U.S. Hasn't Gone This Long Without a Big Hurricane in 150 Years

“Luck is the main factor,” says one prominent meteorologist. “But this year, the U.S.’s luck has changed.” Here comes Hurricane Matthew.

Hurricane Matthew drives big waves off Kingston, Jamaica, Monday. Will the storm carve a path of destruction?

As Hurricane Matthew slams into Haiti today and heads toward the U.S. Southeast coast, meteorologists are asking whether the powerful storm may become the first to hit the U.S. in more than a decade—a record length of time.

Jeff Masters, meteorological director for the website Weather Underground, says Matthew could become the storm to break the U.S.’s unprecedented luck in avoiding major hurricanes. The last major hurricane—Wilma—struck Key West, Florida, with peak winds of around 120 miles per hour, in October 2005.

That means this has been the longest period without a major hurricane hitting the U.S. since record keeping began in 1851. (A major hurricane, also known as Category 3, is a storm with winds exceeding 110 mph.)

Hurricane Ike—which pummeled Texas when it made landfall in 2008—was below Category 3 status when it came ashore, catching some people unaware. The highly destructive Sandy was also technically just under major hurricane status when it roared into New Jersey in 2012. Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

Masters has a simple explanation for the long absence of true major hurricanes, which tend to be the most destructive: “Luck is the main factor,” he says. “The steering currents remained friendly, and there have been a lot of recurving storms. But this year, the U.S.’s luck has changed.”

Matthew began as a tropical depression—basically, a windy rainstorm—at the southeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea on September 28. Then the storm underwent what Masters describes as “jaw-dropping” strengthening by October 1, when its strongest winds briefly reached 160 mph.

Watch: Hurricanes 101.

Matthew slammed into Haiti Tuesday morning, with 140 mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain.

The hurricane is expected to move northwestward as it crosses the Bahamas Wednesday and Thursday, exposing the islands to devastating winds of from 111 mph to as much as 145 mph for 36 hours.

“It will cruise through the whole length of the island chain,” Masters says. “There will be a lot of damage.”

Wayne Neely, a meteorologist and forecaster with the Bahamas Department of Meteorology in Nassau, said Tuesday that the islands are bracing for a bad time.

“Food stores are filled,” Neely says. “People are getting water supplies.”

Neely said Matthew is expected to enter the Bahamas from the south. That track would likely mean a greater storm surge—a mound of water piled up by the hurricane’s winds and pushed along in front of its eye—than if the storm came in from another angle.

Most of the Bahamas are only about 25 feet above sea level, and Matthew is expected to bring a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet.

Evacuations were declared for South Carolina Tuesday. Coastal residents in North Carolina are wondering what the weekend will bring. A slightly weakened Matthew could come ashore near Wilmington Saturday morning with winds exceeding 100 mph. To the north in the village of Avon on Hatteras Island, Dawn Taylor said she and others are worried that Matthew will do devastating damage to a 144-year-old cemetery they’ve been battling to save from the Pamlico Sound.

Taylor said Outer Banks residents are keeping a close watch on forecasts.

“They know we’ll get some impact,” she said. “It’s starting to sink in that we’ll get something.”

Listen to author Willie Drye discuss his IPPY Award-winning book, For Sale-American Paradise, with host Frank Stasio on WUNC radio’s “The State of Things,” and with Joseph Cooper on WLRN’s “Topical Currents.”

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