When it comes to weather forecasts, I’m more than skeptical. Maybe it’s because I live in Florida. In this part of the country we know what kind of damage just about any storm can do, whether it has a name or not. In fact, the "no-name" storm that struck Florida's Gulf Coast in 1993 damaged or destroyed 18,000 homes and caused more than $500 million in property damage, more than double that of Hurricane Elena in 1985. Statewide, it killed at least 26 people, more than Hurricane Andrew, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Last year, you might recall, the weather experts forecast an "extremely active" Atlantic hurricane season. The folks at Home Depot and Lowe’s must have been delighted. And the analysts tracking crude oil futures fervently watched The Weather Channel for any probable paths their spaghetti models might reveal. To the experts’ apparent embarrassment, the gods delivered the quietest hurricane season that anyone had seen in 50 years.
And now, after one of the quietest hurricane seasons in decades, forecasters with The Weather Channel predict a below-average 2014 Atlantic hurricane season. Their early outlook calls for 11 named storms, including five hurricanes, two of which are predicted to attain major hurricane status. This is slightly below the long-term average of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
"The early dynamical model runs suggest another relatively slow season," said Dr. Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for Weather Services International, a part of The Weather Company. "Three independent statistical techniques all suggest 11 named storms this year."
Especially when the experts tell me not to, I worry. Earlier this week, we at GasBuddy.com reported with a bit of understatement that gasoline prices for the latter part of the summer driving season will be tied to the 2014 hurricane season. This is the time of year we look closely at the concentration of U.S. refining capacity that is so vulnerable in the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s the reason why federal officials, policy wonks and oil experts agree on the need – in addition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve – for reserves of finished gasoline in places other than the Gulf. Hurricane Sandy demonstrated that need in the Northeast too.
While there’s no doubt that the U.S. has added plenty of refining capacity in just the past 20 years, most of the additional capacity lies between Corpus Christi, Texas, and Pascagoula, Mississippi. An active storm system could inspire precautionary shutdowns that would inevitably tighten supplies through the broad span of the U.S. that is supplied by Gulf Coast refiners. In turn, refinery shutdowns could resonate loudly through several dozen states.
How vulnerability is our Gulf Coast refining? I hope we never see.