Hurricane Bertha was not a storm that had its name retired. However, it was a hurricane for the record books as it became the earliest system to form in the Far Eastern Atlantic. It also was a rare major hurricane in the month of July, and the first hurricane to make landfall in the Tar Heel state of North Carolina in about ninety years. It was a memorable storm that also served as a harbinger of things to come in an Atlantic Basin that was just at the beginning of a new active cycle that began with 19 named storms the previous year, 1995.
From August, 1993 through September 2005, the state of North Carolina has seen its share of tropical storms and hurricanes. During that period, there have been a total of eleven hurricanes to affect North Carolina with five of them at least Category Three strength or better at the time of landfall in the Tar Heel state. While that total pales in comparison with Florida, which saw eight hurricanes over the two years of 2004 and 2005, it was still more than enough for North Carolina residents, who were affected. Hurricane Bertha, which emerged in July, 1996, was the third in the series of eleven storms to strike North Carolina.
Bertha formed the farthest east of any storm on record to develop in the first week of July. On the heels of a hectic hurricane season in 1995 with nineteen named storms, eleven hurricanes, and five major hurricanes, the 1996 season was off to a fast start. In June of that season, the Atlantic had its first named storm in the first month of the hurricane season for the second year in a row. Tropical Storm Arthur emerged on June 17th near the eastern end of Grand Bahama Island. The first storm of 1996 was minimal with just 45 mph winds, and a minimum central pressure of 29.65 inches of Hg (Mercury), or 1004 millibars. Although Arthur wasn't as notable as the two tropical storms that formed in June, 2005, it still served as a key indicator for what would be another active year.
Several weeks later during the fourth of July weekend, the disturbance that would become Bertha began stirring off the West Coast of Africa. It first became a depression late on the fourth, and then on July 5th, Tropical Storm Bertha was born. Located some 425 miles to the South-Southwest of the Cape Verde Islands, or over 1,500 miles away from the Lesser Antilles, Bertha already made its mark in the record books. No other storm on record before or since Bertha had formed that early in the Eastern Atlantic. And the storm wouldn't stop there as several more records would fall during the life of the storm. One of those other marks was becoming a rare major hurricane in the month of July.
After crossing the Atlantic, and moving through the Northern Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and north of Puerto Rico by the eighth of July, the system strengthened to a Category Three Hurricane with winds of 115 mph on July 9th. Wind gusts were even higher at 130 mph while its minimum central pressure dipped to 28.35 inches of Hg, or 960 millibars. This development was the first time a major hurricane formed so early in the season since Hurricane Alma some thirty years earlier in June, 1966. At peak intensity, Alma was a strong Category Three Hurricane with winds of 125 mph as it crossed the western portion of Cuba. Nine years after Bertha, in July, 2005, there would be two storms that would far surpass the feats by both Bertha and Alma.
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Over the first three weeks of July, 2005, there was a Category Four Hurricane in Dennis and a Category Five storm in Emily. Like Bertha, Dennis emerged on the July 4th holiday, and became the strongest storm ever record in the Atlantic during July with winds of 145 mph, and a minimum central pressure of 930 millibars, or 27.46 inches of Hg. Following Dennis' landfall along the Gulf Coasts of Alabama and Florida as a Category Three Hurricane, Emily developed and went on to supplant Dennis as the strongest storm ever in the month of July as well as the first of four Category Five Hurricanes in 2005. Emily, which developed on July 10th, intensified to have sustained winds of 160 mph, gusts of 180 mph, and a minimum pressure of 27.43 inches of Hg, or 929 millibars.
Back in 1996, there was quite a bit going on in the world. Two weeks after Bertha's formation, and less than a week after the storm made landfall, TWA Flight 800 exploded into a fireball near East Moriches, Long Island after taking off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport for Paris, France. Many suspected terrorism, but the formal investigation found that the aircraft had an explosion in its fuel tank. Later on that year, joy came back to the Big Apple when its beloved New York Yankees rallied from a two games to none deficit to defeat the defending World Champion, Atlanta Braves, in the 1996 World Series. Bill Clinton won a second term in office by defeating Kansas Senator and former Vice Presidential candidate, Bob Dole. The Chicago Bulls started their fabled 72-10 season in the fall and early winter of 1996.
In other weather news that year, a tremendous blizzard paralyzed much of the Northeast including the big cities of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. on the weekend of January 6-8, 1996. Snowfall amounts in Central New Jersey were in the area of 25 inches while places a bit north such as Elizabeth received 32 inches, and Newark Airport saw 27.8 inches. In Philadelphia approximately 30.7 inches fell while 24.9 inches fell in Roanoke, Virginia. New York City itself received more than twenty inches of snow along with winds in excess of 50 miles per hour. The New York and New Jersey metropolitan area had an incredible 16 snowstorms with 89 inches of the white stuff falling in NYC alone.
Returning to the story of Hurricane Bertha, the storm turned more northwesterly, and north-northwesterly over the next couple of days. During this time, Bertha began to encounter hostile conditions in its surrounding environment, and gradually weakened to a Category One Hurricane on July 10th, 1996 with winds of only 80 mph. The next day, July 11th, Bertha was located some 300 miles to the south of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Many residents along the coast including the famed Outer Banks region began evacuating while both Wilmington and Wrightsvillle Beach became ghost towns. Many of the news networks moved in to cover the storm's arrival. One of my memories of Hurricane Bertha was watching CNN's correspondent, Jeff Flock battle the elements while covering Bertha's landfall. Another memory from this storm was being in the kitchen with my brother in the early afternoon July 13th, and observing the passage of Bertha, which was a depression by this time. There was moderate rain, but the winds grew steadily stronger until the low passed.
Prior to coming ashore, Hurricane Bertha began a dramatic resurgence. During the early morning hours of July 12th, Bertha moved over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream as it was centered some 215 miles South of Wilmington. Re-energized by its new supply of fuel, Bertha embarked on a rapid transformation in which the winds in the storm grew by 25 mph over a period of less than twelve hours. The Gulf Stream has had a history of rejuvenating many storms in the Atlantic including recent monsters such as Hugo (1989), Andrew (1992), and Emily (1993). Bertha was now a strong Category Two Hurricane with 105 mph winds as it approached the coastline. The second storm of 1996 would add another milestone to its collection as it finally came ashore.
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Making landfall along the Carolina coast between Wrightsville Beach and Topsail Island in the late afternoon of July 12th, Bertha became the first July hurricane to strike the Tar Heel state in nearly ninety years. Now inland, the storm spent the next several days moving up the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Virginia to New England before becoming extratropical on July 14th. Upon making landfall, Bertha had a record minimum central pressure of 28.73 inches of Hg (Mercury) or about 973 millibars. Sustained winds recorded in the eye wall ranged in the area of 80 to 85 mph while gusts reached as high as 108 mph. Although Bertha weakened as it continued to move over land, its effects still had significant impact.
Besides producing tropical storm force winds as far north as New Jersey, Bertha brought drenching rains. Rainfall amounts ranged between a bit less than five to over eight inches with some locales receiving over a foot. Bertha ended up causing an estimated $1.2 billion in damage while some 400,000 residents were left without power. Eleven hundred homes were destroyed while an additional four thousand were damaged in the Tar Heel state. The Virgin Islands also suffered a battering with approximately 2,500 damaged homes on those islands. Twelve deaths were either directly or indirectly attributed to Bertha including two in North Carolina, and four each in Puerto Rico and St. Maarten. Considering how strong Bertha was at one point, and how quickly the storm re-intensified prior to its North Carolina landfall, it could have been a lot worse.
Hurricane Bertha was a sign of things to come in the Tar Heel state during the 1996 season. A bit less than two months later, Hurricane Fran roared ashore in nearly the exact same location as Bertha with 115 mph winds. It marked the first time since 1955 that two hurricanes struck the Tar Heel state. It would almost happen again three years later with Dennis and Floyd in 1999. Dennis had been a strong Category Two Hurricane like Bertha, but stalled offshore for several days in late August, 1999, and weakened to just below hurricane strength upon landfall. Floyd would leave a much more lasting impact with torrential rains and flooding over the eastern portion of the state as well as further north in New Jersey over the two days of September 16th and 17th, 1999.
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