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July 5, 2006 > Wanna bet that a hurricane will hit U.S.? Now you can

Wanna bet that a hurricane will hit U.S.? Now you can

by Kelli Kennedy

MIAMI (AP), Jul 01 - It's a slow time of year for avid gamblers. The basketball and hockey playoffs are over. Football, even the preseason variety, is weeks away.

But gambling on whether Mother Nature will deliver another frenzied hurricane season has all the tantalizing unpredictability that many online betters can't resist.

Along with bets on what day Britney Spears will give birth or whether the space shuttle Discovery will launch on time, experts say hurricanes are the newest betting trend in pop culture. Experts say the business is booming, with a few thousand people having placed their hurricane wagers with online casinos, which are based in foreign countries.

Traditional U.S. casinos do not offer hurricane bets, and the U.S. Justice Department argues that online gambling is illegal, but there is disagreement on that.

"Betting on baseball gets boring. You're looking for a little action every now and then,'' said Ken Moore, who plunked down $75 in hurricane bets. "Betting on the hurricanes, I couldn't resist it.''

Moore, a graphic designer from Quincy, Mass., will make a profit of about $72.50 if exactly two Category 3 or higher hurricanes pummel the U.S. this season. He will make $5 if at least one hits. If none hit or three or more hit, he loses. Category 3 storms have winds of at least 111 mph.

But some victims of Hurricane Katrina and the seven other storms that walloped the U.S. over the past two seasons think the betting is somewhat tacky if not downright cruel.

Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather said her fellow New Orleans residents have developed a pretty good sense of humor since the Category 4 hurricane devastated the city, killing 1,577 people last year. It's a sort of ``if you don't laugh, then you'll cry mentality,'' she said.

And while she isn't appalled by the betting, she would like to see the money better spent.

"I wished that everyone who placed a bet on where a hurricane is going to land, would take at least 10 percent of that money and do something to help victims,'' said Bairnsfather, who lost the first floor of her home to 8-feet of Katrina's floodwaters.

The hurricane bettors have several propositions when putting down their money. One is how many hurricanes will hit the United States? Another is how many will hit Florida and what category will they be? The safest bets offer 2.25 to 1 odds that at least two Category Three storms will hit the U.S, according to numbers from online casino when the odds closed June 1.

Residents in coastal areas, be forewarned, gamblers think the chances of six or more storms hitting the U.S. (5 to 1 odds) are more likely than no hurricanes hitting at all (6 to 1 odds).

"Hurricanes are a hot subject right now,'' said Calvin Ayre, founder and CEO of online casino "Anything they have an interest in generally, they also like to bet on, if they're gamblers.''

Since weather forecasts are based on probability, it's an easy leap to oddsmaking. A team of mathematicians from Costa-Rica-based released their 2006 numbers about two months before the National Weather Service issued their forecast.

"If you compare their numbers with ours, they're dead on,'' CEO Mickey Richardson said.

After two years of offering hurricane odds during fairly mild seasons, Richardson said he did question whether to continue after Katrina.

"But our clients who were used to seeing us offer these events pretty much requested it again,'' Richardson said. ``We tailored it in a way where we to tried to make it in good taste. We stayed as far away as we could from hurricane alley in the gulf in Louisiana and Mississippi. The last thing I want to do is profit off of a disaster that happened last year.''

The average hurricane gambler isn't looking to make thousands. It's mostly recreational, with bets averaging $100, Richardson said.

But a spokesman from the National Weather Service in Miami said the agency releases its forecasts so people can prepare, not so they can turn a profit gambling.

"I think it's pretty sad that people are betting on an issue that involves peoples' lives and property,'' spokesman Greg Romano said. "Hurricanes are dangerous and for people to bet on them is really, really sad.''

While gambling on touchy subjects may offend some, betting experts say people have wagered on much worse.

In the 1790s, people in Philadelphia and New York bet on which city would have more deaths during a bad yellow fever outbreak. In 18th century London, people would take bets as patients were being wheeled into surgery on whether they would survive, said David Schwartz, director of center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

"People used to bet on things that involved death a lot more because people weren't so sensitive about it,'' Schwartz said. "I'm sure people who were personally effected by a hurricane who either lost a home or lost loved ones probably wouldn't think it's such an amusing thing to bet on.''

Last year a group of professors from the University of Miami founded an electronic futures market that let the public, students and trained forecasters invest in shares representing selected coastline spots where they thought a hurricane would strike.

Moore doesn't feel guilty rolling the dice on a potential disaster, he said it's all in good fun.

"If I got a little windfall, I'd probably give some to the Red Cross,'' Moore said. "I don't think I'd feel bad, but I think it's the right thing to do.''

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