The Atlantic’s Great Tropical Cyclones – cont’d
by: Eric Brown
“He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.”
Hurricane Dog, September 1950 – Hurricane Dog was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to form outside the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It was a Category 5 for three consecutive days, peaking with 185 mph sustained winds. Reconnaissance planes reported waves approaching 100 feet. It’s believed that, at peak intensity, Dog’s winds gusted over 200 mph. Fortunately, all this was over open water. However, while a strong Category 2, Dog passed through the Leeward Islands, causing heavy damage in an area that was still reeling from Hurricane Baker just 10 days before. Gusts as high as 144 mph were reported. As a testament to the size and strength of the hurricane, it passed 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod as a Category 1, but still produced torrential rains, killed 12 people and knocked out power to 15 Cape Cod towns. We may never know how strong Hurricane Dog really was; no pressure readings exist from the time of peak intensity. However, we do know that Hurricane Camille is the only Atlantic hurricane to have had winds of 185 mph and a pressure higher than 900 mb (909) but pressure data for Camille is far from complete.
Hurricane Able, May 1951 – Able is the only major hurricane to ever form in the offseason. It formed from a cutoff low pressure system south of Bermuda on May 15. Convection was enhanced by a shortwave trough moving off the east coast of the United States and mid-level wind shear was low due to strong divergence from an unseasonably strong ridge of high pressure to the storm’s northeast. It thrived in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and as it made a cyclonic loop off the coast of Florida, it strengthened into a hurricane. Protected by the high pressure ridge, the storm continued to strengthen and became a powerful Category 3 off Cape Hatteras. Able brought sustained winds of 95 mph to the Bahamas and high surf to the Outer Banks. Able’s feat has not been duplicated by any Atlantic hurricane, before or since.
Groundhog Day Storm, February 1952 – Yes, I said Groundhog Day. You know, February 2, when the cute little groundhog sticks his head out of the ground and says whether or not spring is approaching. This was the earliest an Atlantic tropical cyclone has formed and one of only three to form in winter. The storm struck south Florida with 60 mph sustained winds. Gusts reached 68 mph in Miami, blowing out many high rise windows. The extratropical remnant of the storm produced 85 mph gusts and 35 foot waves off the coast of the Carolinas that beached a freighter. It also brought gusty winds to New England that knocked out power to over 10,000 homes.
Hurricane Carol, August 1954 – Carol was a powerful hurricane that raked the US eastern seaboard and wrought devastating damage in New England. After blowing by Cape Hatteras, the storm plowed into Long Island with sustained winds of 115mph. The storm surge washed out the Montauk Highway, isolating Montauk from the rest of the island and beachfront homes were severely damaged. Connecticut and Rhode Island only wished they had it that good. The 12 foot storm surge hit the Connecticut shore at the peak of high tide and inundated coastal communities. The wreckage of thousands of homes littered the beaches after the storm had passed. 110 mph wind gusts wreaked havoc on New London. Rhode Island fared the worst. A 15 foot storm surge laid waste to the state’s Atlantic shores. Several coastal communities were almost entirely destroyed. The surge put downtown Providence under 12 feet of water. More than 5,000 buildings were destroyed in Rhode Island alone. 68 people died in the storm and $460 million in damage was done. That’s nearly $4 billion in 2009. It remains New England’s worst hurricane since the 1938 storm.
Hurricane Hazel, October 1954 – Hazel is remembered as one of North Carolina’s most destructive hurricanes. It wrought epic devastation from Hispaniola to the Mid-Atlantic States to Ontario. First, Hazel raked Haiti as a strong Category 2, causing horrific damage from mudslides and flooding. Three towns were completely destroyed and roughly 1,000 people were killed. And Hazel was just getting started. After brushing by the Bahamas, Hazel intensified into a Category 4 as it headed straight for the Carolinas…fast.
It plowed into the North Carolina/South Carolina border with sustained winds of 135 mph. The storm hit right at the highest lunar tide of the year and generated an 18 foot storm surge that obliterated a 170 mile stretch of coastline. Garden City, South Carolina was eviscerated. Of the town’s 275 homes, just two remained habitable after the storm. Holden Beach, Oak Island, Southport and Wrightsville Beach were all but leveled. Over 15,000 homes were destroyed in all, with another 40,000 damaged. Then along came the rain. As the storm moved inland, it dropped torrential rainfall across the Mid-Atlantic States. Severe river flooding inundated much of the region. 95 people died in the US, most of them from the flooding. Hazel was also responsible for one of the worst flood events in Canadian history. Flash flooding in the suburbs of Toronto swept away entire neighborhoods in the middle of the night while many of the residents were asleep. 81 people were killed. No Canadian disaster has killed as many since. In all, Hazel claimed at least 1,182 lives and caused $381 million in damage; equal to $3 billion in 2009.
Hurricane Alice, December 1954 – Alice formed later in the year than any Atlantic tropical cyclone on record and reached a remarkable intensity. Alice formed from a decaying shortwave trough over the central Atlantic. A strong upper level anticyclone parked itself over the system and shielded it from strong wind shear that is usually present at that time of year. Alice developed rapidly, moving southwestward toward the Leeward Islands. The National Weather Service didn’t know about the storm until a US Navy ship ran smack into it on New Year’s Day, 1955. This led to the confusing naming of the system. Since the storm wasn’t discovered until 1955, the storm was given the first name on the 1955 list. It wasn’t until later that it was learned that the storm had formed on December 30. Alice actually reached hurricane strength on December 31. A stunned NWS issued storm warnings for the Leeward Islands as the freak, winter hurricane bore down on them. St. Barts reported 81 mph wind gusts and 11.27 inches of rain fell on Saba in less than two days. Saba and Anguilla received significant damage, with 626 homes being destroyed or severely damaged on Anguilla alone. Alice and the 1908 March hurricane remain the only Atlantic hurricanes to form in winter.
Hurricane Diane, August 1955 – The 1955 mid-Atlantic flood event had been two years in the making. Just five days earlier, Hurricane Connie had drenched the area with as much as a foot of rain in 72 hours. Diane was the last straw. The storm was barely a hurricane when it struck near Wilmington, NC, but it brought torrential rains well in excess of ten inches in many areas to a region that couldn’t take another inch. When Diane hit, many rivers were still above flood stage and many more were near flood stage. Parts of New England saw 18 inches in three days.
Diane’s rains triggered biblical flooding across New England and the Mid-Atlantic States. Nearly every major river in the Delaware River watershed burst its banks, assuming Connie hadn’t burst them already. Several dozen towns, including Trenton, NJ, were inundated by floodwaters. Many were under several feet of water. The Delaware River crested 20 feet above flood stage. The water rose so fast that many didn’t have time to get to high ground. In Stroudsburg, Pa, a flash flood on Brodhead Creek inundated a campground and swept away 40 people. Connecticut was among the hardest hit. In East Granby, an entire subdivision was washed away. Waterbury, which had already been flooded by Connie, was re-flooded. 15 people died there and many homes were washed away. A dam burst sent a 15-foot wall of water into Woonsocket, RI, chasing hundreds from their homes. All told, Diane killed 184 people and caused $754 million in damage, equal to over $6 billion in 2009. It was the worst tropical cyclone related flood event in US history prior to Katrina and set many local records that still stand.
Hurricane Hilda, August 1955 – Forgotten in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Connie and Diane in the US and Hurricane Janet in the Yucatan Peninsula (more on Janet later), Hurricane Hilda caused terrible flooding in and around Tampico, Mexico that killed hundreds of people. After causing moderate damage in Cuba and the Yucatan, Hilda struck the city as a Category 3. Sustained winds in excess 105 mph wreaked havoc throughout the city. It was the torrential rains, however, that were the final blow. The Panuco River swelled and burst its banks, inundating much of Tampico. Residents were caught completely by surprise. Many of them had sought refuge from the storm in basements or other confined areas and were trapped by the rapidly rising water. At least 300 people died. Despite a hurricane in 1933 that destroyed much of the city, Hilda is Tampico’s worst hurricane disaster in recent memory.
Hurricane Janet, September 1955 – Janet was a powerful hurricane that left incredible devastation in the Yucatan Peninsula and Windward Islands. Soon after forming, Janet rapidly intensified into a Category 3 hurricane and promptly laid waste to the lower Windward Islands. The islanders had no warning whatsoever. St. Vincent was virtually leveled. Miles of coastal property on Barbados and St. Lucia was destroyed. Janet’s storm surge inundated the Grenadines and Grenada, destroying hundreds of homes. 38 died on Barbados, 122 on St. Vincent, the Grenadines and Grenada. The toll on St. Lucia is unknown. As Janet moved through the Caribbean, it exploded into a monster Category 5 hurricane with 175 mph sustained winds. On September 26, while the storm was still a Category 4, a Hurricane Hunter aircraft with an 11 man crew flew into the eyewall and never returned. The people of the quaint, seaside villages of the southern Yucatan coast had no idea what was about to hit them.
Janet crashed into the Mexican coast near the city of Chetumal at peak intensity with 175 mph sustained winds. Miles and miles of coastline were obliterated. The villages of Majahual and Corozal ceased to exist. Chetumal, the largest and most important port on the Yucatan apart from Cancun and Cozumel, was gone. Only four buildings remained standing. Chetumal is actually sheltered from the coast by a one and a half mile wide peninsula but Janet still managed to wipe it from the face of the Earth. The storm surge was six and a half feet deep one-third of a mile inland from Chetumal; nearly two miles from the coast. The Chetumal airport terminal registered a 175 mph wind gust shortly before the entire building collapsed. Estimates put gusts in excess of 200 mph. The true extent of the carnage may never be known. 120 bodies were recovered in Chetumal, yet hundreds were never found. What became of those in the smaller villages closer to the coast is also unknown. Most of those villages were annihilated. Corozal looked like Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. The final toll in the Yucatan is ballparked at 500 but could be much higher.
Janet’s second landfall is even more mysterious. It struck the Veracruz area as a Category 2, causing major flooding. The true extent of the flooding is unknown. Newspaper accounts of the time talk about catastrophic floods that killed in excess of 200 people. Veracruz was apparently underwater. Storm-ravaged Tampico saw an exacerbation of the flooding. Aid was slow in coming to the city and disease was rampant. Food and water shortages grew critical and, in desperation, thousands fled the city on foot in a mass exodus. The town of Nautla was directly in the path of the storm and, as of several days after Janet passed, had yet to be heard from. Damage done by Hilda, Janet and earlier Hurricane Gladys was hard to isolate. Estimates put the total number of dead from the three storms in mainland Mexico at close to 800 people.
Hurricane Audrey, June 1957 – June is typically a quiet month, even in what turn out to be very active seasons. While today, the start of hurricane season usually garners significant attention, in 1957, no one worried much about hurricanes until August. They were certainly not on the minds of the citizens of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana. A decade had passed since a significant hurricane disaster had struck the US Gulf Coast and 42 since a large-scale hurricane catastrophe had hit the region. Audrey came out of nowhere, forming in the Bay of Campeche on June 25. Sea surface temperatures were as much as 3˚F above normal for that time of year. As soon as Audrey caught the attention of the NWS, it rapidly intensified into the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever observed prior to August up until that time: a Category 4 with 145 mph sustained winds. By then, however, it was just eight hours from landfall. Southwest Louisiana was out of time.
Audrey struck the bayous west of Cameron at full strength, driving the worst of the storm surge right through the quaint little town. Cameron was obliterated. So too were the tiny coastal villages of Grand Chenier, Holly Beach, Oak Grove and Johnson’s Bayou. Much of Hackberry was also flattened. 60% of Cameron, 80% of Grand Chenier and 85% of Oak Grove (where the storm surge peaked at nearly 14 feet) were in ruins. The town of Sulphur, just west of Lake Charles and 25 miles inland, reported a 105 mph gust. In Cameron, a town of less than 2,500, over 300 people died. At least another 100 died in neighboring communities, possibly as many as 300. Between 1938 and 2005, a span of 67 years, no hurricane killed as many people in the United States as Audrey.
Hurricane Donna, September 1960 – Donna was a powerful hurricane that left a trail of destruction from the Leeward Islands to New England. A long-track Cape Verde hurricane, Donna was a major hurricane with at least 115 mph sustained winds for nearly nine consecutive days. Shortly before reaching the Leeward Islands, Donna briefly became a Category 5. It tore through the islands with 155 mph sustained winds, just weakened from peak intensity. A sustained wind of 125 mph was measured on Saint Martin. Donna brought torrential rains to Puerto Rico, causing devastating floods that killed 107 people, including 84 in the town of Humacao alone. The Bahamas were rocked by winds as high as 150 mph in gusts. The Turks and Caicos saw extremely heavy rainfall to the tune of 12 inches in as many hours. 20 inches fell on North Caicos in 24 hours. Several small island communities in the central Bahamas were virtually leveled. At Mayaguana, hurricane force winds raged for 13 consecutive hours.
Donna rolled over the upper Florida Keys with 140 mph sustained winds. A 13 foot storm surge laid waste to the upper Keys from Marathon to Islamorada. Donna sideswiped the Everglades and crossed into mainland Florida near Goodland with 135 mph winds, inundating the area with an 11 foot surge. Donna ravaged the many fragile ecosystems of the Everglades. 35% of the white heron population was wiped out. Large tracts of mangrove forest that had survived centuries of hurricanes were lost. Donna then proceeded to rake up the entire US eastern seaboard as a Category 2 hurricane. In less than 72 hours, Donna brought hurricane conditions to ten different states, wreaking havoc along the way. 100+ mph winds rocked a massive swath of coastline from North Carolina to Rhode Island, blowing down trees and power lines and tearing roofs off houses. A 115 mph wind gust was reported on Long Island. An 11 foot storm surge affected parts of New York Harbor, washing out piers and flooding low-lying areas. Donna killed 164 people, 50 of them in the US. Another 200 people were unaccounted for in the Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles. The storm also caused at least $400 million in damage, equal to nearly $3 billion in 2009.
Hurricane Carla, September 1961 – Carla was a large, powerful hurricane that rocked the Texas coast in mid-September, 1961. Carla moved slowly throughout its aquatic life. It formed in the southwestern Caribbean and danced around the Yucatan and into the Gulf of Mexico. The storm found the Gulf’s warm Loop Current and began to intensify. Carla grew into a monster Category 5 hurricane looming right off the Texas coast. Residents fled the Texas shore by the hundreds of thousands. The slow-moving hurricane in fact lost some 20 mph in wind speed before landfall, but still came ashore with 145 mph sustained winds. Carla hurled a massive 22-foot storm surge into Matagorda Bay. Miles of shoreline were inundated. Port Lavaca, which was underwater, reported wind gusts to 153 mph before the instrument failed. A pressure of 935 mb was also measured there, and remained there for two solid hours. 935 was as low as the scale would go and the needle was below the scale for a while.
Carla brought hurricane conditions to the entire Texas coastline; from the Rio Grande to the bayous of southwest Louisiana, a distance of nearly 300 miles. Sustained hurricane force winds were felt from Corpus Christi to Galveston, some 150 miles. Damage was reported as far away as the Mississippi River Delta. Fortunately, most of Texas’ barrier islands are uninhabited and Port O’Conner, probably the worst hit town, was virtually deserted. Galveston, despite being over 80 miles to the north of landfall, was flooded with three feet of water and saw wind gusts as high as 114 mph. A huge, F4 tornado ripped through downtown Galveston, killing 8 people. It remains the largest tornado ever spawned by a hurricane. In all, Carla killed 43 people, 34 of them in Texas, and caused $325 million in damage ($2.3 billion in 2009).
Hurricane Hattie, October 1961 – 30 years after the National Day storm, Belize was once again devastated by a hurricane. Hattie exploded in the southwest Caribbean, going from a tropical storm to a Category 3 hurricane in barely 12 hours. And Hattie kept strengthening, becoming a Category 5 on October 30. With just 48 hours left until landfall, thousands frantically fled the coast. Hattie plowed into Belize City on Halloween, 1961 with 140 mph sustained winds. Wind gusts reached 160 mph at point of landfall, equivalent to a Category 5. The then British colony’s capital was ravaged by a 14 foot storm surge. The nearby village of Stan Creek was obliterated and Belize City didn’t fare much better. 75% of structures were destroyed or unlivable. Over 100 people died in the city, even after evacuations left it virtually deserted. The destruction was so great that the colony’s seat of government was actually moved to Belmopan further inland, where it remains. At least 307 people died in Belize.
For weeks after the storm, thousands of people left homeless by the hurricane wandered the streets, searching the ruins for anything perishable. They gathered in shelters, tent cities and shantytowns. One of these, Hattieville, is now a town of 1,300 people; a permanent reminder of the disaster. With the capital in ruins, chaos reigned. Violence and looting were rampant. The British navy sent 125 officers and men to help local police keep order. Hattie has also gained notoriety for its supposed three lives. Disturbed weather over the eastern Pacific generated by Hattie formed into Tropical Storm Simone, which then crossed Mexico and reformed into Tropical Storm Inga in the Bay of Campeche. How big a role Hattie played in the formation of Simone and Simone in that of Inga is the subject of debate.
Hurricane Flora, October 1963 – Flora was one of the most ruinous tropical cyclone to affect the Greater Antilles in recorded history. It was a low-latitude Cape Verde hurricane that took a long time to develop. Once it reached the Caribbean however, it organized rapidly. Just days after Hurricane Edith had caused heavy damage to the Windward Islands, Flora rolled over Tobago as a Category 3 with 120 mph sustained winds. Flooding rains and a seven foot storm surge laid waste to the island. 2,750 of Tobago’s 7,500 homes were destroyed. Barely 1,000 escaped major damage. In the Caribbean, Flora grew into monstrous Category 4 hurricane. It struck the southern peninsula of Haiti with 145 mph sustained winds. Flora’s 12 foot storm surge and torrential rains caused the worst human disaster in a country that has seen multiple hurricanes kill thousands of people. In the Dominican Republic, torrential rains generated some of the worst floods in the country’s history. Floodwaters inundated nearly 4,000 sq. miles and killed over 400 people.
Haiti only wished they had it that good. Three towns along the country’s southern coast were obliterated by the storm surge. However, the worst of it was not the surge but the rain. Flora generated some of the most incredible rainfall totals ever seen in the Atlantic. Parts of Haiti saw 57 inches in three days. 75 inches fell in Miragoane during the passage of the storm. The flash floods these rains caused devastated a huge swath of the country. Entire towns were washed away. Others were buried by giant mudslides. 5,000 people are estimated to have died in Haiti alone. Cuba was next. Flora stalled over the island for nearly five days, dropping incredible amounts of rain. Santiago de Cuba reported an unbelievable 100.39 inches in just five days, greater than the greatest average annual precipitation for all but six US states. 33 have never seen that much rain in a year…ever. Rainfall totals in Cuba greatly exceeded the island’s total for all of 1962. Flash floods inundated Cuba’s eastern provinces, sweeping away thousands of homes. 1,750 people are believed to have died in Cuba. It remains the island’s worst hurricane disaster since 1932. In all, Flora killed at least 7,189 people. It was the fourth or fifth deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1800 (the 1930 hurricane’s total is uncertain) and caused at least $528 million in damage, $3.7 billion in 2009.
Hurricane Betsy, September 1965 – Betsy was the world’s first billion-dollar hurricane and New Orleans’ second big one. The storm formed just east of the Caribbean islands and took three days to reach hurricane strength. Once it did, it began to carve an errant track across the western Atlantic. Betsy grew into a Category 4 northeast of the Bahamas. It then stalled and looped back south through the Bahamas and raked the Florida Keys as a Category 3 major hurricane, causing major flooding in the upper Keys; to several feet in many places. Significant water damage occurred as far north as Miami. In the Gulf of Mexico, Betsy grew into a monster Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph sustained winds as it accelerated toward southeastern Louisiana.
Betsy’s full force plowed into the Mississippi River delta during the evening of September 9. Some of the small, low-lying villages that dot the area, including Grand Isle, were obliterated by a 15 foot storm surge. Heavy damage occurred as far east as the Alabama coast. Despite extensive evacuations, some 30 people died in these coastal areas. Winds of 110 mph raged through New Orleans. In Thibodaux to the southwest, wind gusts to 130 mph were reported. A 12 foot storm surge washed over Lake Pontchartrain. The ensuing backwash overwhelmed many of the city’s levees. Much of the Ninth Ward and Gentilly were inundated. Floodwaters reached the second floor windows of many homes. Numerous one story homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were completely submerged. Over 164,000 homes were either destroyed, severely damaged or flooded in southeast Louisiana. In all, Betsy killed 76 people, 41 of them in New Orleans and caused a staggering $1.4 billion in damage, equal to nearly $10 billion in 2009. Following Betsy, the levees of New Orleans were strengthened to withstand a Betsy-sized storm with a 15 foot surge. Surely that would hold…
Hurricane Faith, Aug/Sep 1966 – The dynamics of the north Atlantic are so much different than those of the tropical Atlantic. Above 40N is a cold, inhospitable place with conditions that can change rapidly. Strong arctic fronts and massive extratropical storms routinely sweep across the entire region. Tropical cyclones, especially those of tropical origin, simply can’t function in this environment. In fact, the north Atlantic is where most Atlantic hurricanes go to die. The cold water whittles them down and the extratropical storms gobble them up.
Apparently, these rules didn’t apply to Faith, which formed in the Cape Verde region, reached a respectable 125 mph intensity and recurved in the western Atlantic. And then it became extratropical near Newfoundland right? That’s how it always works. Nope. Faith kept going and going and going, like the friggin’ Energizer Bunny. The cold water and higher wind shear had little to no effect; Faith never lost Category 2 intensity while a tropical cyclone. The storm arced across the North Atlantic Ocean very swiftly. It struck the Faroe Islands with winds in excess of 100 mph…and it was still a tropical system. It finally lost tropical cyclone status shortly after striking the Faroe Islands, near longitude 6W, just 200 miles west of the Prime Meridian. The remnant low was tracked as far north as Franz Josef Land, only 300 miles from the North Pole! The storm also killed four people. Faith’s northward trek remains unequaled. No Earth-born tropical cyclone has traveled farther from the Equator.
Hurricane Inez, Sep/Oct 1966 – Inez was a powerful hurricane that left severe devastation across the Greater Antilles as well as in Mexico. It was eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Flora just three years prior. Inez formed from a Cape Verde wave in the eastern Atlantic and moved northwestward, gradually gaining strength. On September 27, the Inez passed directly over Guadalupe as a Category 3 major hurricane with 120 mph sustained winds, causing significant damage. 27 people died on the island. The hurricane continued to intensify as it moved almost due west. The central pressure plunged to 927 mb and winds increased to 150 mph sustained. An ESSA reconnaissance aircraft reported gusts approaching 200 mph at 8,000 ft.
Inez crashed into Haiti as a Category 3 with 115 mph sustained winds. Flooding rains swept across Hispaniola. Haiti was devastated. Some 750 people died in the country. At least another 100 were killed in the Dominican Republic. The true extent of the disaster is not fully known. Despite being swamped by days of rain, only localized flash flooding occurred in Cuba and only five people were killed. Inez slowed to a crawl over the Straits of Florida, rocking south Florida with hurricane force winds for some 60 hours. The hurricane’s unexpected turn back to the south had dozens of ships scrambling for safe harbor. Many didn’t make it. 45 sailors died in shipwrecks in the Florida Straits. Inez raked the Florida Keys as it accelerated southwestward, steadily reintensifying. It passed just off the north coast of the Yucatan as a Category 3, bringing hurricane force winds there, and then swung west-northwest, regaining Category 4 strength. Inez weakened slightly before striking the northern suburbs of Tampico near Altamira with 120 mph winds. Torrential rains brought widespread flooding to the area that killed 65 people. Inez killed at least 1,000 people. The true number may never be known. Property damage was conservatively estimated at $222 million, $1.5 billion in 2009.
Hurricane Beulah, September 1967 – Beulah was a monstrous Category 5 hurricane that blasted south Texas in mid-September, 1967. It formed just outside the Caribbean and by the time it reached the southern coast of Hispaniola, it was a Category 4 with 140 mph sustained winds. Just a year after Inez and four after Flora, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were taking no chances. Their governments launched massive evacuations of the coast unheard of in that part of the world. Only one person died in either country. Beulah then struck Cozumel, Mexico as a Category 2. While damage on the mainland was comparatively light, the island of Cozumel was severely impacted. Nearly 40% of homes there were destroyed and numerous other buildings were seriously damaged. Despite the destruction, no one died on the island and only five were killed in the mainland Yucatan.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane quickly intensified into monster Category 5 hurricane. Now it had Texas’ attention as it aimed itself toward the mouth of the Rio Grande. Citizens of south Texas fled the coast in droves as Beulah bore down on them. The hurricane slammed into the barren coastline of extreme northeast Mexico near the US border with 160 mph winds. The few small fishing villages in the area vanished. Beulah brought Category 4 conditions to south Texas as the northern eyewall roared over South Padre Island. In the nearby harbor, the SS Shirley Lykes measured a sustained, one-minute wind speed of 136 mph. A storm surge as high as 20 feet inundated parts of lower Padre Island. The force of the surge made 31 cuts in the island, which fortunately was (and still is) inhabited only by wildlife. Brownsville, several miles inland, recorded gusts to 109 mph. Gusts in excess of 100 mph were measured as far away as McAllen, some 50 miles inland. 115 tornadoes touched down across south Texas, a record that stood for more than a quarter century.
Then came the rain. Beeville got 27 inches in a day and a half. Many areas saw nearly their average annual rainfall in just three days. Numerous rivers burst their banks and floods inundated south Texas. 59 people died in the storm, 15 of them in Texas. Not much is known about the storm’s effects in rural northeast Mexico, which probably saw the worst of the storm. 19 people did die in inland flooding in mainland Mexico. $217 million in damage was done, equivalent to over a billion dollars today.
Hurricane Camille, August 1969 – In terms of raw, destructive power, Camille was probably the strongest Atlantic hurricane of all time and one of the strongest in Earth’s history. Hurricane Hunter aircraft were regularly getting flight-level winds in excess of 200 mph. On the afternoon of August 17, a Hurricane Hunter estimated surface winds of 180 knots. That’s 210 mph! Mechanical problems forced the plane to leave before it had fully sampled the storm. Pressures were still falling at the time, so it’s possible that Camille got even stronger. Evidence suggests that sustained winds at the surface were at or near 200 mph at peak intensity with a pressure well below the 905 mb official reading. A recon flight reported a lower pressure of 901 mb that hasn’t been verified.
Camille hardly weakened at all before it slammed into the Mississippi coast near Bay St. Louis with sustained winds of at least 190 mph. All wind instruments near the coast were destroyed by the storm, so how powerful Camille really was at landfall may never be known. However, it was likely the strongest tropical cyclone to ever affect a land mass. Columbia, Mississippi reported 120 mph sustained winds. Columbia is 75 miles inland! The anemometer failed at that point so it’s possible stronger winds occurred. A gust of 200 mph was reported in Pass Christian before the storm even reached its peak.
A storm surge 28 feet high was thrown onto the shore. The Mississippi coast was obliterated. Much of the coastline from Ansley to Gulfport ceased to exist. In many places there wasn’t even wreckage, just concrete foundations. Large, strong antebellum homes that had withstood many a powerful hurricane were simply gone. This level of destruction continued for several miles inland, gradually leaving a little more behind. Boats were found 20 miles or more from the coast. Freighters weighing tens of thousands of tons were hurled onto the shore like toys. Camille actually forced the Mississippi River to flow backwards for 125 river miles and caused it to back up for another 120 miles, generating extensive flooding as far inland as Baton Rouge. The hurricane also cleaved seven-mile long and one mile wide Ship Island clean in two.
The Richelieu Apartments, a three-story, several thousand square foot brick building, was entirely demolished by the storm surge. The infamous “Hurricane Party” is more urban legend than actual fact but at least eight people did die in the building. Less well known is that parts of the Louisiana and Alabama coasts were also leveled. Some communities on the lower Louisiana delta disappeared. A stretch of Highway 90 near Slidell, LA was under ten feet of water at the height of the storm. Camille also put most of Dauphin Island underwater and about 26,000 homes and 1,000 businesses were totally destroyed in Alabama alone. Even inland, Camille refused to go away. It brought torrential rains to the mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania and Virginia, triggering devastating flash floods that engulfed many towns. Some places saw as much as 25 inches in just 18 hours. Camille killed 259 people; 143 along the Gulf Coast, 113 in Virginia and 3 in Cuba. This was after a massive evacuation along the coastline. Damage totals came to $1.5 billion, equivalent to $8 billion today. It couldn’t have been much higher; there was little left to destroy.
Note: In recent years, Camille’s intensity at landfall has been the subject of extensive debate. In photos of the hurricane’s path, there is a noticeable lack of the extreme wind damage that would be expected of a landfall intensity of 190 mph. The 909 mb official pressure has also been called into question.
Hurricane Agnes, June 1972 – Agnes caused one of the largest and most destructive tropical cyclone-related flood events in US history. It formed in the Yucatan Channel and struck the Big Bend area of Florida as a tropical storm on June 12, but that was just the beginning of the country’s troubles. The storm moved inland and weakened to a tropical depression. This is where it got complicated. Agnes had a very large circulation; up to 1,000 miles in diameter, and was already a large, wet weather system when it came ashore. A baroclinic low began to interact with the remnant circulation of Agnes, feeding moisture into the system. These two systems combined to produce massive rainfall amounts of up to 19 inches across much of the eastern third of the United States, causing widespread flooding.
The mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and New York saw the worst of it, especially along the Susquehanna River. Many communities were inundated by flash floods, including Elmira, New York; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia. Virginia’s James River reached 500 year flood levels and floodwaters swept through downtown Richmond, doing millions of dollars in damage. Parts of Harrisburg were under six feet of water and many people became trapped in their homes with rescuers unable to get to them. The 105 ft high Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, despite having all 53 flood gates open, came within five feet of being overtopped. It got to the point where the dam’s superintendant could no longer guarantee the dam’s stability. Workers began using dynamite to blow up weirs (outflow dams used to maintain a river’s water level) in a desperate attempt to keep the river at bay.
So much freshwater flushed into Chesapeake Bay that many freshwater intolerant marine species could no longer live there. The seafood industry was severely affected for several years afterwards. Floods along the Patapsco River washed away houses and ten miles of railroad track and cut off all roads leading south from Baltimore. The damage to railroads was so extensive that it left many railroad companies on the verge of bankruptcy and contributed to the creation of Conrail.
Agnes killed 122 people in the US as well as seven in Cuba and 2 in Canada. 48 died in Pennsylvania alone. The storm caused a staggering $2.1 billion in damage (equivalent to $11 billion in 2009).
Hurricane Fifi, September 1974 – Hurricane history is filled with cruel ironies. For the first 25 years of hurricane naming in the Atlantic, only female names were used. Why is anyone’s guess. Also unclear is why they decided to use some truly abominable names that but a few are unlucky enough to be tagged with. These lonely, ex-military forecasters didn’t seem to understand the lasting historical impact these events could have and that the storm’s victims would fail to see the humor of these decisions. The comical name belies the horrible tragedy behind it. Fifi raked the north coast of Honduras as a high-end Category 2, striking southern Belize and dissipating over Mexico. The remnant low would eventually redevelop into Hurricane Orlene in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Fifi brought torrential rains to the mountains of Honduras. Some areas saw over two feet of rain in just 36 hours. The flash floods that followed would wash away entire villages, killing thousands. Choloma, Omoa and Trujillo vanished. Hundreds of people lived here. The Ulua River Valley was a lake about 20 miles wide for several days following the storm. About 3,000 bodies were recovered but thousands were never found. Most sources give a figure of about 8,000 killed, or about as many as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
The devastation to the economy was almost as severe. Many roads were utterly erased and 14 bridges were destroyed. Roughly half of all crops were wiped out. Most of the country’s fishing fleet was also destroyed. $900 million in damage was done to a country where the richest homes could be had for a few thousand dollars. It took the country decades to recover. And by the time Honduras had regained a sense of normalcy, a storm even worse hit: Mitch.
Hurricane Eloise, September 1975 – There used to be a time when hurricanes in the Florida Panhandle were rare. Prior to Eloise, just four hurricanes had struck the Panhandle in the 25 years since naming began in 1950. Eloise was the first major hurricane to strike the northern Gulf Coast east of Mississippi since 1917, a period of 58 years. No significant hurricane had occurred in the Panhandle since 1926. Before Eloise, nearly all of the destructive hurricanes to strike the US struck the Florida Peninsula, up the East Coast or the Western Gulf coasts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Due in no small part to this remarkable period of good fortune, the local economy was booming. Living on the coast was becoming more affordable and real estate companies were drooling over the impending coastal boom. Then nature offered a sobering reminder of just who was in charge.
Eloise formed east of the Leeward Islands on September 13 and moved almost due west, gradually organizing. It rapidly intensified into a hurricane north of Puerto Rico and struck the north coast of Hispaniola with 75 mph winds. Puerto Rico was inundated by torrential rains that caused devastating flash floods. 34 people were killed in Puerto Rico alone, the highest toll along Eloise’s path. The hurricane could’ve been worse on Hispaniola. As it was, several mudslides killed 25 people. Weakened and disorganized, Eloise brushed by Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula with little effect.
In the Gulf of Mexico, however, the storm reorganized into a hurricane as it swerved back to the northeast toward the Florida Panhandle. The reaction in the Panhandle was largely one of disbelief. Roughly 100,000 people fled the coast but thousands more stayed behind. Unlike many Gulf Coast landfalls in recent years, Eloise was strengthening when it hit. By the time Eloise was bearing down on the Panhandle, it was a strong Category 3 with 125 mph sustained winds. A storm surge as high as 16 feet slammed into the coast near Santa Rosa Beach, FL. At the time, the area between Fort Walton Beach and Panama City was sparsely populated. This helped to limit the damage. However, Panama City saw one of the worst hurricane strikes in its history. Large stretches of Highway 98 were washed out and property damage in this area was severe. A seawall near the city collapsed, inundating two resort complexes. Fortunately, only four people were killed.
Though the impacts in Florida got most of the headlines, the remnants of the storm produced severe flooding in the mid-Atlantic states. Parts of the region received up to 15 inches of rain in about three days. Flash flooding caused severe damage and 17 people were killed. Eloise caused over $560 million in damage and killed 80 people. It robbed the residents of the Florida Panhandle of their sense of security and signaled the end of the northern Gulf Coast’s quiet period. Now anywhere with a beach along the Gulf of Mexico was fair game.
Hurricane David, Aug/Sep 1979 – Hurricane David was a monster Category 5 that devastated the Dominican Republic and Dominica before raking the east coast of Florida. David formed in the last week of August from a Cape Verde wave and moved westward. Two days later, it rapidly intensified into a Category 4 hurricane and began to gradually turn northeastward headed for the Caribbean.
On August 29, it slammed into the island of Dominica with 150 mph sustained winds. The island was devastated. 80% of homes on the island we destroyed or heavily damaged. The capital of Roseau resembled a war zone. The hurricane dropped ten inches of rain on the island in less than 24 hours, triggering flash floods and mudslides that swept away everything in their path. The agriculture industry, the backbone of the local economy, was decimated. 75% of all crops were destroyed. 56 people were killed and three quarters of the population was left homeless. The island was without power or running water for weeks following the storm. Dominica had been an independent country for less than a year and was still trying to get its feet underneath it. This made the disaster all the more devastating. The country’s economy never really recovered and Dominica remained heavily reliant on British loans for the next decade.
David continued to intensify after it entered the Caribbean, becoming a Category 5 just 12 hours after hitting Dominica. The hurricane’s outer bands brought heavy rains and flash flooding to Puerto Rico and lashed the island’s southern shore with hurricane force winds and pounding surf. Seven people were killed on the island. David was initially forecast to pass south of Hispaniola and head for Jamaica, but on August 31, the hurricane, still a Category 5, suddenly turned sharply northwest right into the coast of the Dominican Republic.
The capital of Santo Domingo was spared the worst of the storm (unlike in 1930), which impacted more rural areas to the west. As it was, David lashed the Dominican capital with 125 mph sustained winds. The worst of the storm, however, came from the devastating flash floods that ravaged the mountainous interior. Rivers became torrents that swept away entire villages, killing hundreds. In the village of Padre las Casas, floodwaters swept away a church and a school where several hundred people were taking shelter. Throughout the country, some 2,000 people died and 200,000 were left homeless after the storm. Dominican President Antonio Guzman Fernandez estimated that David caused at least $1 billion worth of damage in the country. Miraculously, neighboring Haiti experienced next to no impact from David.
Though the trek across Hispaniola had weakened it to a tropical storm, by the time David reached the Florida coast, it had restrengthened into a Category 2 hurricane. The storm raked up the intercoastal waterway, briefly reemerging into the Atlantic and weakening to a Category 1, before finally moving inland along the Georgia coast. It remains the last hurricane to strike the state of Georgia as of 2012. It never weakened to a tropical depression and didn’t become extratropical until it had almost reached Vermont. David was and remains the Dominican Republic’s most devastating hurricane since the 1930 storm and was Dominica’s worst since 1813.
Hurricane Frederic, September 1979 – As Hurricane David was laying waste to parts of the Caribbean, another storm was brewing in the far Atlantic. Hurricane Frederic was a long time coming. It took the storm nearly a week to finally reach the Leeward Islands, and once it got there, it was little more than a nuisance. Frederic briefly reached hurricane strength on September 1 over the open Atlantic, but by the time it got the Leewards it packed winds no stronger than 65 mph. It brought locally heavy rains to the islands but damage was minimal. A fishing boat sank in heavy seas off St. Maarten and seven of its crew drowned. Rains from Frederic exacerbated the suffering of the people of the Dominican Republic recovering from the devastation left in the wake of David. But no further deaths occurred.
Frederic weakened to a tropical depression and moved rather harmlessly over Cuba. That was when things got interesting in a hurry. The storm began to strengthen rapidly as it moved across the western tip of Cuba, emerging in the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 1 hurricane. Frederic continued to steadily strengthen as it moved northwest toward the Gulf Coast. The hurricane slammed into Dauphin Island as a Category 4 with 135 mph sustained winds. The Alabama coast was effectively obliterated. 80% of buildings in Gulf Shores were demolished. Frederic took out massive chunks of the Dauphin Island Bridge, severing the island’s only link to the mainland. Wind gusts as high as 145 mph were reported from Dauphin Island.
Inland, wind damage was severe. Mobile reported gusts of over 100 mph. Numerous structures in the city’s industrial sector were destroyed or heavily damaged. Pascagoula, Mississippi reported gusts up to 125 mph. Hundreds of buildings lost their roofs and many others were simply destroyed.
In all, Frederic killed at least 12 people and caused a staggering $2.3 billion in damage, equivalent to roughly $7 billion in 2011. It was the costliest hurricane in history until Hurricane Hugo ten years later.
Hurricane Allen, August 1980 – Hurricane Allen was one of the most powerful hurricanes in Atlantic history, leaving widespread devastation across the Caribbean and the southwestern Gulf Coast. Allen was an early season Cape Verde hurricane that moved almost due west. It slammed into Barbados as a Category 3 hurricane. Some 500 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. St. Lucia suffered greatly with hundreds of homes destroyed and total damage amounting to $238 million. In the Caribbean, Allen exploded into a powerful 180 mph Category 5 with a pressure of 911 mb. It then slipped in between Hispaniola and Jamaica, raking the southern peninsula of Haiti with strong winds and heavy rains. These rains brought devastating flash floods that caused $400 million in damage and killed 220 people. A Panamanian freighter, the Georgios G, disappeared en-route from Santo Domingo to Belize City with a crew of 25. Its course took it right into the path of the hurricane.
Allen blasted Cayman Brac as a Category 4 with winds in excess of 135 mph. The hurricane then restrengthened into a Category 5, becoming even more monstrous than it was before with winds of 165 mph and a pressure of 899 mb as it began to move through the Yucatan Channel. These are the second strongest surface wind speeds ever recorded in an Atlantic hurricane. Though it passed very close to the Yucatan Peninsula, the areas it affected were very rural so damage was minimal. Moderate flooding in western Cuba killed three people.
The hurricane briefly weakened back to a Category 4 in the Gulf of Mexico but regained Category 5 intensity less than 24 hours before landfall in south Texas. However, fortunately for the Gulf Coast, an eyewall replacement cycle and some dry air weakened the storm all the way to a low end Category 3 before landfall. The storm also hit at low tide, which helped. As it was, interior coastal areas along the Laguna Madre were hit with a 12 ft storm surge and gusts as high as 129 mph. Deserted Padre Island took the brunt of the storm and it’s likely the worst conditions weren’t measured. Extensive storm surge damage occurred as far north as Corpus Christi.
Offshore, two oil rigs were destroyed and 13 people were killed when a helicopter evacuating rig crews crashed. The hurricane also spawned 29 tornadoes inland. One of these struck downtown Austin, causing $100 million in damage. It was the costliest tornado ever spawned by a tropical cyclone. In all, Allen killed 269 people and caused over $1 billion in damage, equivalent to $3.4 billion in 2012.
Hurricane Gilbert, September 1988 – Eight years after Allen fell seven millibars short, Gilbert finally broke the Labor Day Hurricane’s 53 year old record. Gilbert formed just east of the Lesser Antilles from an east African wave and moved into the Caribbean. As it reached major hurricane strength south of Hispaniola, the hurricane’s outer bands brought heavy rains to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, triggering flooding that killed a combined forty people. Gilbert then plowed into Jamaica as a strong Category 3 with 125 mph sustained winds. The island devastated. A 19 ft storm surge was reported on the island’s eastern shore. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed. Coastal areas resembled a war zone. Gilbert dropped as much as 32 inches of rain on the island’s mountainous interior, causing major flooding. In all, 45 people died in Jamaica and damage came to over $2 billion. It was one of the worst hurricanes in Jamaican history.
As soon as Gilbert left Jamaica, it began to explode. It ripped by the Cayman Islands as a strengthening Category 4. Wind gusts as high as 157 mph were reported but the storm surge was minimized because the storm struck at low tide and was fast-moving. As it bore down on the Yucatan Peninsula, Gilbert grew into a massive Category 5 with 185 mph winds. The hurricane’s sprawling inflow brought heavy rains to much of Central America, causing widespread flash flooding that killed 28 people. On the evening of September 13, 1988, a NOAA reconnaissance plane recorded a central pressure of 888 mb, finally breaking Labor Day’s long-standing record of 892 mb. Gilbert was now the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic Basin. This record would stand for 17 years.
Gilbert weakened very little before it slammed into Cozumel, Mexico with 160 mph winds and a 900 mb pressure. It brought a 25 foot storm surge to the coast that penetrated over three miles inland. The waterfront was devastated. Tens of thousands of homes were leveled. 33% of the Yucatan’s tropical rainforest was annihilated. 83 ships were wrecked offshore. A large freighter was thrown into an oceanfront hotel in Cancun. The area’s sprawling coastal resorts were ravaged and the lucrative tourist industry was devastated. 60% of the beaches were completely washed away. Thousands of tourists were trapped and had to ride out the storm in shelters.
The trek over the Yucatan weakened Gilbert all the way down to a Category 2, however the hurricane quickly restrengthened to a Category 4 over the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. It struck the northeastern coast of Mexico with 125 mph sustained winds. The coastline it struck was very rural, so damage was minimized. Inland, however, the rains came in buckets. Devastating flash floods inundated the interior of northern Mexico, particularly the state of Nuevo Leon. Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city, was underwater. Sixty people died across the city and 150 people were missing and presumed dead when five buses were overturned by floodwaters and washed into the Santa Catarina River. Six policemen died trying to rescue them. Tens of thousands of homes were ruined. Throughout Mexico, the death toll is believed to be at least 202 and a staggering 60,000 homes were completely destroyed and over 100,000 people were left homeless, including 35,000 in the Yucatan Peninsula alone. Also, three people were killed when a tornado spawned by the hurricane struck San Antonio, Texas. In all, Gilbert killed at least 318 people and damages came to about $5 billion.
Hurricane Joan, October 1988 – About a month after Gilbert, Joan laid waste to portions of coastal Nicaragua. Joan formed from an African easterly wave over the south central Atlantic and moved somewhat erratically westward toward the Caribbean. The storm took a while to strengthen. Passing rather harmlessly through the Windward Islands, it raked along the north coast of South America. Its close proximity and slow movement brought very heavy rains to the mountains of Venezuela and Colombia. These rains triggered flash floods and mudslides that killed a combined 36 people and left over 30,000 homeless. Damage in Colombia reportedly approached $1 billion.
When Joan reached the southwestern Caribbean, it began to slow down and intensify. For two days, the hurricane churned slowly westward north of Panama, its intensity fluctuating wildly. Joan briefly reached Category 3 strength before weakening back to a Category 1. Then, about 24 hours before landfall, it exploded into a Category 4 with 145 mph sustained winds. It struck the central Nicaraguan coast at peak intensity causing widespread devastation. The port city of Bluefields was annihilated. Most buildings were demolished. Many of the poor coastal fishing villages that dotted the coastline on either side of Bluefields vanished. Flooding in the interior inundated villages and severely crippled the country’s infrastructure. Thirty bridges and 400 miles worth of roads were washed away. Thousands of homes were destroyed and 248 people were killed throughout Nicaragua and 250,000 were left homeless. Nicaragua was at the time nearing the end of a devastating ten year period of political conflict and civil war between the Sandinistas and the Contras that left the country’s economy in shambles. Joan exacerbated the crisis, which Nicaragua never really recovered from.
In Costa Rica, heavy rains brought devastating flash floods that inundated 75 towns and villages. Twenty rivers burst their banks. These floods killed 36 people. Flooding also occurred in Panama, where seven people died. After devastating Central America, Joan crossed into the Pacific as a tropical storm and was renamed Miriam. Unlike other storms which dissipated over Central America and reformed over the Pacific, Joan maintained its identity and was a single storm the whole way. It finally dissipated on November 2. Joan’s Miriam portion caused some moderate flooding but no known deaths. In all, Joan killed 327 people and caused roughly $2 billion in damage ($3.8 billion in 2012).
Hurricane Hugo, September 1989 – The shores of the Carolinas are no stranger to hurricanes. Prior to Hugo, however, it had been thirty years since they had been struck by a major hurricane (Gracie in 1959), and 35 since the devastation wrought by Hazel. Much had changed in the intervening decades. The economic boom of the 1980s led to rapid coastal development. This development would cause the price tag of hurricanes to skyrocket. Hugo would usher in a new era of tropical cyclone-generated natural disasters in the United States. People were drawn to the idyllic beauty of America’s thousands of miles of coastline. They would soon learn, however, that paradise comes with a terrible price.
Hugo was a classic Cape Verde hurricane. It formed off the west coast of Africa and moved west-northwest. After briefly becoming a Category 5 over the open Atlantic, Hugo plowed into the Leeward Islands as a Category 4. Guadeloupe and Montserrat were devastated. On Guadeloupe, an eight foot storm surge and pounding waves destroyed 10,000 homes. The towns of St. Francois and Le Moule in Grande-Terre Parish were virtually annihilated. Raizet Airport recorded wind gusts to 117 mph before the anemometer failed. Five people were killed on the island and damage came to $880 million. It took years for the island to recover. On Montserrat, a 20 foot storm surge devastated the island and left a staggering 90% of the island’s residents homeless. Ten people on the island were killed and nearly a hundred were injured.
In the Virgin Islands, the storm surge was much less severe, but 140 mph sustained winds with exceptional gusts (swirling mesovortices were reported) caused widespread wind damage. 90% of buildings on St. Croix sustained damage and many were destroyed. Damage on St. Croix alone was estimated at nearly $1 billion. Hugo then clipped Puerto Rico, where a ship recorded a 170 mph wind gust. The eastern side of the island saw extensive flooding and wind damage and twelve people were killed. Hugo moved out over the open Atlantic, weakening to a Category 2. As it passed northeast of the Bahamas, however, it regained major hurricane status and turned more to the northwest as it rounded the western side of an upper level ridge, headed directly for the South Carolina coast.
Hugo spurred massive evacuations from Savannah, Georgia (where the hurricane was initially forecast to hit) to nearly the entire South Carolina coast. The hurricane slammed into Isle of Palms just north of the entrance to Charleston Harbor shortly after midnight on September 22, 1989 as a Category 4 with 140 mph sustained winds. The coastline was devastated. A storm surge as high as twenty feet was measured, making it the highest tidal surge ever recorded on the US eastern seaboard. The ship Snow Goose, anchored in the Sampit River, measured a 1-min wind of 121 mph. The hurricane’s strongest winds, however, roared over the sparsely populated areas around Bulls Bay. Frances Marion National Forest was blasted. Tens of thousands of trees were leveled by the wind. The Forest Service estimated that $100 million worth of lumber alone was destroyed. In the nearby village of McClellanville, where the storm surge was greatest, a local high school where the town’s residents were taking shelter was overrun by the surge and evacuees scrambled into the rafters to escape. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Areas closest to the point of landfall were annihilated. 80% of Folly Beach was destroyed. A large section of Arctic Avenue, which runs along the beach, was washed into the sea. The Atlantic House, a popular, 13,000 square-foot restaurant that stood on pilings out over the ocean was completely washed away. Only the pilings remained when the sun rose the next morning. In Sullivans’ Island’s Dune Marina, boats were thrown into a pile fifty feet high. The Ben Sawyer Bridge, a swing bridge which connected Mount Pleasant with Sullivans’ Island, was ripped from its steel battens and tipped into the Intercoastal Waterway. In downtown Charleston, gusts as high as 108 mph caused widespread wind damage across the city, including the historic district. Throughout South Carolina, over 20,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed and 35 people died. In all, Hugo killed 67 people and caused nearly $10 billion in damage, $5.2 billion in the US alone. That’s equivalent to $17.8 billion and $9.5 billion in 2012 respectively. At the time, Hugo was by far the costliest hurricane in history. However that title would last just three years. Hugo ushered in the era of the multi-billion dollar hurricane. And with coastal cities and resorts continuing to boom, the price tag of hurricanes and the scale of the devastation would soar. It was a brave new world.
Perfect Storm, October 1991 – The longliners of Cape Ann are one of America’s oldest fisheries, plying the Grand Banks of Newfoundland since the 1600s. Its rich history is steeped in lore. Stories of the wrath of the sea have been passed down from generation to generation. This history and lore has become ingrained in Cape Ann’s culture. In Gloucester, the famous Man at the Wheel statue stands vigil over the fleet, a silent reminder of the thousands of fishermen who went to see and never returned. Their names are carved into a nearby cenotaph. Beginning in late October, 1991, this world entered the national consciousness thanks to a freak storm, a bestselling book and a Hollywood blockbuster.
The 1991 storm was one of the most bizarre weather events of the 20th Century. A Category 2 hurricane, a mid-latitude low pressure system, a cold front, and a blocking high pressure ridge combined to create an exceptionally severe storm event. On October 29, Hurricane Grace, a Category 2 with 100 mph sustained winds began to feed an exploding extratropical low south of Newfoundland. Meanwhile, a strong cold front was digging through the eastern US, barreling toward the Atlantic, bringing a massive arctic air mass into the Plains (it was a whopping four degrees in Rapid City, SD on the morning of October 30). Eventually, the bombing Newfoundland low completely consumed Grace and an unusually strong blocking high pressure to the north forced it to the west towards New England. However the cold front forced it into a retrograde until the ridge to the north broke down and the storm steamed through Nova Scotia as a fully tropical storm after briefly becoming a hurricane.
The incredible pressure gradients brought on by this rare combination of weather systems caused very high winds along virtually the entire eastern seaboard as well as incredible sea conditions. Thirty foot waves and hurricane-force wind gusts pounded the Massachusetts coastline. Gale force winds reached as far south as the Outer Banks. It brought record storm tides to many areas along the East Coast. Offshore, the waves reached incredible proportions. On October 30, a Canadian weather buoy (#44137) about 120 miles southwest of Sable Island recorded a 101 ft (30.8m) wave. That’s the height of a ten story building. A freighter reported having its bridge windows blown out by waves as high as 80 ft. A NOAA buoy recorded significant wave heights (the average height of the one-third largest waves) in excess of thirty feet for twenty consecutive hours that same day.
This storm was popularized by the tragedy of the Gloucester-based sword-boat Andrea Gail. The Andrea Gail steamed straight into the teeth of the storm while returning from a fishing expedition. The boat and its six man crew were never heard from again. All that was ever found were a few oil drums with “AG” stamped on them. The story of the Andrea Gail and other dramas were chronicled in Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm, using the now-famous moniker Junger coined after an interview with National Weather Service Boston meteorologist Bob Case in which he described the conditions as “perfect” for a major storm. The blockbuster Hollywood film that followed would turn the “Perfect Storm” into a household name. Hollywood embellished many things but not the spectacular waves or the lives lost. The storm killed thirteen people, nearly half of them on the Andrea Gail, and caused roughly $200 million in damage. It came just a couple of months after Hurricane Bob blasted portions of New England, particularly Rhode Island, and was one of the region’s worst non-tropical storm events of the 20th Century.
Hurricane Andrew, August 1992 – It only takes one storm to make season a bad season. Perhaps no storm better illustrated this fact than Andrew. The 1992 hurricane season had just seven storms. However one of those became, at the time, far and away the most destructive hurricane in US history and thrust hurricanes back into the national consciousness. Andrew formed from an African easterly wave on August 16 over the central Atlantic and curved gently to the northwest. It remained a tropical storm as it swung past the Lesser Antilles. When it reached 25N, Andrew turned toward the west and began to intensify rapidly. The storm went from a tropical storm to a Category 5 in 36 hours. Andrew raked through the Bahamas with 160 mph sustained winds. Eleuthera took the brunt of the storm’s rage. The massive 23 foot storm surge was described as a “mighty wall of water” and destroyed everything in its path. Harbour Island recorded a sustained gust of 140 mph, which was the highest value the anemometer could measure. Three people died in the Bahamas and roughly 800 homes were destroyed, leaving some 1,700 people homeless. Damage came to $250 million. Florida was next.
In the days leading up to landfall, thousands of people fled south Florida. Miami feared a repeat of the devastation wrought by the 1926 hurricane that left much of the city in ruins. At 4:40am on August 24, 1992, Andrew roared into Biscayne Bay as a Category 5 with 165 mph sustained winds. The storm’s 17 foot storm surge crashed onto mostly empty coastline but inland communities couldn’t escape the wind. Wind gusts well in excess of 100 mph blasted a vast swath of south Florida. Gusts as high as 177 mph were reported. The National Hurricane Center measured a 162 mph gust at its office in Coral Gables before the instrument failed. A C-MAN station at Fowley Rocks recorded a 170 mph gust with a sustained, 2-min wind of 141 mph. Given the scarcity of observations in the northern eyewall, where the strongest winds occurred. It’s likely that the strongest winds weren’t measured. A radar site observed 200 mph winds at an elevation of 1,300 feet. Andrew was a small, convective hurricane so the standard friction reduction would be less than normal – i.e it’s likely a greater percentage of these winds were reaching the surface.
These spectacular wind speeds caused widespread devastation in Miami’s southern suburbs. It was like south Florida had been struck by a massive tornado. A staggering 63,000 homes are believed to have been destroyed, 25,524 in Miami-Dade County alone, leaving 175,000 people homeless. Some entire subdivisions were effectively in ruins. Roughly 90% of mobile homes were wiped out and the region’s communication infrastructure was virtually annihilated. Officials estimated that 20 million cubic yards of debris ultimately had to be removed. While moderate damage extended as far north as Broward County, the city of Miami was spared the devastation that was initially feared. Andrew’s small size kept the most catastrophic damage relatively localized. However, numerous trees and power lines were down throughout the city. Widespread damage also affected Key Largo and Florida’s southwest coast. Throughout Florida, Andrew killed 43 people and caused a staggering $25.3 billion in damage.
Andrew, however, wasn’t done. After devastating south Florida, the storm moved into the Gulf of Mexico and began to curve to the northwest toward the northern Gulf Coast, weakening to a Category 3. It struck Atchafalaya Bay on August 26 with 115 mph sustained winds. St. Mary Parish took the brunt of the impact, the worst of which affected sparsely populated areas. Fifteen people were killed, nearly a thousand homes were destroyed and many more were damaged. Damage in Louisiana was estimated at $1.56 billion. The hurricane spawned fourteen tornadoes, including an F3 that killed two people in Laplace and injured 32. The tornado destroyed numerous homes and left sixty families homeless.
In all, Andrew killed 62 people and caused a staggering $27.1 billion in damage, making it far and away the costliest hurricane in Atlantic history to that point. Collectively, Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew ushered in the modern era of hurricanes and brought these fierce storm systems back into the national consciousness. Hugo and Andrew entered the national lexicon. In the years that followed, Andrew was in a class of its own. It was widely believed that destruction on that scale might never be seen again in that generation’s lifetime. Thirteen years later, it would become horribly, tragically clear just how wrong they were.
Hurricane Gordon, November 1994 – Rain has a different meaning in Haiti. In a place where a passing summer thunderstorm can take dozens of lives, there’s a much greater understanding of nature’s give and take and respect for the fragility of life. On any given day, the sky can take away everything from them. This harsh reality lends a very different and very humbling perspective on one’s environment. Gordon was a tragic example of just how little it takes to cause incredible devastation. The storm formed off the coast of Nicaragua on November 8, 1994 from an area of disturbed weather, enhanced by a pair of tropical waves.
Right from the beginning, it was clear just how dangerous this storm was. Gordon had a very strange structure. Throughout much of its life, it had hybrid characteristics and was quasi-tropical in nature with a large circulation and sprawling outflow bands. As such, it spread very heavy rainfall over a large area. As Gordon’s incipient depression brushed Nicaragua, flash flooding in Costa Rica and Panama killed a combined eight people. That was just the beginning. After leaving Central America, Gordon strengthened into a tropical storm and curved to the east. It struck Jamaica on November 12 as a weak storm with just 40 mph winds. However its vast rain shield now began to spread over the mountainous islands of the Greater Antilles. Flash flooding inundated Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola. The former two, however, fared far better than the nation of Haiti.
Haiti is a desperately poor country with a mountainous eastern half that gradually slopes down toward the coast. The slopes of these mountains have been heavily deforested, depriving the soil of the intricate root systems that provide stability and prevent it from being undermined by heavy rainfall running down the mountainside. Without this protection, mudslides are all but inevitable. And at the base of these mountains are crowded cities filled with poorly constructed homes. It’s a disaster that has unfortunately repeated itself many times and in 1994, it happened again. Flash floods and mudslides swept the entire country as upwards of a foot of rain fell in as little as twelve hours. The cities of Jacmel and Leogane along with the suburbs of Port au Prince were devastated. Hundreds of homes were swept away. Residents were caught completely by surprise and hundreds of them drowned. There were very few places anyone could go to escape the floods. The official death toll in Haiti is 1,122. The true number may never be known.
In Cuba, mass evacuations of flood prone areas prevented a similar catastrophe. Just four people died in the country, but the floods caused significant disruption, flooding over 5,000 homes and destroying over a hundred. Moving over the Florida Straits, Gordon made its strongest landfall in southwest Florida near Fort Myers with 50 mph winds. Heavy rains caused moderate flooding in Miami-Dade County and later in Volusa County when the storm swung back around. Eight people died in Florida, most of them from drowning either in rip currents or from driving into flooded roadways. After leaving Florida, Gordon moved out over the Atlantic north of the Bahamas and intensified, finally becoming a hurricane for a brief time before weakening and turning back toward Florida. Gordon made its final landfall in Volusa County, where over 1,200 buildings were flooded, turning north and lifting over southern Georgia.
In all, Gordon killed 1,149 people, most of them in Haiti. Despite the disaster, the World Meteorological Organization elected not to retire the name “Gordon” after the season, alleging that Haiti did nothing to prevent the disaster, and noting that preparations in Cuba and the Dominican Republic kept death tolls low in those areas. At the time, Haiti was under oppressive military rule and the United States and the United Nations were actively attempting to coerce the military dictators to accept democracy, which they finally did, holding elections the following summer. Exactly what role Gordon played in these events and whether the country’s political situation influenced the WMO’s decision not to retire Gordon is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Gordon was Haiti’s most devastating hurricane since Flora in 1963.
Hurricane Opal, Sep/Oct 1995 – 1995 was the beginning of a new active cycle in Atlantic tropical cyclone activity. How long this cycle will last is unclear, but typical cycles last around thirty years. With nineteen storms, the 1995 season was the most active season since 1933. Opal was the season’s most destructive storm. Its incipient disturbance caused widespread flooding in Central America that killed 31 people in Guatemala and 19 in Mexico. The storm meandered over the Yucatan Peninsula as a tropical depression before moving out over the Gulf of Mexico and strengthening. Once over the Gulf, Opal exploded. Its pressure plummeted to 916 millibars and winds skyrocketed to 150 mph. All signs seemed to indicate that a Category 5 hurricane was about to be steaming full bore for the Florida Panhandle. The mass exodus began.
Strong hurricanes behave somewhat differently than weaker hurricanes. Their eyes have been seen to wobble sinusoidally, movements that can affect the track, and, more prominently, their eyewalls will periodically regenerate in what are called eyewall replacement cycles. In an eyewall replacement cycle, a new eyewall forms around the old one, choking off its energy until the new eyewall becomes the dominant one. This process causes temporary weakening. The hurricane’s ability to recover from these cycles varies from storm to storm. Some hurricanes quickly regain their former intensity. Others, however, never recover and the eyewall cycle seems to destabilize the system. This is what happened to Opal.
Less than twelve hours before landfall, Opal underwent an eyewall cycle from which it never recovered. Higher wind shear and dry air prevented Opal from regaining its former intensity before landfall. As it was, the hurricane struck the Florida Panhandle near Pensacola Beach as a Category 3 with 115 mph sustained winds. Opal’s 15 ft storm surge caused extensive destruction to beachfront property. Okaloosa Island was completely inundated and numerous homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Some low rise condo complexes had their oceanside walls blown in and sand was piled on the lower floors. The distinctive 25 foot high dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore that had withstood decades of hurricanes were virtually wiped out, the sand carried well inland. A large portion of US 98 was washed out and other sections were buried in sand. Remarkably, thanks to the massive evacuations along the coastline, just one person died in Florida.
Inland, Opal caused widespread flooding and wind damage in Georgia. Thousands of trees were felled throughout the state and four state parks had to be temporarily closed. Tree damage caused by Opal remained visible for the better part of a decade in these parks. Tens of thousands of people were left without power and a portion of Interstate 285 in Atlanta was washed out. Eight people died in the state, the highest death toll suffered by any US state during Opal. Some flooding from Opal’s remnants also occurred in North Carolina, where three people died. Opal ultimately caused 63 deaths and $3.5 billion in damage ($5.2 billion in 2012).