By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

This year could bring higher than normal hurricane activity for the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Storm forecasters April 3 predicted the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season would bring 17 named storms. Nine of those would be hurricanes with five major storms, said William Gray and Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project.

The season has a 74% chance of having one of those storms -- with winds exceeding 110 mph -- striking the U.S. coastline, they reported in their research. For Florida and the East Coast, the probability falls to 50% while Gulf Coast regions may see a 49% risk.

The weather wizards said there remains a higher likelihood -- 92% for the U.S. with 70% for Florida and the East Coast -- that a less powerful hurricane and another tropical storm could make landfall.

"Long-term statistics show that, on average, the more active the overall Atlantic basin hurricane season is, the greater the probability of U.S. hurricane landfall," they wrote.

The director of the National Hurricane Center echoed the other researchers' warnings April 4 that this year's hurricane activity could be more active than usual.

While an El Nino weather pattern lessened hurricane development last season, the warming in the Pacific Ocean has weakened and shifting Atlantic wind patterns could drive tropical systems toward land, said southern region director Bill Proenza at the National Hurricane Conference held in New Orleans.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs June 1 through Nov. 30, brings 5.9 hurricanes and 9.6 named storms on average.

Florida's produce industry, which has been stressed in recent years with numerous hurricanes, could use a small hurricane season, said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.

"Anybody who has lived in Florida for any length of time hears those forecasts but reality is another thing," she said. "Last year was a similar forecast, but we were fortunate to have a quiet season. Our hope is to have a repeat of that. We have to be prepared and wait and see."

Though forecasters last year predicted a more active than normal season, none of the forecasted 10 named storms and five hurricanes made landfall.

Hurricane Wilma -- which struck Florida's southern growing regions in October 2005 -- caused a major disruption of the state's fall produce.

Hurricane Katrina, which extensively damaged the Gulf Coast region, harmed Homestead-area avocados and squash in August 2005.

The National Hurricane Center plans to announce its season forecast in late May.