05/22/2014 02:22 EDT | Updated 07/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Canadians urged to prepare, despite forecast of average or below-average season

HALIFAX - The Canadian Hurricane Centre says residents in Eastern Canada can expect an average or below-average level of hurricane activity this year.

But the centre's program manager, Bob Robichaud, said Thursday that doesn't mean Canadians should be complacent about the upcoming season, which runs from June to November.

"The ultimate goal is to remind people that it is hurricane season and we need to prepare, regardless of the number of storms that are predicted," he told a briefing in Halifax.

"There are lots of examples of quiet hurricane seasons that have generated devastating and deadly storms."

As an example, he cited 1992 when, in the midst of a quiet season, hurricane Andrew ripped across Florida with walls of water and winds gusting to 265 kilometres per hour. More than one-million residents were ordered to flee their homes and at least 40 people were killed in Florida and the Bahamas.

Robichaud said last year was a particularly light hurricane season, but two tropical storms — Andrea in June and Gabrielle in September — prompted the hurricane centre to issue bulletins for Canadian territory, though neither storm was much of a threat.

One or two tropical storms typically affect the Canadian land mass every year, regardless of the level of hurricane activity over the ocean, Robichaud said.

As for this season, Robichaud said it would be "near or slightly below average." He said cooler ocean temperatures and the so-called El Nino effect are expected to suppress the number of tropical storms that develop.

The El Nino pattern, which occurs every few years, warms up the eastern Pacific, creating strong wind shear across the Atlantic. These high-level winds typically pull apart storms as they are forming. As well, the cooler water temperatures drain energy from emerging storms.

The seasonal forecast in Canada mirrors what U.S. federal forecasters said Thursday as they expect it to be a slower-than-usual Atlantic hurricane season, also citing an expected El Nino.

In New York City, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it expected about eight to 13 named tropical storms and three to six hurricanes. Just one or two major hurricanes with winds over 177 km-h are forecast.

Last year, the hurricane season turned out to be a dud despite dire predictions to the contrary from the same U.S. agency.

American forecasters had predicted between seven and 11 hurricanes in 2013, and that three to six could become major hurricanes.

There were only two hurricanes — Ingrid and Humberto in early September — both of which were relatively weak storms, rated at Category 1 on a scale that reaches up to a Category 5. Ingrid, however, brought heavy rain to parts of Mexico, where flooding and landslides claimed dozens of lives.

Unlike meteorologists in the U.S., Environment Canada forecasters do not issue long-range predictions for the number and severity of North Atlantic storms.

Chris Fogarty, program director at the hurricane centre, said the Canadian approach is focused on getting people prepared.

"We like to give people a sense of whether it will be more active than normal or less (because) it's difficult to nail down numbers several months ahead," he said in an interview.

"It only takes that one storm. You really shouldn't let your guard down even though we're saying it's looking quiet because El Nino is active right now."