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   WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Atlantic storm season may be the most intense since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina killed over a thousand people after crashing through Gulf of Mexico energy facilities, the U.S. government's top climate agency predicted on Thursday. In its first forecast for the storm season that begins next Tuesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 14 to 23 named storms, with 8 to 14 developing into hurricanes, nearly matching 2005's record of 15. Three to seven of those could be major Category 3 or above hurricanes, with winds of more than 110 miles per hour (177 km per hour), the agency said, echoing earlier predictions from meteorologists for a particularly severe season that could disrupt U.S. oil, gas and refinery operations."If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record," said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's administrator. "The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall." In addition to the risk that major hurricanes can pose to about one-quarter of U.S. oil production and more than a 10th of natural gas output offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, this year's storms could threaten to complicate efforts to combat the environmental disaster of BP's gushing oilwell. The hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and typically peaks between late August and mid-October. An average Atlantic hurricane season brings 11 tropical storms with six hurricanes, including two major hurricanes, NOAA said. The 2009 season, which had only three hurricanes and was the quietest year since 1997 due in part to the weather anomaly El Nino, followed several years of unusually intense activity that was particularly disruptive for U.S. energy supplies.

     Other U.S. weather forecasters, including private and university researchers, also are predicting an active hurricane season.Private forecaster WSI and Colorado State University's hurricane-forecasting team so far expect the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season to produce at least eight hurricanes, four of them major, posing a heightened threat to the U.S. coastline.CSU forecasters are expected to ramp up their prediction for the 2010 season in a report due out on June 2."The numbers are going to go up quite high," William Gray, the hurricane forecast pioneer who founded CSU's storm research team, said on Wednesday. "This looks like a hell of a year."Despite being off target in recent years, hurricane forecasts are closely watched by energy, insurance and commodities markets. Interest surged following damaging hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 that hammered Florida, the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas fields.A record four major hurricanes hit the United States in 2005, including Katrina, which killed around 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast and caused $80 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

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