The mystery of Latitude 30

Why the First Coast is protected from hurricanes, and why our luck will run out


Some have likened the 30th parallel to a magical force field. Others call Jacksonville's position on the globe a lucky location. Still others say it's a Gulf Stream gift.

Whatever you call it, meteorologists say there's a scientific reason why just one hurricane on record has struck the First Coast.

If you kind of envision a plate of spaghetti on a map of the southeastern United States and Caribbean, the squiggly lines of pasta would be all the hurricanes and tropical storms flying by us.  In over 100 years of weather records show only one hurricane made a direct hit on the beautiful beaches between St. Augustine and St. Simons Island, and that was Dora.

Early the morning of Sept. 10, 1964, the Category 2 storm roared due west into St. Augustine from the Atlantic, wrecking havoc on much of the coast northeast Florida and southeast Georgia, and flooding property as far inland as Live Oak.

So over the past 160 years there have been 1,500 tropical storms in the Atlantic, 600 hurricanes, 200 major hurricanes -- and only one impact along the greater Jacksonville coast.

Jacksonville has felt the impact of six hurricanes over those years, but only one that came directly at us.

So why has this area remained relatively safe from hurricanes, and how long can that last?

When we look at how far away we are from the equator -- 30 degrees north and 81 degrees longitude -- we're right at what's called the recurvature zone.

Because of that, as storms reach our coastline they're usually traveling parallel to the coast, so they brush by on their way north. 

When I go out to speaking engagements, I quiz the audience by asking, "Who is farther west: Orlando or Jacksonville?" Since people drive southeast to get inland to Orlando, they believe it's farther west, but they're actually a smidge east of Jacksonville.

What about Philadelphia? Again, Jacksonville is just west of the City of Brotherly Love.

Because we're so far west, storms usually cruise right by the First Coast. But usually doesn't mean always.

We need to be just as concerned as if we lived in South Florida precisely because too much time has passed since our last hurricane.  Prior to Dora, we believe the previous hurricane to impact near Jacksonville in the late 1890s. So when we look at the history of it, we're in that time zone.

We may be due for a hurricane, and not just the little ones like the Frances and the Jeannes that we saw in 2004, but we're talking about a legitimate direct-impact knock-me-out without-power-for-a-week, homes-lost-along-the-coast storm.

Statistics show it is likely that residents of northeast Florida and southeast Georgia will experience a storm with this impact in their lifetimes.  And when the next Dora comes residents, especially along the coast, could struggle for years.

Whether it's keeping a job, getting a paycheck or just trying to get things back to normal, life will be turned upside down for months, maybe more after a Dora-sized event. And if we experience something stronger than a Category 2 landfall, people could struggle for years, especially along the coast.

As for when something like this could happen, it's anybody's guess. While we are well overdue for that next big one, it may not happen this year or next year or for 10 years, but we need to be prepared because our luck will run out.

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