It's almost hurricane season; are you ready?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center indicates it's likely that four to eight hurricanes will develop during this hurricane season, which begins Wednesday. Up to four of these hurricanes could become Category 3 or higher, bringing winds of at least 111 mph. NOAA is predicting the six-month hurricane season will be near normal, which suggests we may experience more activity than during the past three years, when activity was below normal.

The Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area has dodged hurricanes for nearly 13 years. But we can't have amnesia. It takes just one intense hurricane to devastate a life and tear a community apart. In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel, though downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Maryland, generated a storm surge that flooded Fells Point, the Inner Harbor and many parts of eastern Baltimore County. The Baltimore Museum of Industry alone suffered what was then $1.5 million in damage. About 70,000 people were left without power. In Annapolis, storm surge surrounded much of the United States Naval Academy.

Before Isabel, there was Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, which began as a hurricane but caused great destruction from flooding after being downgraded to a tropical storm, especially in northern Maryland. And before that, there was The Chesapeake & Potomac Hurricane of 1933, when the eye of storm traveled up the west side of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing record high tides and an 11-foot storm tide in Washington. Understandably, memories have faded, and there is now strong concern that many in the Baltimore-Washington area have little to no experience in preparing for hurricanes. Many residents may not know, for example, that fresh water flooding from heavy rain and storm surge from the Chesapeake Bay and tidal rivers like the Potomac and Susquehanna pose the greatest danger from landfalling hurricanes. When disasters are decades apart, time seems to be on our side. But that's true only if we take advantage of calmer times to fortify against future risks.

To hedge your own risks and those of your community, there are vital hurricane preparedness suggestions at NOAA's Weather-Ready Nation site and at ready.gov. With our partners, NOAA is building a Weather-Ready Nation to prepare communities for extreme weather, water and climate events before, during and after they occur. You'll find information about protecting your family, developing an evacuation plan, knowing how to shelter, strengthening your home, and zeroing in on your area's wind and flood risks. There's also important insurance information. Hurricane Ike inflicted more than $3 billion in damage to homes, and much of this damage was uninsured. Anticipating the risks and being prepared can make a life-saving difference and help you avert enormous economic hardship.

Working closely with state and local partners, NOAA is ready to deliver hurricane forecasts that are more accurate and reliable than ever before. NOAA's Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program met our five-year goal to improve both intensity and track forecasts by 20 percent. Powerful new supercomputers have enabled upgrades to our weather and climate prediction models that will bring even more precision to this year's hurricane forecasts. Improvements to storm models that help predict the power and movement of tropical systems will be completed by the time hurricane season is fully underway.

As another significant advance, NOAA will launch a next-generation satellite this fall. Like its predecessor, the new GOES-R satellite will continuously "stare" at the Western Hemisphere, performing scans every five minutes and as often as every 30 seconds in areas where severe weather forms. The data will help pinpoint hurricane intensity and location, giving FEMA and local emergency managers better information about where to preposition resources and who should or should not be evacuated. A storm surge mapping tool about to go operational will visualize worst case scenarios so that people can know when their safety is at stake. And when NOAA's National Water Model launches this summer, the current 4,000 river forecast points will leap to 2.67 million.

Past devastation drives home the urgency of effectively preparing people, businesses and communities for hurricanes, storm surge and other severe events. NOAA and our partners are on the front lines building a Weather-Ready Nation. But as hurricane season approaches, the best preparation is your own.

Kathryn D. Sullivan is undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is an oceanographer and the first American woman to walk in space.

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