Regaining Fury, Hurricane Ivan Churns Toward Cuba

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 13, 2004

Powerful Hurricane Ivan, which has already killed 65 and inflicted catastrophic damage across the Caribbean, will pass near or over the western tip of Cuba today with devastating winds and a storm surge that could be 20 feet (6 meters) or more.

As of 5 a.m. today, the hurricane had sustained winds around its eye of 160 miles an hour (257 kilometers an hour). That makes Ivan a Category Five on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which rates hurricanes from One to Five according to wind speeds and destructive potential.

The Category Five designation is reserved for the most powerful storms with sustained winds—that is, winds that blow continuously for at least one minute—exceeding 155 miles an hour (249 kilometers an hour).

Hurricane Ivan's gusts are thought to be at least 200 miles an hour (320 kilometers). The storm's barometric pressure Saturday night dropped to 26.86 inches (68.22 centimeters), making it the sixth most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin. Since then, Ivan's intensity has decreased some, but the barometric pressure still has hovered around 27 inches (68.58 centimeters).

The storm has been thrashing its way across the Caribbean since last week, inflicting massive damage in Grenada, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. Forecasters expect the hurricane to pass into the Gulf of Mexico late today or early Tuesday. It will then head for a landfall somewhere on the Gulf Coast, probably on Thursday.

Forecasters have not issued an official prediction for the hurricane's landfall. But on Monday morning, Ivan's most likely target appeared to be the coastline between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida. But a long stretch of the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida's eastern panhandle, could take the brunt of Ivan's next landfall.

Hurricane Ivan has had ideal conditions for strengthening as it passed through the Caribbean Sea. But forecasters think it will lose some of its power as it crosses the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, the storm is expected to make landfall as a Category Three hurricane, with winds of 111 to 130 miles an hour (179 to 209 kilometers an hour).

Getting an accurate fix on Ivan's path is difficult, however, because a hurricane as strong as this one isn't always subject to the same meteorological influences as less powerful storms.

"When hurricanes get this strong, they can literally rearrange the atmosphere around them," said Stu Ostro, a meteorologist with Weather Channel. "The question is when, where, or if Ivan will begin a gradual northward turn. There will be significant uncertainty in the future track until that happens."

Ostro noted that Ivan is following a pattern similar to other extremely intense hurricanes that struck the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico—it has continued on a westward track longer than usual before making the northward turn that hurricanes inevitably make.

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