The Hurricaneville web site continues to look back at past hurricanes. Our latest feature is a retrospective on two Category Five storms from the 1961 season, which happened to hold the previous mark for most Category Five storms in a single season until 2005 when four occurred. Hurricane Carla was a powerful hurricane that nearly became the first Cat Five hurricane to make landfall along the United States coastline since the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
Meanwhile, Hattie was perhaps the most powerful October hurricane until Mitch (1998) and Wilma (2005) came along. The year 1961 was also quite a year in the country as well as the entire world with many memorable moments from global politics, space exploration, and baseball. These two storms didn't sustain their optimal intensity when they made landfall, but they still ended up making tremendous impacts.
The Atlantic Hurricane season of 1961 was a year of extremes. Despite the fact that there was a bit more than the average number of named storms with eleven, the first storm of the season didn't stir up until July 20th, and there were actually no storms at all during August, one of the peak months of every hurricane season in the Atlantic. The next time such scarcity would occur in the tropics would be in August, 1997 during an El Nino that wound up being one of the strongest ever recorded.
Then, in September, it seemed as if someone had turned a switch because all kinds of activity fired up. Over the final three months of the 1961 season, there would be ten storms, eight hurricanes, and seven major hurricanes. The seven major storms is tied with the 2005 season for second all time for the most major hurricanes in a single season. The only year to surpass that was 1950, which had eight.
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Both Carla and Hattie were similar in origin. Each storm emerged in the very warm waters of the Southwestern Caribbean. Forming in the early days of September, 1961, Carla became a tropical storm on September 5th. The storm, which lasted a total of fourteen days, became a hurricane on the following day, September 6th. After first developing in the Southwestern Caribbean, the system tracked northwestward and skirted the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Unlike other powerful storms that have affected the Yucatan over the year such as Hurricane Gilbert (1988), Carla didn't touch land prior to moving into the Western Gulf. Consequently, since it had plenty of warm water for fuel and no significant land masses to deal with, he storm gradually strengthened. Despite having a relatively high pressure of 936 mb, or 27.61 inches of Hg (Mercury), Carla peaked at Category Five intensity on September 11, 1961 with 150 knot or 175 mph winds.
In an almost similar fashion, Hurricane Emily (2005) became a Cat Five on the Saffir-Simpson Scale in the month of July. Prior to making its first of two landfalls in Mexico, Emily possessed winds estimated later in the post-analysis by the National Hurricane Center to be 160 mph while its pressure was measured at 929 mb, or 27.43 inches of Hg. Meanwhile, Dennis, a Category Four storm that had formed a week or so earlier, and set the mark for the most powerful storm ever in July, had a pressure of 930 mb, or 27.46 inches of Hg, but only winds of 145 mph.
Returning to our story, Carla had much higher winds while having a pressure that was seven millibars higher than Emily and six higher than Dennis. This fact makes Carla an unusual Category Five system since higher pressure usually translates into lower wind speeds. Hurricane Carla lasted at this optimum level of intensity for only 12 hours. Shortly before making landfall in Southern Texas, Carla weakened to a powerful Category Four Hurricane with sustained winds around 140 mph, and a minimum central pressure of 935 mb, or 27.61 inches.
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Hurricane Hattie was one of those rare powerful late season hurricanes. It, too, formed in the fertile breeding grounds of the Southwestern Caribbean, which is known to be a frequent hotspot for development during the late season months of October and November since sea surface temperatures remain rather warm, and powerful upper level westerly winds that take shape during the autumn months in the Gulf of Mexico, aren't able to penetrate that far south. First classified as a tropical system in the late afternoon of October 27, 1961, Hattie skipped the depression stage and became a tropical storm right away.
One of the shortest lasting storms on record, Hattie's lifespan was a brief six days. Following formation in the Southwestern Caribbean, the hurricane moved northwestward into the Gulf of Honduras. Hattie then headed westward towards a landfall in what is now Belize. Peaking in intensity on Halloween in 1961, the storm mustered up sustained winds of 140 knots or 160 mph while having a barometric pressure that bottomed out at 920 millibars, or 27.17 inches. This system compared relatively well with Hurricane Andrew in terms of its intensity.
After being re-evaluated for its tenth anniversary, Andrew, which was the costliest natural disaster in United States history until Katrina in August, 2005, was upgraded to a Category Five Hurricane with 165 mph winds while having a minimum pressure of 922 mb, or 27.23 inches of Hg. Andrew ended up being only the third Category Five storm on record to strike the United States mainland after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille (1969).
Hattie was only two millibars deeper, and still five miles per hour less in terms of maximum sustained winds. The same day it reached peak intensity, Hattie came ashore along the coast of British Honduras, now known as Belize, in the then capital of Belize City, which lies along the coast. The storm caused so much damage, particular to government buildings and services in Belize City that the government subsequently decided to move its capital inland away from any such danger in the future.
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It was a much different world back in 1961, but it was changing, and some of the changes were momentous. In January of that year, the United States saw its youngest president get inaugurated. John F. Kennedy, only four months shy of his 44th birthday, and coming off one of the closest election wins in the history of the country to that time, came into office on January 20th. With the first one hundred days of his administration, President Kennedy was embroiled in controversy as an invasion of Cuba became a fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs.
Some two months later, Kennedy had his first ever summit with Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. Sensing weakness in the young American President, Khrushchev and his Warsaw Pact partners took advantage by erecting a wall between East and West Berlin in August that same year. The Berlin Wall would remain standing until the fall of 1989 when the Soviets released their iron grip over Eastern Europe, and the puppet communist regimes they held in place for over four decades, crumbled.
In the area of the final frontier, the Soviet Union also continued its early dominance over the United States in the space race as Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Speaking of space, the first ever weather satellite, TIROS I, was launched around that time, and would eventually help revolutionize the way forecasters tracked and interpreted a hurricane as well as other forms of weather.
The result was an significant decrease in the loss of life. Moving over to the world of sports, the New York Yankees won its 19th World Series Championship by easily defeating the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees were led by the M & M boys, Roger Maris and the great Mickey Mantle. Maris became the new home run king by breaking Babe Ruth's single season mark set in 1927. Mantle, who missed the last month of the season ended up with 54 home runs for the year.
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While both of these storms didn't impact the United States coastline as Category Five systems, each caused their share of destruction and devastation. Coming ashore between Port O'Connor and Port Lavaca, Texas on September 16th, 1961, Hurricane Carla packed a severe wallop as a strong Category Four Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
Carla ended up being responsible for 43 deaths and $325 million 1961 dollars in damage, which translates to $2.03 billion today. Meanwhile, Hattie was such a devastating storm for Belize that its government decided to move further inland away from the coast and future storm impacts. Today, the federal capital of Belize is Belmopan. Hattie wound up causing a total of $60 million back in 1961, which translates to $370 milion today while leaving 275 people dead.
Belize has actually been rarely hit by storms considering its geographic location. Recently though, it has had its share of impacts including Hurricane Keith (2000) and Hurricane Iris (2001), which were both Category Four Hurricanes. On the bright side, the 1961 season was mild in terms of landfalling U.S. hurricanes.
Despite there being seven major hurricanes, only one of them, Carla, made landfall along the United States coastline. In contrast, the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which had the exact same number of major storms, endured four separate landfalls along the United States shoreline, which totaled approximately $114 billion in damage.
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