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Hurricane menace boils to a peak in mid September

This is the month that's seen the most storms form and many of history's most horrible hit. In fact, today marks the season's most dangerous point.

Published September 10, 2003

For three months, Florida has been safe. Although nine named storms have sprung to life since hurricane season began in June, the season has been fairly quiet in the Sunshine State.

But don't stick the candles and duct tape in the back of the closet just yet.

The experts at the National Hurricane Center say now is the time to really be alert. In fact, today.

After studying weather records dating back to 1851, they concluded Sept. 10 marks the day hurricane season hits its most dangerous point.

"The season is actually very sharply peaked around Sept. 10," said Colin McAdie, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

A case in point: Today marks the 14th anniversary of the day Hurricane Hugo was first identified as a potential storm in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hugo roared through Puerto Rico and then, on Sept. 22, 1989, charged ashore near Charleston, S.C., with 135 mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge that flattened everything in its path. It killed 23 people and caused nearly $11-billion in damage.

September always has been the cruelest month, the one in which all the conditions are ripe for the swirling winds off Africa to spawn a raging hurricane that threatens the coast of the U.S.

The newest named storm, Isabel, has already reached hurricane strength. As it swept through the Atlantic on Tuesday with winds already as strong as Hugo's, forecasters warned it could threaten the Caribbean islands by Friday.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Isabel had a maximum wind speed of 135 mph, making it a Category 4 storm. It would become a Category 5, the top of the scale, if winds reach 156 mph.

Isabel was 930 miles east-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean and was moving west-northwest at 13 mph. Forecasters predicted the storm would take a turn toward the west during the next day or two and said some strengthening was possible.

"It's pretty far away," said meteorologist Eric Blake of the National Hurricane Center. "With our average error being 300 miles, it certainly could be a threat."

It's hardly surprising that Isabel has formed now.

"There are certain elements that need to be in place for a cyclone to become a hurricane, and all of those come together in September," McAdie said.

Crucial to the formation of a hurricane are plenty of warm water and a steady supply of easterly winds in the tropics, both at their height this month.

Of course, hurricanes hit during other months. The worst natural disaster in U.S. history, Hurricane Andrew, flattened South Florida in August 1992.

But many of history's most horrible hurricanes were born in September, including the infamous Labor Day hurricane of 1935, which killed more than 400 people in the Florida Keys with wind gusts that topped 200 mph; the 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 people and nearly wiped Galveston, Texas, off the map; and Hurricane Betsy, which in 1965 killed 75 people in Florida and Louisiana.

Between 1900 and 2000, 165 hurricanes struck the U.S. September saw the most hits, 65. Of the 571 tropical storms and hurricanes documented in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico between 1944 and 2000, the largest number, 198, sprang to life in September.

Typically there are 10 named storms every year, and six become hurricanes. Experts forecast that this year would be an above-average one, with 11 to 15 storms of which six to nine would be hurricanes. So far, they have been on target.

If no big storms surface by Sept. 30, most of the country can breathe easily but not Florida, McAdie said. The state's extensive coastline, so attractive to tourists, makes Florida vulnerable long after the other coastal states are in the clear.

"October is still an active month for Florida," he said. In fact, he said, "we're not really off the hook until Thanksgiving."

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