Hurricane winds can be life threatening

Hurricane season starts June 1

By Blake Mathews - Meteorologist
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - While many different life threatening risks accompany hurricanes, for this article we're going to focus on the wind aspect of the storm.

A hurricane is classified as an intense area of low pressure with winds of 74 mph sustained or more. These winds, due to the law of conservation of angular momentum and the pressure gradient force, speed up as you approach the eye. This area is known as the eye wall and is the most intense part of the hurricane.

Hurricane intensity is rated strictly on their surface wind speeds on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with a Category 1 hurricane being the least intense producing only cosmetic damage, to a Category 5 being the strongest, capable of inconceivable destruction.

Only three Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States since records have been kept, including the 1935 Labor Day hurricane (Key West), Camille in 1969 (Pass Christian, Miss.) and Andrew in 1992 (Homestead, Fla.).

Countless other hurricanes have obtained Category 5 status but lost steam before striking land, including Gilbert, Allen, Opal, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

As scary as the winds can be in a hurricane, they are not the deadliest hazard in a storm. That infamy belongs to storm surge. Wind in and of itself is not deadly. It's debris that becomes missiles that kill long before the worst of a hurricane arrives.

The key to remember is that you run from the water and hide from the wind.

Jacksonville has a unique history with hurricanes. Our location as the furthest western point on the east coast has spared us direct hits from many storms. But that's not to say it can't happen. It has.

George Winterling cemented his reputation as storm forecaster when he accurately predicted the landfall of Hurricane Dora, a Category 2 hurricane, in northeastern Florida.  It is the only known hurricane to directly impact this part of the state from the Atlantic. . Winds in excess of 100 mph were felt all along the Jacksonville Beaches and caused tremendous damage throughout Duval and St. Johns counties.

Much more recently, Tropical Storm Beryl made a wild about-face in 2012 while moving northeast near the Carolinas only to turn around and strike Jacksonville head-on with near hurricane force winds at the beach.

Hurricanes are huge storms and their winds are felt over many hundreds of miles. In fact hurricanes are so big, that it is considered a 'direct hit' if you are within 60 miles of the eye itself. That means the eye of a hurricane could hit Palm Coast and be considered a direct strike on Jacksonville. Some of the biggest storms in the Atlantic have wind fields the size of Texas.

With a wind field that large, it takes a long time for the inertia of the wind to slow down and the energy to be expended. Therefore big hurricanes, even striking the west coast of Florida is cause for serious concern for our area.

Here are some factoids about hurricanes:

  • Largest cyclone on record: Typhoon Tip at 1,380 miles in the west Pacific (half the size of the United States).
  • Smallest cyclone: Hurricane Marco at 12 miles (Bay of Campache, southern Gulf)
  • Most powerful: Typhoon Tip, at 870 mb. Hurricane Wilma is strongest in Atlantic, at 882 mb.
  • The word hurricane is derived from the Mayan God Hurikan, who was the god of wind and storm.
  • A hurricane hunter flying through Wilma while it was near peak intensity recorded sustained surface winds of over 200 mph.

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