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 New Orleans, officials last year helped about 20,000 people who didn't have transportation or otherwise needed help evacuate ahead of Hurricane Gustav. The state is planning for 50,000 people needing to leave on government-secured buses, trains or planes if a mass evacuation is ordered, a worst-case scenario number would be about 10,000 more than needed help leaving ahead of Hurricane Gustav last summer.
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."
The last few years have been particularly rough for the nation's Gulf coast, hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Ike and Gustav last year. Damage from Ike was estimated at $19.3, making it the fourth costliest storm after Katrina (2005), Andrew (1992) and Wilma (2005).
"After the last four or five years I don't know what else can happen to them," Read said, adding a caution to coastal residents, "don't let your guard down."
Louisiana officials are hoping to avoid some of the problems with last year's Gustav evacuation, when residents were stuck in miserable shelters far from home, many unsure when they might be allowed to return and wishing they'd just stayed put and waited out the storm.
Officials are promising that this year shelters will be stocked with more food and supplies. They're also taking steps to better coordinate evacuations, including an electronic system to track buses and who's on them.
New Orleans residents who will need government help to leave are being urged to sign up now.
The state of Louisiana is stepping up its outreach efforts, revamping its readiness Web site and planning to release updates via the social networking tool Twitter. Mississippi officials also plan to use Twitter for evacuation route updates. New Orleans officials plan to use e-mail blasts.
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 in a real storm, however, the drill was over in time for lunch.
Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee and Becky Bohrer in New Orleans contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/
Great Miami Hurricane: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mfl/?nmiamihurricane1926
Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness: http://www.getagameplan.org