2004 Hurricane Season May Be Costliest on Record

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 27, 2004
Hurricane Jeanne became the fourth in a series of powerful hurricanes to
slam into Florida in two months, making landfall late Saturday night.
With peak winds of 120 miles an hour (190 kilometers an hour) Jeanne hit
at almost the exact spot where Hurricane Frances came ashore only three
weeks ago.

Authorities reported Sunday that three people died during the latest storm, which made landfall at South Hutchinson Island, a barrier island on Florida's east coast about 40 miles (about 65 kilometers) north of West Palm Beach.

Jeanne had amassed a staggering toll before striking Florida. The storm killed more than 1,600 in Haiti, wandered aimlessly east of the Bahamas for a few days, and then took aim at Florida.

As of 5 a.m. today, Jeanne had weakened to a tropical storm and was about to cross the Florida-Georgia border with winds of 50 miles an hour (80 kilometers an hour). It is expected to continue weakening as it moves up the coast before going back to sea Wednesday near Norfolk, Virginia.

As Hurricane Jeanne approached, Florida residents were still numb from the near-constant pounding of hurricanes this summer. "Folks are still shell-shocked," Vero Beach resident Sheila Granger said Saturday shortly before Jeanne made landfall about 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) south of her. "Most folks were barely getting over the last one. It seems like (Jeanne) kind of snuck up on us. We thought we were out of it. Now we're back on the bull's-eye."

Many Floridians were too weary to make much of a response to warnings about Hurricane Jeanne.

"This time, there was no prestorm buying frenzy," Tampa resident Alan Snel said. "People are so fed up with the hurricanes that there was a here-we-go-again attitude."

In Florida, Jeanne was rated a Category Three on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which ranks hurricanes from One to Five, according to their wind speeds and destructive potential. A Category Three hurricane has winds of 111 to 130 miles an hour (178 to 209 kilometers an hour).

Treasure Coast

Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances devastated a stretch of Florida known as the Treasure Coast. The name comes from a hurricane that struck the area in 1715, wrecking a fleet of Spanish treasure ships en route from Havana to Spain. The storm killed hundreds and spilled hundreds of millions of dollar's worth of gold along a stretch of coastline from Cape Canaveral to Stuart.

That long-lost treasure would hardly begin to pay for the billions of dollars in damage inflicted on Florida during this violent and bizarre hurricane season, which still has more than two months to go. The last time so many storms struck the same state in one season was 1886, when Texas took four direct hits from hurricanes.

"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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