2004 Hurricane Season May Be Costliest on Record

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"Overall, this has been a very destructive and costly hurricane season," said meteorologist Stu Ostro of the Weather Channel. "The official totals are not in yet, but this will likely go down as the costliest hurricane season on record in the U.S."

The vast majority of that destruction has been inflicted on Florida, whose miseries began August 13, when Hurricane Charley slammed into Punta Gorda—about 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Tampa—with winds of 145 miles an hour (233 kilometers an hour). Charley's wind speeds made it a Category Four storm.

Hurricane Frances, a Category Two hurricane, came next, striking on Labor Day weekend. Then came Hurricane Ivan, at one point, one of the most fearsome storms on record. Ivan had winds of 165 miles an hour (265 kilometers an hour) as it rolled across the Caribbean.

Ivan lost strength before making landfall near Mobile, Alabama, but the hurricane's front right quadrant—which always packs the most powerful punch, because it combines the speed of the storm's winds with the force of its forward motion—slammed into Pensacola, Florida. Ivan inflicted massive damage and added to Florida's 2004 hurricane death toll, which now stands at more than 70 people.

"Dumb Luck"

Eliot Kleinberg, a reporter for the Palm Beach Post and author of Black Cloud: The Deadly Storm of 1928, said it would be a mistake to assume that Florida is going to get this kind of pounding every year. "It's dumb luck," Kleinberg said. He noted that 2004 isn't the first time Florida has taken multiple direct hits from powerful hurricanes.

"I'd still rather live here than anywhere else in the world," Kleinberg said. "People say 'We've had two hurricanes in three weeks.' They need to understand the statistics. We might not get another hurricane in their lifetimes."

If it's any consolation to Florida's battered residents, one of the world's foremost long-range hurricane forecasters thinks the worst might be over for this year. William Gray of Colorado State University, a pioneer in long-range hurricane prediction, said he sees indications that the remaining hurricane season—which ends November 30—will be calmer than the past few months.

Gray and other meteorologists predicted that the 2004 season would be active. Gray pointed out before the season that the United States—and especially Florida—was overdue for major hurricanes to make landfall.

"Nature is just averaging itself out a bit here, but unfortunately, it sure creates problems in Florida and other places," Gray said.

There have been other oddities during this season, including long-lasting hurricanes and an unusual number of tornadoes spun off from the storms. And Hurricane Ivan was an especially odd storm. After it made landfall and broke apart, part of it looped back into the Gulf of Mexico, reformed as a tropical storm, and struck Texas.

"All this begs the question, What's going on?" Ostro said. "A large part of it is likely natural variability … Given the complexity of hurricanes and the whole climate system, it's not easy to isolate to what extent global warming is or is not playing a role in the number and intensity of hurricanes this year."

Gray, however, dismisses global warning as a cause of increased hurricane activity. "It's natural changes, not due to humans," he said. "That's my view, and I'm pretty strong with it."

Still, Gray has noticed a few factors that he thinks have aided hurricane formation this year. Low-level horizontal winds have helped hurricanes form, and higher-level vertical winds have been minimal, meaning that the storms haven't been torn apart, he said. Also, a high-pressure system known as the Bermuda high has been strong this year, and that's steered the hurricanes toward the United States, Gray said.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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