Since 1995, the Tropical Atlantic has seen perhaps the most active period of activity since records began in the 1850s. However, until 2004, the coastline of the United States from Maine to Texas had been unscathed by any serious tropical activity. And, with rising insurance costs, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, that was very good news for coastal residents.
The ten year period of good luck ended though within the first several weeks of August, 2004 as Charley, the first of four hurricanes to impact Florida, and one of five hurricanes to affect the coast of the United States, roared ashore near Punta Gorda, Florida as a Category Four Hurricane. Charley's impact was just the opening salvo in a month of tropical activity that had not been seen in the modern day, 24/7 news cycle of the United States.
By the end of September, four hurricanes affected some portion of the Florida Peninsula including Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. Five hurricanes including three major hurricanes had some sort of impact on the United States from Alabama to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Consequently, the effects from these storms combined for the most costliest season since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew, which was upgraded to a Category Five storm for its tenth anniversary in 2002, steamrolled South Florida and Louisiana.
Things didn't stop there either although the powerful storms were all done with the exception of Hurricane Karl, which only affected shipping lanes in the Atlantic. When the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season was completed, there were 15 named storms including one subtropical storm named Nicole, 9 hurricanes, and 6 major hurricanes, which caused over $40 billion dollars in damage. Combine those totals with the amounts from the 2003 season, and there were 31 named storms, 16 hurricanes, and 8 major hurricanes.
Is there more in store? Well, leading up to the start of the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season, the forecasts issued by Dr. William Gray of Colorado State and NOAA both indicated a season that would be similar to the previous two in terms of the number of named storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes with Dr. Gray increasing his forecast totals somewhat from his first season forecast done in December, 2004.
When not only your weather historians, but also the media, and regular folks look back on the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season, one thing will clearly appear in their minds. The Gang of Four. The four strong to major hurricanes that ravaged all or at least parts of the Florida Peninsula. And, they all didn't occur just over the course of the entire season, but during the span of a month and a half.
From the middle of August until the end of September, 2004, these four storms: Charley, Frances, Jeanne, and Ivan hammered Florida from all sides with winds and pressures ranging in strength from Category Two to Category Four in intensity. All four of these storms, were at one point, major hurricanes with Ivan being the strongest at Category Five with the sixth lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic at 910 millibars, or 26.87 inches of Hg.
Ivan would eventually weaken to a Category Three Hurricane prior to making landfall over the Pensacola, Florida area, but it still managed to cause plenty of devastation with the Pensacola Beach area still trying to recover even as the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season got underway, and Tropical Storm Arlene threatened to become a minimal hurricane during the second week of the season. Arlene eventually weakened before landfall, and only brought 50 mph winds with tropical rains to the area, which was actually welcome relief.
Things were quite different with Charley. Not only did it strengthen rapidly prior to landfall, it also was a bit stronger than Ivan when it hit the coast, and it also struck the Southwestern Coast of Florida after making somewhat of a dramatic right turn instead of following its forecasted track into the Tampa Bay area. Those two changes caught the Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, and Punta Gorda region of Southwest Florida, off guard. The results were devastating with the storm's 145 mph winds slamming into Punta Gorda, and causing tremendous destruction to the community as well as to nearby barrier islands such as Captiva and Sanibel.
Charley wasn't done there either. Like Frances and Jeanne would do shortly afterward, the monster storm traversed across the Sunshine state, except this time it was from west to east while the other two would travel across the state from east to west. Nevertheless, all three storms would batter Florida's interior cities and counties. In some cases, the same inland community was hit by all three storms. Homes in those particular communities that were heavily damaged by one of the storms, were completely destroyed after one or both of the other two came through.
Before the third named storm, and second hurricane and major hurricane was through, it blew through Daytona Beach shattering windows, and downing power lines, and then impacted South Carolina and North Carolina. Hurricane Frances, which grew to Category Three strength, and was much larger than its more powerful male predecessor, weakened to just below major hurricane status, and slowed its forward motion to a crawl. So, while it lacked the intensive punch that Charley had, it still had a profound impact on the Fort Pierce area of South Florida since it moved through there very slowly. Hurricane force winds pounded and pounded parts of Palm Beach, Martin, and Broward counties for many hours causing heavy damage.
Hurricane Jeanne was a bit later in September, but it still had the fury of a classic Cape Verde Season storm. The storm first pummeled the island of Hispanola with torrential rains that produced floods and mudslides that left some 1,500 people dead in Haiti. Additional people were also killed in the neighboring Dominican Republic as well as Puerto Rico, and Florida, which brought the exact death toll to 1,551 people. After it ravaged Hispanola with its tropical rains, Jeanne moved over open water, and away from the mountainous terrain that had squeezed out much of its moisture from orographic lifting. Consequently, the storm gradually strengthened not only back to a hurricane, but ultimately to a major hurricane prior to hitting almost exactly the same area that Frances hit several weeks earlier.
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The death toll and damage caused by Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne was quite extraordinary. But with the activity that had been occurring in the Atlantic Basin since 1995, it was bound to happen. It wasn't a matter of if, but a matter of when. The trough that signaled the transition from summer to fall in the Eastern United States had saved us many of these past ten years, but this time, to bail out coastal communities in the United States, particularly Florida.
As a consequence, the total damage from these four monster storms was $40 billion dollars. As of the last time the Hurricaneville Alamanac was updated, the combined death toll from these storms was more than 1,700 people. In addition to the heavy costs from these systems in the United States, places in the Caribbean were hit very hard as well. Prior to becoming a monster Category Five Hurricane in the Southwestern Caribbean, Hurricane Ivan devastated much of the island of Grenada. Charley impacted the Western portion of Cuba for a short period of time before moving into the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico and rapidly intensifying.
Jeanne caused the heaviest damage of all four storms in the Caribbean with the torrential rains it produced over Puerto Rico and Hispanola. This reinforces the fact that even weak hurricanes or tropical storms can still cause plenty of damage with their tropical moisture as Hurricane Agnes proved in June, 1972, Tropical Storms Alberto and Beryl proved in 1994, and Tropical Storm Allison, the costliest tropical storm on record, reinforced in June, 2001. Even Hurricane Camille was still a killing machine long after slamming ashore over Pass Christian, Mississippi as the second Category Five Hurricane in U.S. history. It produced flooding rains farther inland across the Southeastern United States until it re-entered the Atlantic off the Virginia Capes in August, 1969.
But, the 2004 season's heavy cost in Florida reminded us once again that the building along the coastline is beginning to catch up with us. Perhaps there won't be as heavy a death toll from these major storms as was in September, 1900 with the Great Galveston Hurricane of that year, which left between 6,000 and 10,000 people dead, but the financial toll and the human impact for those who survive and have to rebuild is becoming a more growing concern for coastal communities and metropolitan areas from Maine to Texas.
Even despite the heavy impacts from the four big storms of 2004, the United States, and specifically, Florida, still managed to luck out. For instance, Ivan weakened from a Category Five to a Category Three before landfall. Charley turned away from the major city of Tampa, and hit a less densely, but still very wealthy area of Port Charlotte. Frances and Jeanne also lost some punch, and struck farther north of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the heavily populated Dade County.
The bottom line is that with another ten to twenty years of this level of activity, the time will come when a major hurricane strikes a major metropolitan area with the same impact as Andrew. Places such as New Orleans, Miami, and even New York City and New England still remain vulnerable. Back in 2002, New Orleans dodged two bullets with Hurricanes Isidore and Lili, which could have both hit the Big Easy as major hurricanes. The Miami-Dade metro area population still has vivid memories of Andrew's impact in August, 1992, but there are many, who have recently moved there, who have not felt such wrath. And, New York and New England are not out of the woods either although climate and the shape of the coastline in the Northeastern United States makes it hard for major hurricanes to strike there often.
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As mentioned in the last paragraph of the previous section, the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season served as a big wake up call to many living along the Gulf and East Coasts of the United States. The threat is no longer a possibility, it is reality. And, with the ever increasing populations along our coastlines, a housing boom in the country that has not shown any significant signs yet of slowing down, and continued building by developers, the prospect of more hurricanes and intense hurricanes in the coming one to two decades is a very frightening one.
Insurance companies have indicated in recent years that an intense hurricane on the order of say a Charley, Frances, Ivan, or Jeanne hitting either Atlantic City, a densely populated Long Island, New Orleans, Houston and Galveston, Miami, and many other coastal cities, could cause damage ranging from $55 to $80 billion dollars. Will the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season yield such a storm? Possible, and it couldn't happen at a worse time. A storm of such magnitude and such devastation would have a crippling effect on not only the local economy, but also the struggling national economy as well.
Back in December, 2004, Dr. William Gray issued his initial forecast, and stated that the upcoming season would have 13 named storms, and slightly less activity than the previous two. Since then, he has gradually increased his estimates, and now his forecast indicates that this season will be very similar to the previous two. NOAA has also issued numbers with some similarity to the 2003 and 2004 seasons in their 2005 forecast. On top of that, there is currently no significant climatological abnormalities such as El Nino or La Nina so while there are no amplified climate factors conducive to tropical development this year, there are also none to inhibit such development.
The 2004 season is definitely one that will forever be etched in our minds because of the fact that it happened during an era of intense media coverage. The question that remains is whether or not that media exposure provided the essential educational and motivational wake up call coastal residents needed to create policies and procedures that will prevent a major catastrophic event from occurring.
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