Up until about a few weeks ago, we had talked about how the beginning of the month of August had been very quiet, and that we had not seen a major hurricane yet in 2003. However, that quickly changed with the development of a series of disturbances across Africa. The first of these disturbances to develop into something more tropical was Hurricane Fabian, a storm that would end up being the strongest storm of the 2003 season.
Fabian did also put a lot of fear in those living in the Lesser Antilles and the Southeastern and Gulf coasts of the United States before it made a turn to the right and started heading Northward toward the resort island of Bermuda in the Central Atlantic. Bermuda, which had not seen a storm as powerful as Fabian in about 50 years, was pounded with sustained winds near 120 mph, and wind gusts close to 130 mph as the eye of the storm just passed to the west of the island.
Fabian wound up being the first major hurricane of the season, but it wouldn't end up as the only one as Hurricane Isabel, which formed on the heels of the storm, developed into a powerful hurricane of its own with 145 mph winds as well. So far, the 2003 Hurricane Season has had 14 depressions, 9 named storms, 4 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes. In a nutshell, the season has lived up to expectation.
Throughout much of August, there hadn't been much activity in the Tropical Atlantic. Only Tropical Storm Erika, which made landfall over the extreme Northeastern coast of Mexico just south of Brownsville, Texas, was the only one to speak of by the time we had gotten to the latter part of the month. Prior to August, we had seen quite an active hurricane season with 7 depressions, 4 named storms, and 2 hurricanes.
However, that would all change as a very vast tropical wave left the coast of Africa. There had been an impressive conveyor belt of thunderstorm complexes moving across the coast of Africa, and this wave was the first of that sequence. On August 27th, 2003, this wave developed into a tropical low, and then a depression. The next day, the cyclone went to the next stage, a tropical storm, and was named Fabian, the sixth named storm of the 2003 season.
Over the next 48 hours, Fabian would undergo a major transformation as it not only developed into the season's third hurricane, but also became the season's first major hurricane. On August 30th, 2003, Fabian strengthened to a Category Three Hurricane with winds of 115 mph. There were several reasons for the storm's dramatic development.
First, there were light winds aloft in the vicinity of Fabian, which was because of a strong subtropical ridge to the north of the system. Second, warm sea surface temperatures in the area of 28 degrees Celsius, or 82 degrees Fahrenheit in the vicinity of Fabian. Third, and foremost, the storm had developed a good envelope of clouds around it, and that outflow helped Fabian create an environment of its own. That self contained environment served as a buffer zone against any hostile upper level conditions.
Fabian didn't stop there either. It continued to strengthen as conditions remained favorable for further strengthening. .Within 24 hours of becoming the season's first major hurricane, Fabian strengthened to Category Four Hurricane status with winds of 135 mph. At this point, it was located some 500 miles to the Northeast of the Lesser Antilles, and it was appearing more and more likely that it would miss the islands.
As we moved into the month of September, and the end of the Labor Day holiday weekend, it appeared that more good news was on the way as the various computer models were indicating that a trough would move into the Eastern portion of the United States, and erode the western flank of the subtropical ridge. Living up to expectation, a trough to move into the East, and bring a lot of rain to the Northeast for several days. However, it was good news for those in the Caribbean, and the Southeastern United States.
That was because the trough had pushed the subtropical ridge to the east in the Central Atlantic, and it created an alleyway for the storm, which moved around the periphery of the subtropical high, and turned northwestward toward the resort island of Bermuda with an eye on the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. The Mid-Atlantic would never be threatened though as the storm turned more northward, and that meant trouble for Bermuda.
Bermuda is a tropical paradise located several hundred miles to the East-Southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It gets its share of hurricanes as well as its share of close calls. A lot of storms pass to the west of the island as they loop around in the North Atlantic. However, most of the time they miss the island, or they don't have as much strength because the waters in the area are slightly cooler than 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like many storms before it, Fabian, too, did weaken a bit on its way toward Bermuda. Its winds dropped below Category Four strength by the middle of the first week of September. Winds were now at 120 mph, but it was still a very dangerous storm at slightly better than Category Three strength. People were making the necessary preparations as they went to stores to buy supplies, and boarded up windows to their homes and businesses.
While preparations were being made, the news became very grim for the resort island and its residents. Forecasters were now indicating that the hurricane would pass very close to the island. So close, that its eye was forecasted to be just west of it. What that meant was that Bermuda was going to be in the right quadrant of the storm. The most powerful section of a hurricane is the northeast quadrant of the storm because of the counterclockwise motion around the center of circulation.
On Friday, September 5th, 2003, the bad news forecasted came to fruition as Fabian came within 50 miles to the West of Bermuda. Just as close as a direct hit as you can get. Wind gusts increased by the hour on the island until at about 3 PM EDT when reports came from the island of 117 mph sustained winds with gusts up to 127 mph. Sustained winds would be in the area of 120 mph with gusts up to 130 mph as the main radio tower at the island's central radio station was toppled.
Fabian moved away from Bermuda by the evening of September 5th, and rapidly moved northward into the cooler waters of the North Atlantic, where it would lose its tropical characteristics, and become extratropical. The system still contained very strong winds of at or near hurricane force, but it paled in comparison to what it did over the warmer waters of the Central Atlantic, and Bermuda.
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