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The Worst Hurricanes in History
(First published in 2011 and updated in 2017)
As a Floridian and long-time resident of Miami, hurricanes are a way of life. We don’t get hit very often but I’ve lived through my share of hurricanes and tropical storms. The first actual hurricane (not tropical storm) I witnessed was Hurricane Andrew, and that was an experience that forever changed me. Anyone who has lived through a hurricane will attest to this: the hurricane sweeping over the land in all of its ferocity is not the worst part. The worst part is the aftermath, the destruction of homes, businesses, utilities, schools, cars, families and lives. After Andrew we lived without power for five weeks during the hottest month of the year, and without phone for two and a half months. Still, I know we were lucky. We had a roof over our heads. As bad as Andrew was, it was not the worst or most destructive hurricane in history. Along with Andrew, there is a long list of hurricanes that caused tremendous death and property damage and several which are awe-inspiring in their sheer brute strength.
The Costliest Hurricanes
Anyone who was alive and old enough to comprehend the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans in 2005 will never forget Hurricane Katrina. To date it is the costliest hurricane, in property damage, that has ever struck the US or anywhere in the western hemisphere. Estimates of damage from Katrina’s three landfalls in the US top $75 billion, making it the costliest hurricane in US history. It is also the deadliest hurricane since the 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane and third deadliest in history with an estimated 1,833 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Katrina began life just southwest of the Bahamas, forming from the remnants of Tropical Depression Ten, an upper-level trough and a tropical wave. It first made landfall on August 25 near Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, a Category 1 storm that quickly moved across south Florida and emerged into the Gulf of Mexico. Three days later on August 28, Katrina strengthened to a Category 5 storm with winds measuring 175 mph and the barometric pressure lowering to 902 millibars. It had weakened to a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph when it made landfall for the second time on August 29 near Burras, Louisiana. Katrina continued north and made its third landfall near the Louisiana/Mississippi border.
The majority of the damage caused by Katrina came from flooding and the storm surge. In Mississippi the storm surge exceeded the normal tide level by 25 to 28 feet and in Louisiana by 10 to 20 feet. The surge also overwhelmed the levees that protect New Orleans from flooding, causing them to burst and flood most of the city. Portions of New Orleans are still closed and boarded, the residents relocated after the destruction of their lives, livelihoods and homes.
The second costliest hurricane in property damage was Hurricane Sandy causing over $71 billion in damage in the US, more than $800 million in the Caribbean, and another $100 million in Canada. Sandy developed in the Caribbean Sea and quickly intensified to a category 2 before making landfall in Jamaica and then a category 3 before landing in Cuba. After exiting that island, Sandy meandered through the Bahamas and stayed offshore of the United States until October 27th when it made a left turn and made a last landfall near Brigantine, New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy affected 8 different countries and 24 states. The hurricane merged with a winter storm in an unusual phenomenon called the Fujiwhara Effect. The combined storm was first called "Frankenstorm" and then Superstorm and grew to over 900 miles across. Though Sandy was not the first hurricane to strike the northeast, it will be remembered as one the worst. Over 600,000 lost power; flooding affected states up and down the eastern seaboard; ships sank; homes were destroyed. Months later, many areas were still not rebuilt.
Harvey formed as a strong tropical wave to the east of the Lesser Antilles. It quickly developed into a tropical storm and began causing damage across the Caribbean before downgrading to a tropical wave. Once Harvey entered the Gulf of Mexico, it targeted the Texas coast where it stalled and dumped up to 60 inches of rain in a week. Harvey was the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma, ending a 12 year drought. Estimates for damage currently stand at approximately $70 billion.
Hurricane Harvey was the 8th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season and the first major hurricane. It gained intensity very quickly in the Bay of Campeche, on Mexico's west coast, becoming a category 1 storm on August 24th and a category 4 on August 25. It made landfall near Rockport, Texas at peak intensity and stalled inland over Houston for 2 days, held there by a subtropical high pressure. Harvey eventually moved back out to the Gulf of Mexico where it intensified again and made a third and final landfall in Louisiana.
The Great Hurricane (Hurricane San Calixto II)
The deadliest hurricane on record exceeds in one fell swoop the death toll for any single decade of Atlantic storms. Developing in October of 1780, meteorologists believe winds could have exceeded 200 mph. The Great Hurricane ripped across the Lesser Antilles, Barbados, Martinique, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic with thousands of deaths reported on each island. Besides heavy casualties on land, the hurricane decimated the British and French war fleets.
Though the exact track of the hurricane is unknown, there are eye-witness accounts from survivors of the hurricane. On Barbados, the wind was reportedly so strong it stripped the bark from the trees. All the homes on that island were destroyed, and heavy cannons were moved 100 feet. It is from this account that the wind estimates are based as no modern-day cyclone has produced this effect of stripping bark from trees. On the island of St. Vincent, 584 of the 600 homes were destroyed. On St. Lucia, a ship from the British fleet destroyed the city hospital when it was lifted on top of the hospital. All but two houses were destroyed on the island. On Grenada, 19 Dutch ships were wrecked, and at Martinique, 40 French ships were destroyed. There was also a reported 25 foot storm surge on Martinique. In all, The Great Hurricane caused an estimated 22,000 to 27,000 deaths and was part of an exceptionally deadly hurricane season.
The second costliest hurricane when measuring human lives was Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Mitch developed in the southwestern Caribbean Sea near Central America. It intensified quickly into a tropical storm within 24 hours and slowly meandered north in the Caribbean gathering strength until it was a monstrous Category 5 with a minimum pressure of 905 millibars on October 26. The storm passed over Swan Island and headed for the coastal islands of Honduras where it made landfall on October 29 as a Category 1 storm. Mitch weakened and meandered north over Central America, finally emerging into the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm on November 5. Mitch continued across the Gulf, making landfall and crossing Florida on November 5.
Mitch was devastating for Central America, the equivalent of what Katrina is to New Orleans. The greatest toll came from Mitch’s slow progress northward over Central America, during which time it dumped huge quantities of rain, as much as 36 inches in parts of Honduras, creating mudslides and flooding. There were an estimated 11,000 deaths with another 9,000 missing, 3 million homeless as well as the heavily damaged infrastructure, croplands and buildings in several countries.
Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Another deadly hurricane was the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Very little is known about how the hurricane originally developed as instruments and tracking systems were not available in 1900. It is known that the system developed into a tropical storm on August 27 and passed over Cuba before exiting into the Gulf of Mexico in a general west-northwest track. By the time the hurricane hit the Texas coast, it was a Category 4 hurricane with a storm surge of eight to fifteen feet. This tidal flooding inundated all of the Galveston Island and was responsibility for most of the estimated 8,000 deaths with some estimates as high as 12,000.
Not only did Hurricane Wilma cause almost $17 billion in property damage making it one of the costliest hurricanes ever, it shattered hurricane strength records. Wilma was an oddity in a year of bizarre tropical weather. The year 2005 gave us more hurricanes than any other year, as well as the costliest hurricane in Katrina, the strongest hurricane in Wilma, and another of the costliest hurricanes in Rita.
Hurricane Wilma developed in mid-October in the Caribbean Sea south of Jamaica. On October 18 Wilma became a hurricane, intensifying explosively to a Category 5 with estimated wind speeds of 185 mph. Her eye was 2-4 miles wide and the barometric pressure was an amazing 882 millibars, measured by a hurricane hunter aircraft on October 19. Wilma struck Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico as a Category 4, and Florida as a Category 3, thankfully sparing land and people her Category 5 wrath.
Hurricane Gilbert set lots of records on its rapid-intensification path across the Caribbean to Central America. It was the first Category 5 storm in the Atlantic basin to strike land since Camille in 1969. It was the first hurricane to directly strike Jamaica since 1951. It was the first hurricane whose barometric pressure plummeted as far and as quickly as Gilbert’s did – 70 millibars in 24 hours during the most intense strengthening. Wilma topped that dropping 88 millibars of pressure in just 12 hours.
Hurricane Gilbert formed in the Eastern Caribbean and after a brief stint as a tropical storm, quickly intensified to a major hurricane. It devastated Jamaica on September 12, 1988 with 150 mph winds and nine foot surge. After weakening, Gilbert moved out over open water and reintensified, this time to a Category 5 as it pummeled Grand Cayman with 155 mph winds. At its peak, it had winds of 185 mph and the lowest recorded pressure to date of 888 millibars.
The Labor Hurricane of 1935
One of the first known Category 5 hurricanes to hit the US, the Labor Day hurricane followed the path of the other strongest hurricanes in intensifying very quickly. The lowest pressure was 892 millibars making it the strongest hurricane to ever hit the US. After making its first furious landfall in the Keys, it followed Florida’s west coast before coming ashore again, this time as a Category 2, near Cedar Key on Florida’s northwest coast.
Intensity and strength often go hand in hand; however, the most intense hurricanes are not necessarily the strongest. While intensity is measured by barometric pressure, strength is measured by wind speed. The strongest hurricanes ever recorded were Hurricane Allen in 1980 with sustained wind speeds of 190 mph followed by a four-way tie for second strongest with 185 mph winds. Those four storms were the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and Hurricane Irma in 2017.
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