Given all the challenges associated with preparations and evacuations, half a day can make a huge difference to Louisiana residents when a hurricane is roiling in the Gulf of Mexico. That timeframe is the 2010 benchmark for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, which now has the capability to issue watches and warnings for tropical storms and hurricanes 12 hours faster than last year. Center Director Bill Read credits advancements in track forecasting for making the upgrade possible for the national alert system that serves as a public information source when a storm approaches. Read says the additional time will allow residents in coastal states to better prepare for tropical storms and hurricanes, whether that means securing oil rigs and platforms, stockpiling water, securing food or boarding windows. "With increases in population and infrastructure along vulnerable U.S. coastlines, emergency managers need more lead time to make life-saving decisions regarding evacuations," Read says.

  Here's how the increase in lead time breaks down: Tropical storm and hurricane watches will be issued when impacts along the coast are expected within 48 hours, while warnings will be released within 36 hours. In previous years, the lead time was 36 hours for watches and 24 hours for warnings. Read says these changes will go into effect for the 2010 hurricane season, which begins June 1.

  The latest extended-range forecast from the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University (CSU) calls for an above-average Atlantic hurricane season, with a range of 11 to 16 named storms, six to eight hurricanes and three to five major hurricanes with sustained winds of 111 mph or greater. The CSU hurricane forecast team predicts a 64 percent chance that at least one major hurricane will make landfall on the U.S. coastline, and a 40 percent chance that it will be in the Gulf Coast region. The team will release updated and more specific forecasts for the 2010 hurricane season on April 7. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service, will issue its official 2010 Atlantic Hurricane Outlook in May. — Jeremy Alford