hurricane: Damage Caused by Hurricanes

Flooding and high winds are the primary causes of hurricane-inflicted loss of life and property damage. The flooding results from the coastal storm surge of the ocean and the torrential rains, both of which accompany the storm. The Saffir-Simpson scale is the standard scale for rating the severity of a hurricane as measured by the damage it causes. It classifies hurricanes on a hierarchy from category 1 (minimal), through category 2 (moderate), category 3 (extensive), and category 4 (extreme), to category 5 (catastrophic). A supertyphoon is equivalent to a category 4 or 5 hurricane.

Only four category-5 storms have hit the United States since record-keeping began—the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, which devastated the Florida Keys, killing 600; Hurricane Camille, in 1969, which ravaged the Mississippi coast, killing 256; Andrew, in 1992, which leveled much of Homestead, Fla.; and Michael, in 2018, which devastated parts of the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Dorian was a category-5 storm when it devastated the N Bahamas in 2019, and other Atlantic hurricanes have been category 5 at landfall in Central America and the Caribbean or while over water. Wilma, in 2005, was the most intense Atlantic tropical cyclone, with a record low pressure of 26.055 in. (882 millibars) and winds of 185 mi (297 km) per hr when it was over the W Carribean; Hurricane Allen, in 1980, had stronger winds (190 mi/305 km per hr) in the Yucatan Channel. The 1935 Labor Day hurricane and Dorian were the strongest hurricanes to come ashore.

Tropical cyclones are deadly and devastating storms. The 1970 Bay of Bengal tropical cyclone killed some 300,000 persons, mainly by drowning, and devastated Chittagong (now in Bangladesh); some 130,000 died when a cyclone struck Myanmar along the Andaman Sea in 2008. The deadliest U.S. hurricane was the 1900 Galveston storm, which killed 8,000–12,000 people and destroyed the city. It also was one of the deadliest Atlantic tropical storms. Hurricane Katrina (2005), one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, was economically the most destructive U.S. storm, devastating the SW Mississippi and SE Lousiana coasts, flooding New Orleans, killing some 1,200 people, and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Harvey (2017) dropped more than 60 in. (150 cm) of rain in some locations in Texas, with much of the rain falling after it was no longer a hurricane; it was the second costliest U.S. hurricane. Maria (2017) was the most deadly U.S. storm since the Galveston storm, killing an estimated 2,975 people in Puerto Rico, largely in its aftermath due to the storm's devastating effects on infrastructure and the medical system, and it also was the third costliest. Sandy (2012), though technically an extratropical cyclone and no longer a hurricane when it made landfall, was the fourth most destructive storm economically, affecting New Jersey, New York, and 15 other states. Hugo (1989) in South Carolina; Opal (1995), Charley, Ivan, and two others (2004), and Irma (2017) in Florida; and Rita (2005) and Ike (2008) in Louisiana and Texas also caused billions of dollars of damage. Tropical storms and weak or downgraded hurricanes also can cause major flooding and damage, as did Agnes (1972), Allison (2001), Harvey, and Imelda (2019).

To decrease devastation and casualties several unsuccessful programs studied ways to defuse hurricanes in their developing stages; more recent hurricane damage-mitigation steps have included better warning systems involving real-time satellite imagery. A hurricane watch is issued when there is a threat of hurricane conditions within 24–36 hours. A hurricane warning is issued when hurricane conditions (winds greater than 74 mph/119 kph or dangerously high water and rough seas) are expected in 24 hours or less.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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