THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Monday, November 27, 1995 TAG: 9511270048 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SERIES: 1995 HURRICANE SEASON WRAP-UP SOURCE: BY STEVE STONE, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: Long : 302 lines
It's almost over.
The busiest Atlantic hurricane season since 1933, and the second most active on record, wraps up this week. None too soon for most folks after a hammering that left 124 people dead and caused upward of $10 billion in damage.
The big killer was Opal, which claimed 63 lives in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States and caused more than $3 billion in damage, much of it in Florida.
The season brought 21 tropical depressions, of which 19 became named tropical storms. Eleven intensified into hurricanes.
Only 1933 was busier, with 21 tropical storms, including 10 hurricanes.
And 1995 finished second, too, for the total number of hurricanes, second only to 1969 when 12 of 18 tropical storms attained hurricane strength.
Five storms struck the U.S. mainland this year, four blasting Florida and one heading into Texas. A sixth hit the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The vulnerable East Coast was spared, although Hurricane Felix taunted North Carolina and Virginia for days before finally turning away.
``The East Coast and Norfolk in particular were very fortunate,'' said hurricane forecaster William Gray of Colorado State University. ``Do the people realize how lucky they were? They would still be working to pick up the pieces there had Felix proceeded in.''
The East Coast wasn't just lucky with Felix, either. Of the season's 21 tropical depressions, 13 formed in the far eastern or central Atlantic, traditional breeding grounds for hurricanes. Of those, a dozen became named tropical storms and seven grew into hurricanes.
Yet none of these made it to the U.S. coast.
That happy result came because of an invisible wall that nature built - a persistent arc of low pressure, a trough, just off the East Coast most of the season. It served as a guide for winds in the upper atmosphere that snagged most of the storms and steered them to the northeast before they could reach the coast.
``The mainland is really very fortunate to have had that low pressure trough in place most of the season,'' said John Hope, senior meteorologist at The Weather Channel in Atlanta.
While not surprised that 1995 was a busy season, Hope said he ``didn't expect to see 19 out there and I was very surprised to see five major hurricanes.''
Scientists from the National Weather Service and Colorado State University blamed a number of factors for the busy season.
``Favorable wind patterns, below normal sea-level pressure, above normal sea-surface temperatures and strong easterly waves were the right ingredients in the right proportions,'' said David Miskus, a metorologist with the Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.
It's fascinating to study now. But 1995 served up some scary days.
``I think it's a mess,'' said Jim Talbot, Norfolk's deputy coordinator of emergency services, as he pondered the spaghetti-like tangle of the year's hurricane tracks. ``We were extremely lucky.''
Talbot's big fear was that Felix would be a repeat of 1933 when a hurricane struck downtown Norfolk, inundating the city with up to 9 feet of water. ``It was on our nightmare track,'' he said.
And even when Felix turned, his worries were not over. ``Just a little different scenario and we could have had five impacts in one year.''
Four storms - Barry, Chantal, Luis and Marilyn - followed almost duplicate paths, all passing in a narrow corridor about 200 miles wide and centered just 400 miles east of Virginia Beach and just west of Bermuda.
Talbot has mixed emotions about how the storms turned out. While glad the region was spared, he worries that people who prepared for Felix now might ignore future warnings of hurricane threats.
Lest anyone view Felix as proof that Hampton Roads is somehow immune to hurricanes, Richard Pasch, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, suggests looking at the history books.
``They do hit there,'' he said. ``The records show major hurricanes coming into the Virginia coast.''
As for Felix, ``It was a close call,'' Pasch said flatly. ``Some of our better (computer) models were indicating that it would come ashore. But the steering currents were just balanced enough that it turned.''
The same barrier that protected the East Coast proved the undoing of Florida. It helped snare Opal and guide it inland.
The storm initially moved slowly over the northern Yucatan and into the Gulf of Mexico where it became a hurricane on Oct. 2. It turned northeast and accelerated.
Early on Oct. 4, Opal exploded with winds reaching 150 mph and gusting to 180 mph.
Mercifully, Opal lost some of its punch as it moved into cooler waters near the coast of the western Florida panhandle. But it still packed winds of 125 mph when it crossed the coast near Pensacola.
The National Hurricane Center did not issue hurricane warnings the night before the storm made landfall. At the time, it appeared the storm would not hit for 36 hours and would do so well east of Pensacola.
But Opal surprised forecasters by speeding up and cutting into the coast earlier than anticipated.
Pensacola residents woke to warnings that they had only hours to find safety.
``Had they known it would be a Category 5 storm, they would have issued warnings sooner,'' Hope said. ``But this was an unprecedented rate of increase in hurricane strength. I don't think I've ever seen one strengthen as fast.''
The coastline from Pensacola east for 100 miles was devastated. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by storm surge and high waves.
Opal weakened rapidly after moving inland.
It was the deadliest storm of the year, claiming half of all the lives lost in the season: 50 people died from flooding in Guatemala and Mexico; 13 deaths in the U.S. were directly or indirectly related to the hurricane. Damage estimates, now set at $3 billion, could eventually reach $4 billion.
There were three other costly storms in 1995:
Hurricane Iris, born on Aug. 23, moved through the islands of the northeastern Caribbean as a tropical storm. It brought heavy rains and damaging winds. Five people drowned.
Hurricane Luis formed to the south of Cape Verde Islands on Aug. 28 and moved west across the tropical Atlantic, but then turned toward the northwest as it neared the Leeward Islands.
It was a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale with winds of 140 mph when it moved across the islands of the extreme northeastern Caribbean.
The intense inner core of the huge hurricane devastated the islands of Antigua, Barbuda and St. Martin, killing 16 people and causing $2.5 billion in damage.
Hurricane Marilyn formed on Sept. 12 and followed a track through the Caribbean that was parallel to but just southwest of the track taken by Luis.
It hit Dominica and Guadeloupe as a minimal hurricane. A day later, however, it strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane when it struck the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas was particularly hard hit. Eleven people died and $2 billion in damage was wreaked.
Both Marilyn and Opal caused enough damage that their names may be retired. The decision rests with the World Meteorological Organization, which picks names and meets early next year.
In addition to major storms, 1995 also brought oddities:
Hurricane Allison, the first storm of 1995, hit south Tallahassee, Fla., on June 5, becoming the earliest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. The record had been held by Alma, which hit northwest Florida on June 9, 1966.
On Aug. 31, storm trackers faced a rare situation: four systems on the map at one time, three of them hurricanes - Humberto, Iris and Luis - and one, Karen, a tropical storm. That's known to have occurred only three other times, in 1950, 1961 and 1967.
One storm swallowed another. Hurricane Iris absorbed Tropical Storm Karen and then blew into western Europe as a powerful extratropical gale.
Hurricane season lasts six months - 183 days - from June 1 to Nov. 30. Last year, there was one 78-day stretch in which no storms were brewing; tropical storms and hurricanes were reported on only 28 days.
By contrast, there were 120 days with storms this year, including a 58-day stretch in which at least one storm made the map each day.
In 1994, there were only 7 days on which hurricanes existed; this year, there were 57.
As if the Atlantic wasn't stirring up enough trouble, a hurricane that formed in the Pacific actually had some impact on the eastern United States.
Ismael, which defied predictions by coming ashore in Mexico instead of steering into the Pacific, moved north across the border into New Mexico.
It then lost its tropical characteristics, but remnants of Ismael cut east through Texas and eventually fed into weather patterns over the Appalachians, bringing rain to the region.
So the 1995 hurricane season is concluded.
But Norfolk's Talbot won't rest easy: ``The 1996 season is only six months away.'' MEMO: A storm-by-storm account of the 1995 hurricane season is available
through the News page of Pilot Online at the World Wide Web address:
Florida wasn't as lucky/A5
Research by STEVE STONE, graphic by ROBERT D. VOROS
Seven hurricanes this past season came near, but failed to hit
Allison June 5
Barry July 9
Chantal July 20
Felix Aug. 22
Luis Sept. 10
Marilyn Sept. 24
Opal Oct. 5
On Aug 31, four storm systems were in the Atlantic at one time.
Humberto, Iris, and Luis were hurricanes, and Karen was a tropical
WHY SO BUSY?
These factors contributed to a busy hurricane season:
Winds blowing from west to east across the tropical Atlantic -
which often serve to ``shear'' off the tops of developing storms -
were weak this year. That meant that more tropical waves - clusters
of thunderstorms - crossed the Atlantic from Africa intact and were
able to intensify.
Temperatures in the North Atlantic region were higher than normal
during the heart of the season, helping storms to thrive and survive
longer than normal.
Sea level barometric pressures in the tropical Atlantic was lower
than normal, which further encouraged storm growth.
El Nino, a warm Pacific Ocean current, encouraged weak vertical
winds and below normal pressure at sea level, both of which aided
Heavy rainfall in West Africa spun off a greater number of
SOURCES: National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center;
Tropical Prediction Center of the National Hurricane Center;
Colorado State University
1995: THE YEAR OF THE STORMS
Minimum Highest Estimated
Storm Dates Catg. pressure winds Deaths damage
Allison June 2-5 1 987 mb 75 mph 1 $1.5 million
Barry July 6-10 990 mb 70 mph
Chantal July 13-20 991 mb 70 mph
Dean July 27-30 999 mb 45 mph
Erin July 30-Aug. 6
1 973 mb 85 mph 5 $700 million
6 Aug. 5-7 1001 mb 35 mph
Felix Aug. 8-22 4 930 mb 135 mph 9 Unavailable
Gabrielle Aug. 9-11 988 mb 70 mph
Humberto Aug. 22-Sept.
1 970 mb 105 mph
Iris Aug. 23-Sept. 4
2 965 mb 110 mph 5
Jerry Aug. 23-25 1002 mb 40 mph
Karen Aug. 26-Sept. 3
1000 mb 50 mph
Luis Aug. 28-Sept. 11
4 936 mb 140 mph 16 $2.5 billion
14 Sept. 11-13 1009 mb 35 mph
Marilyn Sept. 12-22
3 949 mb 115 mph 11 $2 billion
Noel Sept.26-Oct. 7
1 987 mb 75 mph
Opal Sept. 27-Oct.6
4 916mb 150 mph 63 $3 billion
Pablo Oct. 4-8 998 mb 65 mph
Roxanne Oct. 8-20
3 956 mb 115 mph 14 Unavailable
Sebastien Oct. 20-24 1001 mb 60 mph
Tanya Oct. 27-Nov. 1
1 972mb 85 mph
NOTE: Damage cost estimates are based on insured and uninsured
property. Estimates are drawn from government sources and news media
reports and are considered preliminary. Damage estimates for
Hurricane Felix, which caused some damage in Bermuda and caused
erosion along the U.S. Atlantic coast, are uncertain; no firm
estimates were available from Mexican authorities for damage done by
Opal and Roxanne. The death toll for Opal includes 50 people who
died in floods in Guatemala and Mexico and 13 people killed in the
U.S. Death statistics are from monthly tropical weather summaries
provided by the National Hurricane Center.
HOW 1995 COMPARES WITH RECENT YEARS
The last busy year in the Atlantic was 1990. In the four years
that followed, hurricane activity was below normal. It was, the
National Hurricane Center says, the longest sustained drought of
storms on record. The lul came to an abrupt and dramatic end this
1990, the last year with above normal activity, brought 14 named
storms. (The annual average is 9.3 storms.) Only Tropical Storm
Marco hit the U.S., coming ahsore in Florida. Another storm, Bertha,
formed just off the North Carolina coast. But it steered southeast
away from the coast.
1991 produced 7 named storms. Ana crossed Florida as a tropical
depression, strengthening only as it steered northeast off the Outer
Banks. Hurricane Bob overran easteern Massachusetts after passing
just east of the Outer Banks, but it waas not a major storm.
1992 yielded 6 named storms, but one - Hurricane Andrew - was a
monster. It wrecked south Florida before moving on to Louisiana.
Tropical Storm Danielle churned north along the Eastern Shore, but
was of minimal consequence. Otherwise, the season wsa quiet.
1993 generated 8 named storms. One, Tropical Storm, Arlene, hit
south Texas. Hurricane Emily came at the Outer Banks, but turned
1994 was a busy year for Florida, with 3 of 7 named storms -
Alberto, Beryl and Gordon - hitting the Sunshone State. Of the trio,
however, only Gordon became a hurricane and that while at sea. It
was, however, another of those storms that for a time seemed
destined to strike the Outer Banks and Hampton Roads. But Gordon
turned back before coming ashore.
1995 brought 19 named storms including 5 that hit the U.S.: 4 in
Florida - Allison, Erin, Jerry and Opal - and 1, Dean, in Texas. The
most serious of those, hurricanes Erin and Opal, both hit Pensacola,
KEYWORDS: HURRICANE by CNB