Three to six hurricanes will probably form in the Atlantic this year in what is forecast to be a near- to below-normal storm season.
Eight to 13 named systems are expected in the six-month season that starts June 1, Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Thursday.
Sullivan said one or two may become major hurricanes with winds of 111 miles (179 kilometers) per hour or more. The 30-year average is 12 storms. The systems get names when top sustained winds reach 39 mph.
"The real message is, we are starting into hurricane season and any section of our coastline can be hit by a severe tropical storm," Sullivan said at a press conference at New York City's emergency operations center.
An anticipated warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon called El Nino, may influence wind patterns across the Atlantic, making it harder for hurricanes to form there, Sullivan said.
"And even though we expect El Nino to suppress the number of storms this season, it's important to remember it only takes one land-falling storm to cause a disaster," she said, citing the damage caused by Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Sandy had lost its hurricane status by the time it went ashore in New Jersey.
In New York, badly damaged by Sandy, 3 million people live within the city's six hurricane evacuation zones, said Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management.
Tropical storms, while not as powerful as hurricanes, can also kill and cause serious damage.
Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said sea surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic are near- normal, which also may mean fewer storms because the systems draw on warm water to develop.
That, plus the expected El Nino, may offset the fact that since 1995, the Atlantic has been in an era of high hurricane activity.
"We think those competing factors will win out," Bell said.
A year ago, NOAA predicted 13 to 20 storms would form in the Atlantic. Fourteen formed, 13 of which were named systems. An unnamed subtropical storm was added to the total later.
The last major hurricane to hit the U.S. was Wilma in 2005. This is the longest in modern record that the U.S. has gone without a strike by a Category 3 or stronger storm.
Commercial weather companies are generally calling for a below-average season.
Weather Services International in Andover, Mass., a unit of the Weather Company, predicts the Atlantic will produce 11 named storms. AccuWeather Inc. calls for 10 storms, while WeatherBug predicts 8 to 12 systems and WeatherBell sees 8 to 10.
NOAA also said it expects 14 to 20 storms to develop in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Those storms typically pose a threat to Mexico and Central America, although some drift west and can menace Hawaii.
The agency Thursday formally unveiled storm-surge forecasts that will be a part of National Hurricane Center updates every six hours. They will use tidal information and maps to show how high flood waters may rise, said Holly Bamford, assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service in Silver Spring, Md.
"Visualization tools are critical in presenting complex information," Bamford said. "Storm surge can be deadly. Six inches of fast-moving water can knock an adult over."
People should prepare for the coming hurricane season, said Joe Nimmich, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's associate administrator for response and recovery.
He said people need to follow orders to evacuate and review their insurance policies before a storm hits.
"Most of us don't know or understand what is in our insurance policy," he said. "After the fact, you cannot change your insurance policy."