New Orleans seen top US target fort ’06 hurricanes

ORLANDO, Florida – New Orleans, still down and out from last year’s assault by Hurricane Katrina, is the U.S. city most likely to be struck by hurricane force winds during the 2006 storm season, a researcher said.

The forecast gives New Orleans a nearly 30 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane and a one in 10 chance the storm will be a Category 3 or stronger, meaning sustained winds of at least 111 miles per hour (178 km per hour), said Chuck Watson of Kinetic Analysis Corp., Savannah, Georgia a risk assessment firm.

“Given the state of the infrastructure down there and the levees, gosh, that’s just not good news. But that’s what the climate signals look like,” Watson said.

Watson, who has partnered with University of Central Florida statistics professor Mark Johnson, also predicted that oil production in the Gulf of Mexico will be disrupted for a minimum of a week at a cost of 7-8 million barrels of oil.

Up to 25 percent of U.S. oil production in the Gulf was shut down last year and 20 percent is still out.

Watson gave a one in 10 chance that oil rigs will sustain enough damage to reduce production by 278 million barrels this year, further escalating prices for gasoline.

The forecasters, who have worked with the oil and gas industry and with state insurance regulators, base their forecast in part on the paths of storms over the past 155 years and expected global climate conditions this year.

Watson and Johnson said a weak La Nina weather condition and warmer-than-normal Gulf of Mexico water temperatures were contributing factors. U.S. government weather experts say the La Nina phenomenon in place earlier this year has dissipated and should not be a factor during the hurricane season.

On Tuesday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the 2006 hurricane season was expected to produce 13 to 16 named storms, including four to six “major” hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher. No leading forecasters came close to predicting what happened in 2005, when 28 tropical storms spawned a record 15 hurricanes.

The 2006 forecast for News Orleans was worse than Watson’s prediction for the city last year, he said. But for now, he considers the 2005 season an aberration rather than a trend or a definitive sign of effects from global warming..