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HURRICANES, intensely powerful storms that originate at sea in tropical waters. Hurricanes are characterized by circular wind patterns, in which violent winds spiral around the eye of the storm, and they can be hundreds of miles wide. Hurricanes travel great distances and most never reach land, but those that do often devastate coastal areas. The combination of high winds, torrential rains, and tidal surges can cause many deaths and massive property damage. By definition, a tropical storm becomes a hurricane when its sustained winds reach 74 miles per hour. Hurricane winds have reached 150 and even 200

miles per hour, but the most deadly aspect is the tidal surge. Sea levels can rise 15 or even 20 feet, with storm surges flooding low-lying areas and drowning many people.

Scientists use the term "tropical cyclone" to describe these violent storms. The word "hurricane" is derived from the languages of native peoples of the Caribbean, and refers to Western Hemisphere storms. Tropical cyclones also occur in the Eastern Hemisphere, developing in the Pacific Ocean, where they are called typhoons or cyclones. The term "tornado," however, describes a different phenomenon; tornadoes originate over land and are typically 700 yards in diameter.

Because warm water is their energy source, tropical cyclones are seasonal. Hurricane season in the Atlantic lasts from June through November. Most storms occur between August and October, and early September is the riskiest period for major storms. Hurricane season is a serious matter throughout the Caribbean and Central America, and nations from Cuba to Honduras have suffered terrible losses. The high-risk areas in the United States lie along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, and the Atlantic coast from Florida to the Carolinas, but New England has also experienced deadly storms.

Hurricanes are classified by intensity: category 1 storms have sustained winds of 74–95 mph, while category 5 storms have winds over 155 mph and tidal surges over 18 feet. Scientists believe that two category 5 storms hit the modern United States, the most intense being the 1935 Florida Keys storm, when barometers dropped to 26.35 inches. This powerful hurricane was neither the deadliest nor the costliest in American history. There have been several storms of greater national significance. Of course, every town that experiences a hurricane is changed, and the storm becomes part of local history. Most communities buried their dead, rebuilt their buildings, and moved forward. Certain hurricanes, however, rose beyond local significance and are considered national tragedies with relief efforts much like San Francisco's earthquake and Chicago's fire.

The Galveston storm ranks first among American hurricanes. The hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in September 1900 killed over 8,000 people, including 6,000 in the island city, and remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The tidal surge rose rapidly, flooding much of the barrier island. Galveston's highest elevation was only 8.7 feet above sea level, and when the waves receded, a wall of wreckage and bodies remained. The nation rallied to Galveston's relief, and Galvestonians adopted the new city commission form of government to manage the recovery. Galveston constructed a massive sea wall and pumped in sand to raise the entire city's grade. In 1915, another category 4 hurricane hit Galveston, but the seawall held and the rebuilt city survived.

In one decade, three major hurricanes battered southern Florida, arriving in 1926, 1928, and 1935. The September 1926 storm directly hit Miami, as the eye of the storm passed over the young city. Scientists estimate that if this hurricane followed the same path today, it would cause an astounding $70 billion of property damage. The storm surge flooded Miami Beach and ravaged Moore Haven, an agricultural settlement on Lake Okeechobee. Well over 300 people drowned, and the response included stronger building codes for southern Florida. The 1928 storm struck near Palm Beach, but also did its deadliest work in Florida's low-lying interior. Lake Okeechobee rose 15 feet, devastating Belle Glade, a community of black migrant farm workers. This natural disaster was America's second deadliest, and estimates range from 1,800 to 2,500 dead. Relief came slowly, but eventually included a vast canal system and a huge rock levee to prevent Lake Okeechobee from overflowing. This federal flood control program dramatically altered the Everglades ecosystem. The third major hurricane in this era was the category 5 storm that hit the Florida Keys in 1935. Hundreds of war veterans were building highway bridges between these islands on a federal work relief program. Winds rose to 200 miles per hour and the tidal surge topped 18 feet. The train sent to evacuate the workers arrived too late, and over 400 people died, including 250 veterans. Many Americans were outraged that the veterans were left in harm's way, and pressure grew for better hurricane warnings.

There were other deadly storms between 1935 and 1960, including the unusual 1938 hurricane that killed 600 people in New England. Radar became a tool for tracking tropical storms in the 1950s, and hurricanes were given women's names starting in 1953. Few large hurricanes struck the United States in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But in 1989, a category 4 hurricane pounded the Carolinas. This storm was named Hugo (men's names were added in 1978) and it caused more property damage than any prior hurricane. But Hugo's record did not stand long. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew's 16-foot storm surge hit southern Florida, setting a new record with property losses of $25–30 billion. Andrew battered Homestead, Florida City, and Miami's outskirts, killing nearly fifty people and seriously damaging over 100,000 homes. Hugo and Andrew exposed a new generation to the deadly threat of hurricanes.

While property damage has increased in recent hurricanes, fatalities have fallen due to earlier warnings by the National Hurricane Center, better evacuations, and safer buildings. However, many more Americans have moved to coastal locations, and areas like the Florida Keys are increasingly difficult to evacuate. Gulf and Atlantic coast communities remain at risk each hurricane season, and a direct hit on Miami, New Orleans, or Houston could be catastrophic. Tropical storms remain unpredictable, and there is no more deadly example of nature's power than the hurricane.


Barnes, Jay. Florida's Hurricane History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Bixel, Patricia Bellis, and Elizabeth Hayes Turner. Galveston and the 1900 Storm: Catastrophe and Catalyst. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Elsner, James B., and A. Birol Kara. Hurricanes of the North Atlantic: Climate and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Steinberg, Theodore. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

William C.Barnett

See alsoDisasters ; Galveston ; Mexico, Gulf of ; Miami ; Tornadoes ; Weather Service, National .

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