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Hurricanes of History -- From Dinosaur Times to Today

Willie Drye
for National Geographic Channel
Updated January 28, 2005
 
With storm season in full fury last summer, explore the historic
mayhem wrought by hurricanes. For millennia, it seems, almost nothing
has been safe from these seasonal tempests—not World War II
warships, not treasure- filled galleons, perhaps not even
dinosaurs.


More than 400 years ago explorer Tristan de Luna had some ambitious plans—he was going to establish the first permanent Spanish settlement in a land called Florida, and use this base to explore North America and spread the Christian religion.

In June 1559 de Luna and 1,500 colonists, soldiers, and friars boarded a dozen ships in Veracruz, Mexico, expecting to reach their destination in two weeks. But it was a raucous summer on the Gulf of Mexico, and for two months storms blew de Luna's fleet back and forth across the water.

In mid-August, the sea-weary settlers finally landed near what is now Pensacola. Most of their food was gone, and many of their horses had been killed in the long, tempestuous crossing.

Still, de Luna tried to remain optimistic, believing he'd landed at one of the world's best natural harbors. But only a few weeks later, a hurricane roared off the Gulf and smashed into de Luna's bedraggled settlement, killing hundreds and destroying nine ships.

Spain's King Phillip decided he'd had enough of the storm-battered Gulf Coast. He ordered de Luna to send an expedition to start a settlement on Florida's east coast.

Another hurricane sank this tiny fleet soon after it departed, however, and in 1561 Spain evacuated de Luna's surviving colonists.

De Luna's ill-fated colony was among the earliest recorded examples of how hurricanes have altered history, but the powerful summer storms have been influencing the course of events for perhaps millions of years.

Sailors from Christopher Columbus to World War II admirals have had to contend with hurricanes. The storms have intervened in naval battles, spilled immense riches into the sea, shattered the grandiose dreams of real estate developers, and caused headaches for politicians. And they may have helped exterminate the dinosaurs.

Did Hurricanes Do In the Dinosaurs?

No humans were around to make permanent records of prehistoric hurricanes. But Kerry Emanuel, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks conditions may have existed about 65 million years ago that could have spawned prehistoric hypercanes far more powerful than modern storms.

Scientists have long thought that the dinosaurs may have died after an asteroid struck the Earth and caused dramatic climate changes. Emanuel and other researchers think the asteroid could have heated the ancient oceans to as much as 50 degrees Celsius (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit).

Hurricanes draw their immense energy from warm ocean water, and this superheated water could have fueled storms with winds exceeding 700 miles (1,130 kilometers) an hour.

These prehistoric monster hurricanes could have carried water vapor high into the stratosphere, causing lethal changes on our planet that would have doomed the dinosaurs.

Emanuel adds, however, that his concept of hypercanes is only a theory and he hasn't figured out a way to test it.

Researchers have discovered clues from more recent hurricanes dating back only a few thousand years.

Kam-biu Liu, a geology professor at Louisiana State University, discovered ocean sand in core samples from inland lakes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. From these samples, Liu concluded that extremely powerful hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast and dumped the sand into the lakes.

Liu thinks the core samples indicate that hurricanes that would be considered catastrophic by modern standards were regularly battering the Gulf Coast thousands of years ago.

From about 3,400 years ago to about 1,000 years ago, the Gulf Coast was hit repeatedly by very powerful hurricanes, Liu said. The frequency of hits increases by three to five times more than today.

The ancient Maya Indians—who had their heyday in Mexico and Central America from about A.D. 250 to 900—had more than a passing familiarity with the tempests that regularly howled off the Atlantic. They called their god of storms Hurukan, and it's likely that our term for the storms evolved from this name.

Storm-Sunk Treasure

Christopher Columbus somehow avoided the worst hurricanes at sea during his trans-Atlantic voyages of the 1490s, but he learned to respect the storms and recognize the conditions that occur when a hurricane is forming.

Columbus made a summer crossing in 1502. At Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic, he advised Spanish admirals that they'd be wise to postpone the departure of a fleet of treasure ships bound for Spain.

The admirals sneered at Columbus's warning and sailed straight into the teeth of a hurricane, losing more than two dozen ships, hundreds of lives, and a fortune in gold.

Spanish ventures in the New World were bedeviled by hurricanes in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In late July 1715 a fleet of 11 Spanish ships left Havana, Cuba. They were carrying gold and silver worth more than $300 million in today's U.S. dollars. Fleet commanders knew they were going to sea in the middle of the hurricane season, but Spain was desperate for cash after years of warfare.

On July 30 a killer hurricane caught the treasure fleet off Florida, smashing the ships and scattering them along the coast from Cape Canaveral to present-day Fort Pierce. More than a thousand people died, and Spain's badly needed treasure, ended up on the bottom of the ocean.

Winds of War

Nearly a century later the Napoleonic Wars being fought between France and Great Britain spilled over into the shipping lanes off the coast of the United States. But the fighting was interrupted in August 1806, when a hurricane surprised the warring fleets.

When the storm finally subsided, the combatants had to declare a temporary truce, so their battered warships could dock at Norfolk, Virginia, for repairs.

In early November 1861 a hurricane disrupted the Union Navy's plans to transport 12,000 soldiers to South Carolina and Georgia during the U.S. Civil War. The Navy assembled 77 warships at Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was the largest fleet in the nation's short history.

The expedition ran into a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The storm claimed a couple of ships and damaged many others, but the fleet was able to regroup and continue its mission.

Stormy Days in the Sunshine State

During the 1920s millions of Americans were lured to Florida by the prospect of instant riches from the state's outrageous land speculation. Ambitious developers were building ideal cities all over the state.

Land prices were escalating so fast that accountants could hardly keep track. But a pair of killer hurricanes sent prices tumbling and brought a tragic end to the land boom.

A powerful hurricane struck Miami in September 1926. The storm's vicious winds killed hundreds, nearly demolished Miami Beach, and shoved seawater into downtown Miami. When the winds finally stopped howling, thousands of terrified survivors scrambled aboard northbound trains and left, vowing never to return.

Two years later another hurricane came ashore at Palm Beach, tore across the Everglades, and pushed a deadly wall of water out of Lake Okeechobee. About 2,000 people died, and the awful carnage deflated what was left of the land boom. It would be decades before the Florida real estate market would recover.

The most powerful hurricane in United States history caused problems for federal officials in Washington, D.C., during the depths of the Great Depression.

Hundreds of destitute, jobless World War I veterans were sent to the Florida Keys to help build a highway between Miami and Key West. A hurricane with 200-mile-an-hour (322-kilometer-an-hour) winds caught them on the low-lying islands on September 2, 1935.

More than 250 vets died, and accusations of negligence were hurled at the Works Projects Administration officials who failed to evacuate the men before the storm.

In December 1944 a typhoon (the name given to a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean) nearly accomplished what the Japanese Navy couldn't do during World War II—defeat Adm. William Halsey. The hurricane engulfed Halsey's fleet off the Philippines, and its 125-mile-an-hour (200-kilometer-an-hour) winds sank three destroyers and killed almost 800 sailors.

Later, Halsey voiced the awed amazement of generations of hurricane survivors: No one who has not been through a typhoon can conceive its fury.

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