2004 U.S. Hurricane Season Among Worst on Record
for National Geographic News
|November 30, 2004|
Meteorologist James Franklin, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, has an unscientific but accurate observation about the 2004 hurricane season, which ends today.
"I'm still numb from it," he said. "That would be the primary observation."
Thousands of people in Florida probably are saying the same thing. The state was ravaged by four hurricanes from mid-August to late September. The storms kept Franklin and other forecasters very busy and prompted Max Mayfield, director of the NHC, to quip, "It almost seems like we've got a 'Kick Me' sign on the state."
Insurance adjusters and meteorologists are still crunching numbers and analyzing data, but two conclusions about this season are almost certain: Damages from the five hurricanes that lashed the United Statesincluding Hurricane Alex, which brushed past North Carolina's Outer Banks on August 3could exceed $25 billion U.S. dollars, and the season will go down as one of the most active on record.
Meteorologists have devised several formulas for calculating the energy produced by hurricanes during a season. The formulas combine a variety of dataincluding hurricanes' maximum wind speeds and their durationsto produce a measurement of a season's activity.
The National Hurricane Center uses a method called the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index (ACEI) to calculate a season's activity. Meteorologist Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami said researchers don't yet know whether the 2004 season will be the most active on record, but "it's definitely in the top two or three."
A hurricane is considered major when its winds reach 111 miles an hour (179 kilometers an hour). The 2004 season produced 16 named storms, including six major hurricanes.
"A Rare Statistical Event"
Landsea said the 2004 season will be comparable to 1950. That season produced eight major hurricanes and had an Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index rating of 270, the highest on record. By comparison, an average season's ACEI rating is between 76 and 120.
Before this year the only other season to approach 1950 was 1995, which produced five major hurricanes and had an ACEI rating of just under 270.
Meteorologist William Gray of Colorado State University in Fort Collins is a pioneer in long-range hurricane forecasting. He said the number of hurricanes striking land is what makes the 2004 season unusual.
The landfalls were caused by the unusual positions of high-and low-pressure systems over the Atlantic Ocean. These systems created steering currents that drove the hurricanes farther westward than usual, Gray said.
"We probably won't see another season like this for a hundred years," the meteorologist said. "The southeastern United States has been extremely lucky for the last 40 years or so, particularly Florida. In the period since 1966, the Florida peninsula was hit by only one major hurricane, Andrew, in 1992. This year, they had three. This is a rare statistical event."
The 2004 season also underscored a worrisome weakness in hurricane forecasting. "We've got a long ways to go before we can really make skillful use of the data to predict the intensification of storms," Landsea, the NOAA meteorologist, said.
Hurricane Charley underwent an astonishing intensification just before it made landfall at Punta Gorda, Florida, on August 13. The storm was this season's prime example of a storm that cranks up its strength almost before forecasters realize it.
One of the problems in predicting the intensification of hurricanes is that all of the data gathered from a storm can't be plugged into computer forecasting models quickly enough to help predictions. Landsea said a new computer program, which should be ready by 2006, will make better use of all the available data and may allow better forecasting of rapidly strengthening hurricanes.
Numbers and computer models can't begin to express the emotional toll inflicted by this hurricane season, however.
The parade of destructive storms left thousands of Floridians homeless. Charley was followed by Hurricane Frances, which came ashore on September 5 with 105-mile-an-hour (169-kilometer-an-hour) winds at Sewall's Pointabout 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of West Palm Beach on Florida's Atlantic coast. Frances was not considered a major hurricane at landfall but still caused severe damage.
Hurricane Ivan was the season's monster storm. For two weeks the hurricane thrashed across the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, killing dozens and inflicting massive property damage from the Leeward Islands to Cuba.
At one point Ivan's winds reached 165 miles an hour (266 kilometers an hour), making it one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history. It weakened considerably before its eye finally came ashore near Mobile Bay, Alabama, on September 16.
The storm's front right quadrantwhich contained its strongest winds and biggest storm surgesmashed into Pensacola, Florida, which is just east of Mobile Bay, with devastating effect.
Hurricane Jeanne, with winds of 115 miles an hour (185 kilometers an hour), went ashore on September 25 at almost the exact same spot as Hurricane Frances. Jeanne had already killed thousands in Haiti before striking Florida.
This year hurricanes killed 116 people in Florida. The last time one state took such a pounding was 1886, when Texas was hit by four hurricanes.
Federal and state emergency-management personnel and volunteers from as far away as Alaska have been helping with recovery and rebuilding in Florida. They've distributed almost 14 million ready-to-eat meals and used about 550,000 tarps to protect damaged buildings. About $1.7 billion U.S. dollars in state and federal funds has been spent in Florida on the recovery.
The state will be digging out from the damage well into 2005. In Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, nine huge debris piles have been created. "We've picked up a couple hundred million tons of debris," said Escambia County Commissioner Janice Gilley. "Some of the piles are three-quarters of a mile [1.2 kilometers] long and 70 feet [21 meters] high."
Pensacola has seen many hurricanes since 1559, when Spain gave up on planting a colony there after a powerful hurricane wrecked their settlement. But Ivan left a permanent scar on the city this year. "Pensacola is dramatically different after Ivan," Gilley said.
Eliot Kleinberg is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post and author of Black Cloud: The Deadly Storm of 1928. He said most residents from West Palm Beach to Vero Beach, on Florida's Atlantic coast, had never seen a severe hurricane until Frances and Jeanne made landfall this year.
"I use the analogy that they've 'seen the elephant,'" Kleinberg said, referring to a term veteran soldiers use to describe the experience of being in combat for the first time. "Hundreds of thousands of people had not had a direct hit by any hurricane in 25 years. Then, not only did we get one, we got two."
A Turning Point?
Gray, the Colorado State University meteorologist, and other researchers have noted that hurricane seasons run in 25-year cycles of alternating active and less-active seasons. Meteorologists think a new cycle of active seasons started in 1995. But Gray dismisses speculation that global warming is causing more hurricanes.
"I want to emphasize these are natural changes, and you shouldn't blame it on global warming," he said. "In the last ten years, when the Atlantic basin has been so active, hurricane activity has been down a bit in other [ocean] basins."
Franklin, the NHC forecaster, said there's no way of knowing whether the 2005 season will be similar to this year's.
"Is this a turning point in the long-term steering pattern? Or will we go back next year and the years to come to when the steering pattern was turning most storms out to sea?" he said. "It's an open question whether the 2004 season will be an anomaly or a turning point."
Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.
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