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Heavy weather in Florida: 180 hurricanes and tropical storms in 122 years.

Today, with weather satellites operating around the clock, it seems impossible for a storm system to form and develop without our knowing about it. This knowledge is relatively new, however. Until shipping lanes were established, tropical cyclones developed and died completely undetected in the oceans. And for storms that occurred up through the Civil War, almost all the data we have are in the form of eyewitness reports.

For many years, the only reports on tropical cyclones were those relayed by ships passing through or near the disturbance. Radio operators aboard the ships would convey barometric pressure, wind speed, wave height, and storm movement information to land stations, After the development of radar (which the weather bureau began using during World War II) and other sophisticated devices and the advent of air reconnaissance, data on tropical cyclones became far more accurate and extremely valuable.

Beginning in 1953, storms have been given names for convenience of communication. This way, storm information and documentation is shorter, less confusing, and easier to remember. At first, only female names were used, but since 1979, storms have been identified with both male and female names: The first storm of the year is christened either male or female, and they alternate throughout the year. The US Weather Bureau, in cooperation with other countries, makes up a periodic list of names. The names of severe hurricanes (such as Andrew) are retired after being used once.

During the past 122 years, from 1871 through 1992, nearly 1,000 cyclones of either hurricane or tropical storm intensity have occurred in the tropical north Atlantic Ocean. About 180 of these have struck or passed immediately offshore or adjacent to the Florida coastline.

There appears to be a temporal pattern or cycle to tropical cyclones. In the first ten years (1870 to 1880), only four struck eastern Florida from the east or southeast, while 17 hit the western Florida coast and the panhandle. This pattern seemed to continue through the turn of the century.

From 1901 to 1930 there were fewer tropical cyclones (22 hurricanes and 17 tropical storms) than during the previous 30-year period, and the pattern shifted to more strikes from the southeast. With the exception of several hurricanes that zeroed in on the western Florida panhandle, most of the activity came from the Atlantic Ocean. Probably the worst was the September 1906 hurricane that all but destroyed Pensacola. Another hurricane struck Pensacola in July 1916, and in October of that same year still another storm brought 120-mile-per-hour winds to the same area. In September 1917, Pensacola got hit one more time.

In October 1910, a "Great" hurricane affected Key West, where it produced 15-foot storm tides and then moved through Fort Meyers and the middle of the state. In September 1919, Key West experienced an even more violent storm that was later recognized as the first-known category-4 hurricane to strike the US.

But after 1919, the cycle of tropical cyclone activity took a different pattern. In September 1926, the first direct hit (that is, the storm hit almost perpendicular to the coastline) occurred at Miami. With the exception of the now well-known 1992 Hurricane Andrew, the 1926 storm was the worst to hit Miami. Then, in September 1928, the so-called "Great Lake Okeechobee Hurricane" struck the Palm Beach area. This category-4 storm tracked across the big lakes's northern shore, causing the shallow waters to reach heights of more than 15 feet. This surge was forced southward, causing terrible flooding in the lowlands at the lake's south end. (A hurricane surge is an abnormal rise in water level that results from intense winds and low barometric pressure). Thousands of migrant farmers died as water rushed over the area. After the storm, the Red Cross counted 1,836 dead, but still more bodies and skeletons were inches. To prevent future similar disasters, dikes were built measured at 27.43 inches. To prevent future similar disasters, dikes were built around the lake by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

From 1931 to 1960 there were 21 hurricanes in the tropical North Atlantic. Of these, 12 occurred during the 10-year period of 1941 to 1950. At an estimated $3 billion in damages (in 1990 dollars), this decade was the most costly until Hurricane Andrew caused an estimated $15 to $30 billion in damages. There were Florida hurricanes in 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, and two in 1950; all of them were category-3 or -4 storms. Hurricane Easy, in September 1950, destroyed the fishing fleet and severely damaged or destroyed 50 percent of the houses in Cedar Key, on Florida's west coast. The tide was 7 feet in Tampa Bay. Easy did two loops just off the coast, whch brought erroneous accusations from local residents that the weather bureau was seeding the storm (hurricane tracks usually are not loops).

Hurricance King, October 1950, was a small, violent category-3 storm that raked the southeast Florida coast from Miami up through Fort Lauderdale, the Palm Beaches, and the Carolinas. The lowest barometric pressure recorded was 28.20 inches, and wind gusts hit 140 miles per hour.


Following an otherwise quiet period from 1951 to 1960, Hurricane Donna hit in September 1960. In 1990 dollars, Donna chalked up $1.8 billion in damage--the record to that date for a single storm!

Until Andrew, the hurricane most talked about was The Great Labor Day Hurricane that struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935. To this day, it is the most violent to strike a US coastline. As the hurricane surge reached nearly 30 feet, 408 people died. A railroad train was washed or blown off its track near Islamorada. Barometric pressure was 26.35 inches, then the lowest ever recorded in this hemisphere. (In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert brought an all-time low barometric pressure of 26.22 inches to the Caribbean. Although in the same hemisphere, Gilbert did not affect Florida.) By engineers' estimates, the structural damage indicated that wind speeds were 20O to 250 miles per hour. (As a recent comparison, Hurricane Andrew's highest clocked wind speed was 164 miles per hour.) The Flagler Railroad, the only land link to Key West, was destroyed, and US Highway 1 was later built on the roadbed. Although the Saffir-Simpson Scale was not in use until 1974, The Great Labor Day Hurricane was later classified as the first category-5 hurricane recorded in this hemisphere.

The final period, 1961 to 1992, included 39 storm systems. From 1961 through 1970, seven hurricanes hit Florida. For three years following, all was quiet and no hurricanes landed near. In 1964, three hurricanes struck the Florida coast. In August 1964, Hurricane Cleo drew first blood, and was the first storm to strike the southeast coast since Hurricane King in 1950. With gusts over 135 miles per hour and a barometric pressure of 28.55 inches, Cleo was credited with 217 deaths and $600 million in damage that ranged from Miami through Ft. Lauderdale and as far north as the Carolinas. Cleo was called a "textbook" storm of Cape Verde vintage: Located some 300 to 400 miles off Africa's western coast (near 16|degrees~N latitude), the Cape Verde Islands are the spawning grounds of some of our most famous--and most powerful--hurricanes.

Next on the 1964 program was Hurricane Dora in September. She slammed into the St. Augustine area, almost penetrating to the Gulf Coast before executing a northward turn. After a run through Georgia and the Carolinas she headed out to sea, leaving over $1 billion dollars worth of destruction, much of it due to flooding and coastal damage from her 10- to 12-foot storm surge.

Then in October 1964, Hurricane Isbell came along. Spawned in the northwest Caribbean, she was a category-1 hurricane that moved northeast over western Cuba into Florida's southwest coast. She finally went out to sea near Palm Beach.

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy traversed a piece of Florida and the north Gulf Coast, bringing 75 deaths and costing $6.4 billion. Her erratic track kept everybody guessing. She zigzagged north of Puerto Rico to a point about 300 miles off Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) and stalled almost two days. Then suddenly she moved southwest into the Bahamas, where she stalled again. For 20 hours the islands were buffeted by 120- to 140-mile-per-hour winds. A dead-west track followed, taking her across the upper keys and southeast Florida into Florida Bay. From there the course was northwest into the New Orleans area. Top winds were over 160 miles per hour at Grassy Key before the anemometer was blown away.

In 1966 a hurricane named Inez sideswiped southeast Florida and the upper keys. After making an erratic run through the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Bahamas, Inez finally died in the mountains near Tampico, Mexico. Both Betsy and Inez were classified as strong category-3 hurricanes, but the air-reconnaissance team in Inez clocked wind gusts to 190 miles per hour near Haiti.

Agnes, in 1972, and Eloise, in 1975, are worthy of mention. While barely a category-1 for less than a day, Agnes nevertheless killed 122 people and chalked up over $6 billion in damages. She struck the Florida panhandle, then merged with another system in the mid US. Hurricane Agnes triggered torrential rains and extreme flooding that caused destruction throughout the entire eastern seaboard. Eloise also hit the panhandle as a category-3 storm, causing 80 deaths and over $1 billion in damages.

In 1985, Hurricanes Elena, Kate, and Juan all affected Florida. Elena never made a landfall on the Florida shores but stayed just far enough offshore to cause over $1 billion in flood damage. A mass evacuation of over a million people didn't help matters--being the day before Labor Day, confusion reigned as vacationers had their holidays spoiled while Elena stalled off Cedar Key. A category-3 storm, Elena affected Florida from Venice to Pensacola.

Hurricane Kate in November 1985 started north of Puerto Rico and moved through the southeast Bahamas and northern Cuba. She curved north into the Gulf to strike the panhandle as a category-2 storm, then moved through the eastern US. She caused "Hurricane Warnings" to be posted along Florida's southeast coast for the first time since Inez back in 1966. (A Hurricane Watch is issued for coastal areas when the threat of storm is within 24 to 36 hours; a Hurricane Warning is posted when the threat is 24 hours or less.) Although Hurricane Juan did not strike the coastline, it nevertheless affected the extreme northwestern Florida panhandle from October 25 to November 1, 1985. That Halloween, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, and Lee counties were pounded all night by the storm's spiral bands.

While 1990 produced 14 named storms (the most since naming began in 1953), 1991 only had half that many. Tropical storm Marco affected the northwest portion of Florida slightly, and the disturbance named Klaus came to the central and north-central regions of Florida in 1990. Only the extreme southeast tip of Florida had a brush with tropical storm Fabian during 1991. Hurricane Bob, potentially the most serious storm of the 1991 season, headed toward the Miami-Palm Beach area in August. But 200 to 300 miles off the Florida coast it executed an almost-90|degrees~ turn to the north, and missed the entire state. So, the Sunshine State escaped once again (much to the chagrin of the northeastern US, which was hit).

The 1992 season began with several tropical depressions, but otherwise June, July, and most of August were deadly quiet. The last time hurricane season started late was in 1977, when Hurricane Anita started in the Gulf of Mexico on August 28. But on August 14, 1992, satellite photos indicated a strong tropical wave off the African coast near the Cape Verde Islands. This system moved west for two days and developed into a tropical depression near 11.6|degrees~N and 40.6|degress~W on August 17. By noon on the 17th the winds were 40 miles per hour and tropical storm Andrew was named. This position was about 1,175 miles east of the Lesser Antilles.

By August 20 Andrew's tropical storm status was in trouble! Winds were up to 45 miles per hour, but barometric pressure was that of normal sea level, and the whole system was shaky. At this point, San Juan, Puerto Rico, was only 350 miles southwest, but Andrew had slowed down. The next morning, however, winds increased to 60 miles per hour and pressure dropped to 29.71 inches. By 11 p.m. on August 21, Andrew was 610 miles east of Nassau, in the Bahamas, with 65-mile-per-hour winds.

The morning of August 22, air reconnaissance confirmed that "Andrew is now a hurricane." Winds were 75 miles per hour, barometric pressure was 29.35 inches, and the storm was 800 miles east of Miami, Florida. Later that same day Andrew became a category-2 hurricane, and the next morning air reconnaissance announced that the storm had been upgraded to category 3. Winds then were 120 miles per hour and pressure was 28.08 inches.

By noon of August 23 Andrew was a category-4 storm. Pressure had dropped to 27.46 inches. It was 330 miles east of Miami, moving dead west at 16 miles per hour. That afternoon Andrew peaked with top winds of 150 miles per hour and barometric pressure of 27.33 inches. A hurricane "watch" was posted from Titusville, Florida, south to Vero Beach, and a "warning" was posted south through the keys and up to Fort Meyers.

Between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. on August 24, Andrew struck Florida's east coast just south of Miami, as a category-4 storm. At the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, winds were clocked at 164 miles per hour at peak, and the coastal storm surge soared to 16.9 feet.

Andrew crossed Florida at 16 to 18 miles per hour and emerged into the Gulf of Mexico finally to strike the Louisiana coast between Lafayette and New Iberia on August 26. In the southeast US Andrew took a northeast turn, and finally died in Pennsylvania on August 28 after waning to a rainstorm.

With over 50 lives lost and estimates of $15 to $30 billion in property damage, Hurricane Andrew is the worst natural disaster to befall the US. Untold serious damage was inflicted on the natural marine environment, including the coral reefs and seabed.

While Florida is often considered synonymous with sunshine, it also brings to mind summer or fall tropical storms and hurricanes. Indeed, one historical account of hurricanes shows that between the years 1493 and 1870, the Caribbean area and Florida experienced nearly 400 hurricanes. Florida will continue to be hit by hurricanes. And the recent disaster caused by Andrew has greatly strengthened the public's view on the ferocity of such storms. NOAA, through the National Hurricane Center, performs a great service in keeping the public updated on the status of hurricanes. While hurricane tracks cannot be predicted, past hurricane performances provide a good educated guess on when and where a storm will go. Andrew will not be the last hurricane to strike Florida, though it did provide a bitter lesson on the extreme vulnerability of coastal states like Florida. There is no practical criteria to avoid damage caused by a major hurricane. The best one can do is to be aware of the fact that hurricanes are deadly and can cause catastrophic destruction and that hurricane preparedness is an essential, never-ending process.

John M. Williams is a Department Affiliate in the Department of Oceanography, Ocean Engineering, and Environmental Science, Florida Institute of Technology (Florida Tech), and also Major, Retired, US Army. While serving in the Army, he was a member of the Atmospheric Sciences Laboratory, White Sands Missile Range, where he was a staff officer specializing in satellite meteorology. Before retiring from the military, he was assigned to the National Hurricane Center, Coral Gables, Florida.

Fred Doehring was a Department Affiliate in the Department of Oceanography, Ocean Engineering, and Environmental Science at Florida Tech and also Major, Retired, US Air Force. He was a lecturer in meteorology at the School of Aeronautics, and previously was a climatologist with the National Climatic Data Center, Asheville, North Carolina. While in the US Air Force, he served as a weather officer and navigator.

Iver W. Duedall is Professor of Oceanography and Environmental Science in the Department of Oceanography, Ocean Engineering, and Environmental Science at Florida Tech, and is Program Chairman for the Coastal Zone Management and Environmental Resource Management programs.

Air Reconnaissance

Aerial reconnaissance is vitally important to hurricane forecasters. Aircraft reports help meteorologists determine what is going on inside the storm as it actually happens. This, along with the broader view provided by data from satellites, floating buoys, and land and ship reports, makes up the total package of information available to the forecasters who must then determine the actual forecast of speed, intensity, and direction of the storm. In specially modified aircraft, well-trained crews penetrate to the core of the storm and provide detailed measurements of its strength as well as an accurate location of its center, information that is not available from any other source. This data is then relayed to the National Hurricane Center at Coral Gables, Florida. The US Air Force uses the Lockheed WC-130 Hercules, and NOAA uses the Lockheed P-3 Orion. Reconnaissance aircraft carry the most advanced weather observation equipment and computers, and have room for about 20 scientists. Since reconnaissance began in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico in 1944, only one aircraft and crew has been lost--in 1955, to Hurricane Janet in the Caribbean.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Williams, John M.; Doehring, Fred; Duedall, Iver W.
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Competitors for coastal ocean space.
Next Article:Tides and their effects.

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