Hurricanes Essay

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A Hurricane is a particularly strong tropical storm; that is, a storm with winds in excess of 74 miles per hour. Hurricane is the term used for this type of storm in the North Atlantic Ocean; in the Pacific Ocean, these storms are known as typhoons, and in the Indian Ocean they are known as cyclones. The smallest hurricanes-Category 1 on the Saffir/Simpson scale-are relatively minor, with winds of between 74 and 95 miles per hour and a storm surge of about four to five feet. A Category 5 storm, on the other hand, packs winds of over 155 miles per hour; with a storm surge along the coastline of greater than 18 feet.

Current research suggests that Atlantic hurricanes begin with atmospheric disturbances near north central Africa. These disturbances move across the continent until they reach West Africa, where they can become storms known as tropical depressions, characterized by low barometric pressure. As the depression moves across the Atlantic, the depression can build and gain strength and become a tropical storm, and when it grows to sufficient strength, it becomes a hurricane.

Hurricanes are given names to aid in their identification. Originally they were given only women’s names, but since 1979 they have been named for men and women, and in recent years care has been taken to add French and Spanish names to the list, given the fact that hurricanes can strike Spanishand French-speaking areas in the Caribbean.

The “hurricane season,” runs between June 1 and October 30. According to the U.S. Weather Service, an average of two major hurricanes hits every three years, and one Category 4 or greater hurricane strikes every six years. However, there is nothing to prevent a major hurricane from striking the same region two years in a row, or even twice in one season.

Hurricanes tend to strike most often in the southeastern United States. States at greatest risk extend from Texas to the Carolinas. The highest death toll from a hurricane in American history resulted from the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which struck a city that local boosters had claimed could not possibly be hit by a hurricane. When storms turn up the Eastern Seaboard, states from Florida to Maine can be affected, sometimes severely. Long Island (New York) and New England, extending eastward into the Atlantic Ocean, tend to bear the brunt of such storms. Hurricane Gloria in 1985, for example, barely brushed New Jersey, but did substantial damage to Long Island. A very powerful hurricane killed about 600 people on Long Island and in New England in 1938. Today, highly sophisticated weather forecasting and monitoring tools prevent substantial losses of life from hurricanes, because people can be warned to secure their property from high winds, or to evacuate areas that will be particularly hard-hit.

The most damaging hurricane – and the most damaging single natural disaster – in American history is Hurricane Katrina, which struck Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005. (It passed over south Florida in a much weaker size.) The storm grew to Category 5 before weakening, as many storms do, to a Category 3 storm when it made landfall between New Orleans, Louisiana and Gulfport, Mississippi. While wind damage was quite severe from this storm, particularly along the coastline, the major feature of Katrina was the very large storm surge that hit many buildings, and, in some cases, entire towns-along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast. The surge pushed boats inland, drove water into buildings, and was so strong that it caused bridges along the Gulf Coast to collapse because of the upward pressure the waves exerted on the bridge decks, rather than the lateral pressure usually seen in high winds.

In New Orleans, the storm surge on Lake Ponchartrain was so great that powerful waves entered drainage and navigation canals. The levees along these canals failed, a result of inadequate design, planning, and maintenance, and about 80 percent of the city was flooded, in some places over 14 feet deep. The possibility of this happening was well known before Katrina, but politics, budget issues, and a lack of attention to the hazard made it impossible to strengthen the system against this storm. The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina was greater than typical for a Category 3 hurricane, which reveals a shortcoming of the Saffir-Simpson scale: the scale measures wind speed, not storm surge; the two are not a direct relation to each other. Some storms, like Hurricane Andrew (1992) in Florida, did most of their damage from high winds. Hurricane Floyd (1999), the most expensive storm in North Carolina history, did its damage primarily inland, when rains caused rivers to overflow and flood many cities and towns, and caused toxic runoff to flow into rivers from farms. Some scientists claim that the numbers and intensity of hurricanes will increase because of global climate change.


  1. B. Elsner and A.B. Kara, Hurricanes of the North Atlantic: Climate and Society (Oxford University Press, 1999);
  2. Shirley Laska, “What if Hurricane Ivan Had Not Missed New Orleans?” Natural Hazards Observer (v.29/6, 2004);
  3. W.G. Peacock, H. Morrow, and Hugh Gladwin, Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender, and the Sociology of Disasters (Routledge, 1997);
  4. A. Pielke, The Hurricane (Routledge, 1990);
  5. H. Simpson and Herbert Riehl, The Hurricane and Its Impact (Louisiana State University Press, 1981);
  6. Bill Swichtenberg, “Hurricane Floods Pose Risk to Environment and Health, New Research Reveals,” Water Engineering & Management (v.149/4, 2002);
  7. I.L. Van Heerden and Mike Bryan, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina: The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist (Viking, 2006).

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