2020 has been a mixed bag of tumultuous events with the coronavirus pandemic, relentless wildfires and social unrest. The 2020 hurricane season has been no less dramatic, serving up so many storms that the National Weather Service had to defer to the Greek alphabet when it ran out of names for the tempestuous season.
As we wrestle our way through the dying breaths of 2020’s hurricane season, we take a look back at some of the biggest storms in history to impact the U.S.
When Do Hurricanes Occur?
Hurricane season roars into the tropics every year, wreaking havoc from June to November and leaving a wake of destruction in its path. Because of the Caribbean’s warm waters, it has become a hot spot for hurricane development.
Summer and Fall become a busy time when waters are warmest, and when they combine with the added wind shear from the southern jet stream, the conditions are ripe for tropical cyclone development. From there, it’s not a far leap to hurricane strength.
"The two deadliest hurricanes in the Atlantic basin’s history were in October," says AccuWeather Meteorologist, Dave Samuhel.
Although October falls toward the end of hurricane season, it can still be just as deadly. The season may officially start in June, but some of the country’s biggest and most deadliest hurricanes have occurred toward the end of the season in October.
Top 5 Most Devastating October Hurricanes
Great Hurricane of 1780
Date: October 9 -20, 1780
Highest Winds: Unknown
Fatalities: 22,000 - 27,501
Estimated Damages: Unknown
Areas Affected: Barbados, Martinique, St. Lucia
There are not too many details known about the Great Hurricane of 1780, as it happened before official records were kept. However, it’s potency has made it infamous. It is the deadliest hurricane recorded in American history. Entire homes, churches and buildings were flattened like putty or swept away in the rushing waters.
Also known as the Great Hurricane of the Antilles, the 1780 Disaster and Huracán San Calixto, this hurricane claimed the lives of more than 27,500 people. Part of what made this storm so deadly is its collision with soldiers from Great Britain and France who were in the middle of fighting the Revolutionary War. Both countries experienced substantial losses to both their crew and vessels when the hurricane struck, amassing the highest death toll in American history.
Date: October 16 - 27, 2005
Highest Winds: 185 mph
Estimated Damages: $29 billion
Areas Affected: Florida Peninsula
In 2005, Hurricane Wilma spun into the southeastern area of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the southern Florida peninsula area. It had had a rough start as a somewhat chaotic tropical depression, floundering until it suddenly exploded into a Category 5 hurricane within hours. After wreaking havoc on Mexico, it calmed to a Category 3 before making landfall in the U.S.
It arrived in the Florida Keys early the morning of Monday, October 24, 2005, bringing the most massive storm surge the area had seen since 1965’s Hurricane Betsy. There was nearly $30 billion in damage, and more than six million Florida residents lost power.
"Wilma is famous for being the strongest hurricane ever in the Atlantic basin. It had the lowest barometric pressure reading of any hurricane in the history of the basin," Samuhel said.
Hurricane Wilma is also one of the top five most expensive Atlantic hurricanes in both American and Mexican history.
Date: October 22, 2012- November 2, 2012
Highest Winds: 115 mph
Estimated Damages: $74.1 billion
Areas Affected: 24 states
Hurricane Sandy was a widespread storm that attacked 24 different states, creating the most damage in New York and New Jersey. While some hurricanes have been infamous for their high winds and flooding, it is storm surge that had the most impact here. As low-lying areas on the Atlantic seaboard, New York City and the Jersey Shore are especially vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. New York Harbor reached record levels with a 32.5-foot wave as the slow-moving storm moved into town. The damage was immense.
Hurricane Sandy struck New York City on October 29, 2012, a late arrival near the end of the season that put much of downtown underwater. It caused substantial flooding, with waters filling subway stations and overtaking entire roadways. The flooding also caused massive power losses, costing an estimated $71.4 billion in overall damage.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that it is the fourth costliest storm in American history.
Date: September 28 - October 10, 2016
Highest Winds: 165 mph
Estimated Damages: $10.3 billion
Areas Affected: North Carolina, South Carolina
Hurricane Matthew tumbled onto land below McClellanville, South Carolina in a direct hit to the Cape Romain Wildlife Sanctuary. South Carolina sustained significant damage from a storm surge of nearly eight feet and subsequent flooding, while North Carolina also experienced a storm surge of its own. Many beaches faced severe erosion, and there was significant loss to coastal property, particularly within Charleston, South Carolina.
Hurricane Matthew was a record-making storm in a few ways. It was the first hurricane since 1954 to make landfall above Florida, and it was the first Category 5 hurricane that the Atlantic had seen since 2007’s Hurricane Felix.
In all, the storm cost over $15 billion in damage. Hurricane Matthew could have cost a lot more had it come ashore in Florida as a category 4 hurricane, but it set its sights on the Carolinas instead.
Date: October 7 - 16, 2018
Highest Winds: 161 mph
Estimated Damages: $25 billion
Areas Affected: Florida Panhandle
Hurricane Michael was a monster when it barreled right into the Florida Panhandle as a Category 5 hurricane in 2018. The areas of Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas were particularly hard hit by the early October storm, bearing the brunt of the damage.
It was the first Category 5 hurricane the U.S. had seen since 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, and it certainly made a name for itself. With maximum winds of 161 miles per hour and unrelenting storm surge, the damage spread well into Georgia, North Carolina and even Virginia once it had had its fill of Florida. Reported losses are estimated at around $25 billion, but today the wounds still run deep as the city continues to rebuild and recover two full years after the storm.
The Bottom Line
With the way 2020 has been going, it is entirely possible that hurricane season is not through with us yet. Many of the biggest and most devastating hurricanes in American history have occurred in October, which is why homeowners living in the Gulf and Atlantic states should always take extra precautions. As we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history, a small tropical cyclone in the Caribbean can quickly explode into something far more destructive.
Photo by Douglas Sacha / GettyImages