Floridians can protect their families and support their local economy by purchasing disaster supplies at area retailers.”

In Miami, emergency managers tested their readiness for a major storm Monday as part of an annual statewide exercise. The hurricane drill, part of the state’s preparations since 1993, has been going on since last week and was this year based on the track and intensity of the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane, a Category 4 storm that hit the city and killed more than 350 people. Unlike a real storm, the drill was over in time for lunch.