• U.S.
  • weather

Forecasters Predict ‘Below Average’ 2015 Hurricane Season—But Threats Still Lurk

3 minute read

Forecasters expect this year’s tropical storm season to be weaker than usual with zero to two major hurricanes predicted to affect the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Wednesday.

The announcement came days before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. Hurricane season typically lasts until the end of November.

Overall, the agency predicted 6 to 11 named storms with winds of 39 mph or greater and 3 to 6 hurricanes with wind speeds of 74 mph or greater. Despite the “below average” prediction, officials from NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stressed that communities typically affected by hurricanes, particularly along the Gulf Coast, should still prepare for the worst.

“No matter how many pitches Mother Nature throws at us, from only a few to a whole lot, if just one of those pitches gets through the strike zone we can be in for a lot of trouble,” said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan at a press conference. “Below average doesn’t mean no pitches get thrown our way.”

The El Niño weather phenomenon, which began this spring, is at least in part responsible for the suppression of storm activity, Sullivan said.El Niño tends to increase wind shear, the difference in wind speed and direction over a relatively short distance, which in turn subsequently slows down storm formation and growth.

In the NOAA press conference, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that his city is better prepared to handle a major hurricane today than it was when the Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago as a Category 3 hurricane, killing more than 1,800 people—but he stressed that city residents should still prepare.It’s also important to remember that a storm doesn’t necessarily have to be powerful in order to wreck a lot of havoc. Superstorm Sandy wasn’t technically strong enough to be rated as a hurricane when it made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012—yet it caused north of $60 billion in damage because of its sheer size and because it squarely hit some richest, most populated coastal territory in the U.S. There’s no way to predict today where any hurricanes that may form in 2015 could make landfall—and location matters as much as strength.

“We always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve learned a lot of the path.”

The Most Destructive U.S. Hurricanes of All Time

#15 Hurricane Jeanne - Squalls from Hurricane Jeanne throw water and aquatic grass from Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla., Sept. 26, 2004. Another Florida story, Jeanne was a Category 3, and resulted in more than $8 billion in damages.Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda—The Orlando Sentinel/AP
Flamingos in the Bathroom at Miami-Metro Zoo
#14 Hurricane Floyd - Flamingos take refuge in a bathroom at Miami-Metro Zoo, Sept. 14, 1999 as tropical-storm force winds from Hurricane Floyd approached the Miami area. Hurricane Floyd, which was expected to miss Miami, was a massive storm packing 155 mph winds. Floyd was a Category 2 storm, but led to $9.2 billion in damagesTim Chapman—Newsmakers/Getty Images
Carl Wright
#13 Hurricane Camille - Carl Wright, 11, drinks from a broken pipe amid the ruins of his father's service station in Gulfport, Miss., in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, Aug. 19, 1969. Fresh potable water was scarce following the storm, which battered the Gulf coast. Although it has been almost 40 years, since the Category 5 storm hit the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Camille is still one of the benchmarks by which all hurricanes are measured. Camille caused $9.2 billion in damages in 2010 dollars.Jack Thornell—AP
Hurricane Frances Hits Florida's East Coast
#12 Hurricane Frances - A man walks down Indian River Road, Sept. 5, 2004 in Jensen Beach, Fla. The road was destroyed after Hurricane Frances pounded the eastern coast of Florida overnight leaving many residents without electricity. Frances broke the $10 billion damage barrier. Chris Hondros—Getty Images
Hurricanes 1964-1966
#11 Hurricane Betsy - Thrill seekers run to escape a giant wave, driven by Hurricane Betsy, as it crashes over a fishing pier wall at Miami Beach on Sept. 7, 1965. Betsy caused $11.2 billion in damages in 2010 dollars—and a similar storm that hit Miami today would cost far, far more.Horace Cort—AP
#10 Tropical Storm Agnes - Cindy King, left, her sister Tracy, center, and cousin Cindy Fenstermacher are completely covered with mud as they take a break from cleaning and sit on their sofa outside their flood-damaged home in Harrisburg, Pa., July 27, 1972. Flood waters, caused by tropical storm Agnes, receded in the city and home owners returned to clean up. Agnes caused far more damage inland than most storms, with $11.7 billion in 2010 dollars. Paul Vathis—AP
#9 Hurricane Rita - Rose Machado, left, walks in waist high floodwater as her neighbors' trailer burns in Lafitte, La., after Hurricane Rita passed through the area, Sept. 24, 2005. Coming so soon after Hurricane Katrina, Rita is often forgotten, but it caused $11.8 billion in damages.Kevork Djansezian—AP
Hurricane Hugo
#8 Hurricane Hugo - Kitty Hicks salvages a few items from her home in Hemby Bridge, N.C., Sept. 29, 1989. The house was destroyed by a tree during Hurricane Hugo, which had winds up to 135 mph. The massively powerful Hug caused $12.7 billion in damages, and killed more than 100 people.Davie Hinshaw—Charlotte Observer/AP
Boats lie scattered like broken toys in a boat yard at Punta
#7 Hurricane Charley - Boats lie scattered like broken toys in a boat yard at Punta Gorda, Fla. August 15, 2004. Hurricane Charley battered the town with 145 mph winds and caused nearly $16 billion in damages, and killed 15 people directly.John Roca—NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
#6 Hurricane Ivan - A car sits at the edge of the I-10 bridge between Pensacola and Santa Rosa, Fla., Sept. 16, 2004, after the bridge was damaged by Hurricane Ivan. The more powerful storm in the great hurricane year of 2004, Ivan killed over 100 people and caused nearly $20 billion in damages.Andrew Kendrick—U.S. Coast Guard/AP
#5 Hurricane Wilma - People walk past downed trees, Oct. 25, 2005, after Hurricane Wilma came through the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. An unusually late storm that came after Hurricane Katrina, Wilma led to more than $20 billion in damages and killed over 50 people. It was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.Wilfredo Lee—AP
Hurricane Ike
#4 Hurricane Ike - A beachfront home stands among the debris in Gilchrist, Texas on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Sept. 14, 2008 after Hurricane Ike hit the area. Ike raked parts of Louisiana and Texas that were still recovering from Katrina, and caused $27.7 billion in damages.AP
Carol Mostacero
#3 Hurricane Andrew - Stunned mobile home owner Carol Mostacero stands in front of the overturned wreckage of her residence on August 26, 1992, following the wrath of Hurricane Andrew. Andrew blew through Florida, causing an astounding $45 billion in damages, and killed over 50 people. At the time, it was the most expensive storm in U.S. history. Thomas S. England—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Breezy Point after the fires that destroyed many homes during Hurricane Sandy
#2 Hurricane Sandy - The Breezy Point neighborhood at the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, N.Y., where more than 100 homes were consumed by fires during Superstorm Sandy.Stephen Wilkes for TIME
Then And Now: New Orleans Five Years After The Katrina Disaster
#1 Hurricane Katrina - Stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina rest inside the Superdome, Sept. 2, 2005 in New Orleans. Katrina remains the storm on which all others are judged, causing more than $100 billion in damages. Almost 2,000 people died because of the storm, making it the deadliest in decades, and millions were affected. To this day, New Orleans has yet to fully recover.Mario Tama—Getty Images

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com