By: Chief Meteorologist Eric FisherBy Eric Fisher

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It’s tough to gauge exactly what the weather is doing these days. You’re bombarded with big headlines of ‘epic storm’, ‘wild weather’, and ‘catastrophic cyclone’ seemingly on a constant basis. Video of wrecked homes, raging floodwater, blazing wildfires, and crippling blizzards float across your TV screen on an almost daily basis. And all this can sometimes hide the truth – that it’s actually been very quiet out there.

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Tornado counts have been at or near record lows over the past two years in the U.S. and wildfires have trended downward in that same time period. But hurricane activity and impact in the Atlantic is the poster child for calmer times, and today is a significant time to prove it. Nine years ago on this date, destructive Hurricane Wilma roared ashore in southwest Florida. It packed winds of 125mph when its center moved inland near Cape Romano (6:30am ET) and holds a distinction no other storm can claim since – it made landfall as a Category 3, ‘Major’, hurricane.

Yes, it’s now been 9 whole years since a major hurricane has made landfall in America. Or if you like big numbers, 3,287 days. This smashes the previous record gap  between major hurricane landfalls, which was across 5 seasons from 1980-1984. These records date back to 1851, and indicate a couple of things. For one – we’ve been lucky. Not only has the U.S. avoided a storm with destructive winds topping 115mph in almost a decade, but Florida hasn’t seen ANY hurricane make landfall since Wilma! And yes, that is also a record. Incredible considering that according to the National Hurricane Center, 40% of the landfalling U.S. hurricanes from 1851 to 2010 have impacted the Florida coast.

Radar Loop of Wilma crossing Florida in late October of 2005

Wilma by the numbers: Wilma was most notable for its insanely rapid intensification. It went from a 60-knot tropical storm to a 150-knot category five hurricane in less than 24 hours (on October 18th). It’s extremely low pressure was enough to make your ears pop and then some. It bottomed out at 882mb, which stands as the lowest pressure ever observed in an Atlantic storm. At that point it’s estimated that winds were as high as 185mph. As it crashed into Florida, it brought the highest storm surge seen since Betsy in 1965 and inundated many island communities. When all was said and done, at least 22 people were killed and there was an estimated loss of over $20 billion in the U.S. That makes it the 4th most costly hurricane ever to strike our coast (behind Katrina, Andrew, and Ike).

What’s happened in recent years that makes this a bigger issue? People. Wealth. Growth. I’m all for wealthier Americans and good business, but a lot of it has been placed in a precarious path. More than a million people have moved to Florida since 2005. That’s a whole lot of folks who haven’t had to consider what a ‘major’ hurricane can dish out. Haven’t stood in lines for gas, haven’t lost all their personal documents in flooding, haven’t had to rebuild a home. It’s the complacency which can develop that’s almost as big of a concern as the weather itself.

southflhurricanestrikes

Source: Brian McNoldy, Senior Research Associate at Univ. of Miami’s Rosenstiel School  

The Miami metro area is one that’s been studied exhaustively because of this. A fun city, great food, a cultural melting pot…why not move to Miami? And so many have! Look at the incredible boom of population around Miami in recent decades. But, only 2 major hurricane strikes since the 60s. Wilma was one, Andrew was the other. I’d say we all remember the devastation Andrew brought, but it probably wouldn’t be true. Anyone in college right now or younger wasn’t alive to see it! When I see a graph like this, I also picture the situation out west. Development in the west boomed during an extremely wet time in its history. Building dams and cities around them seemed like a no-brainer in the moment. But now we’re seeing the true colors of the west. It’s a place that sees mega-droughts. Florida is a place that sees powerful hurricanes. You’ve got to build to your climate or you’re in trouble.

bob

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Hurricane Bob’s track in 1991. Source: WPC

Moving this forward to how it impacts us, I think a similar idea applies to our situation in New England. We haven’t had a hurricane make landfall in Massachusetts since Bob in 1991 (Arthur gave us a pretty close shake this 4th of July, though). There is a huge segment of the population which lives here and hasn’t gone through winds like that. And I can guarantee you there is a big difference between 100mph in hurricane season and 100mph in the winter. Hurricane season – trees have leaves, boats are in the water, and vacationers breed complacency and/or bad decisions. Winter – no leaves, no boats, few visitors. Just look to this most recent nor’easter. Winds barely topping 50mph brought down trees all over the place, simply because they had leaves on them to catch that wind. The destruction can be a whole different world, even if you’ve lived through some of these big winter storms.

1938

Damage left behind by the 1938 Hurricane

And to think even farther back, we truly haven’t seen the worst of what can happen here in 76+ years. The Hurricane of 1938 is the benchmark storm for what we should always keep a wary eye out for in New England. A storm like that today? It can happen, probably will happen, and will be a whole lot worse because there’s much more in the way of a storm like that. Imagine wind gusts over 186mph (which was recorded at Blue Hill Observatory in 1938). A 17′ storm surge? Waves topping 50 feet? 2 BILLION trees destroyed? It really boggles the mind to even consider.

I can also tell you firsthand that no one ever thinks it can happen to them. You hear it over and over again. No matter how many times you watch natural disasters unfold around the world, you really can’t fathom it happening in your neighborhood. From my time in tornado and hurricane aftermath, that’s what you hear from everyone. And I completely understand it – wrapping your head around the idea of all the things you’ve accumulated, your life, your property, just getting washed and blown away? Not something we take the time to think about. But what I’m saying here is that it would be a great idea to keep the ‘possible’ in your mind all the time. And that goes double for big decisions. Whether it’s a place to live, a piece of property you’d like to invest in, a business you’d like to start, or having a preparedness kit in your home. Remember that trends like this ‘drought’, even if it’s a record, will not last forever.

We’ll see what happens in 2015, but as of right now it looks like the streak will grow to over 3,500 days. Let’s hope that our luck holds out, but prepare for the time that it doesn’t.

 

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Eric Fisher