2017: Most damaging Atlantic hurricane season of all

Final death toll may surpass 1000

     This year has been the most active year for Atlantic hurricanes since Hurricane Katrina flattened and flooded Louisiana in 2005. In the Atlantic Ocean, the US National Hurricane Center tracked 17 named storms (ten hurricanes and seven tropical storms) in 2017. The Center's Hurricane Tracking Chart (at the bottom of this page) depicts an active Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic, offshore of the eastern US and Canada. Six of the ten hurricanes became “major” storms in categories 3, 4, or 5, in which the peak wind speeds exceeded 111, 130, or 157 miles per hour, respectively.

     Winds greater than 110 miles per hour will wreak significant damage to homes, trees, businesses, and power lines. The table below at right from the National Hurricane Center describes likely damage to homes from hurricane winds in categories 3, 4, or 5.

     Three major hurricanes that entered the United States this year led to the deaths of at least 234 persons, and destroyed hundreds of billions of dollars worth of property. Hurricane Harvey entered Texas as a category 4 storm, but as its winds diminished, it unleashed torrential rains totaling 40 to 61 inches (one to 1 ½ meters of water depth) over several days4. Greater Houston was effectively washed out. In September, category-five Hurricane Irma demolished ten Caribbean island nations or territories, including the Virgin Islands, then marched up the entire length of the state of Florida as a category-four storm. Hurricane Maria (also category 5) devastated first the Virgin Islands, then all of Puerto Rico. More than 95% of the 3.4 million American citizens of Puerto Rico lost electricity and piped water for months. At the end of the year, 100 days after Maria blew through, more than one-half of the commonwealth was still getting by without electric power, according to the New York Times. In contrast, 92% of electric customers had electricity at year's end in the Virgin Islands.

The Virgin Islands have a thick green forest cover before Hurricane Irma arrived (top photo, August 25) but appear brown and denuded after Irma departed (bottom, September10), in these images from NASA's Landsat satellite. Credit: NASA
Hurricane Irma at maximum intensity (category 5) on Sep. 5. Irma is about to directly strike the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, then St. Kitts and Nevis, which are outlined to the left of the eye of the hurricane in this weather satellite image.

The impact on human life

     These three hurricanes killed a lot of people in several countries and territories: Harvey killed at least 84 persons, and Irma, 95. Puerto Rican authorities gave an official death count of 55 from Hurricane Maria at the end of November, though officials readily admit this is an undercount. Maria, though, is said to have indirectly led to the death of over 1000 from the lack of electricity and running water for many months. Two social scientists, Alexis Santos, at Pennsylvania State University, and Jeffrey Howard, a health scientist, estimate Maria's indirect death toll to be 1,085 or more in Puerto Rico alone (according to vox.com3). This is double the previous record of 500 deaths that resulted from the floods of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.6 Santos and Howard culled the Vital Statistics of Puerto Rico to compare the number of deaths in September and October 2017 to the historical average of deaths in September and October in the previous seven years. For this year, they counted only the deaths reported by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety. There was an excess of more than one thousand deaths in 2017 in those two months.

The cost in damages

     Maria, Harvey, and Irma were responsible for the most devastation the United States has ever experienced in one year from hurricanes since, arguably, the great Galveston hurricane of 1900: damages in the USA alone amount to $265 billion (with a “b”)—the highest on record. 2 Damages from Katrina twelve years ago amounted to $215 billion (adjusted for inflation) that the federal government and private and federal insurance programs spent. That is less than people are paying for damages from the three major hurricanes of 2017.

    Damages from all severe weather events, at 306 billion dollars in 2017, also set an all-time record for this country.6

SOURCES AND CITATIONS:

  1. "Extremely active 2017 Atlantic hurricane season finally ends" (NOAA news, 30 Nov 2017).
  2. Weather Underground, "2017 U.S. Hurricane Damage Estimate of $206.6 Billion: Highest on Record", November 28, 2017.
  3. "New data shows hurricane deaths in Puerto Rico could be 20 times higher than the government claims" by Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell, Vox.com.
  4. “Historic Hurricane Harvey's Recap”, the Weather Channel, Sep. 4, 2017.
  5. “Detailed Meteorological Summary on Hurricane Irma”, NOAA, National Weather Service, 2017.
  6. "These Billion-Dollar Natural Disasters Set a U.S. Record in 2017" New York Times, Jan. 8, 2018.
TABLE: Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, peak winds, and probable damages
Hurricane Category Highest sustained wind speed, miles/hr.
Examples of damages to homes
1 74—95
SOME damage
2 96—110
EXTENSIVE damage
3 111—129
DEVASTATING damage: There is a very high risk of injury or death to people, livestock, and pets due to flying and falling debris. Nearly all older mobile homes will be destroyed. Unprotected windows will be broken by flying debris. Well-built frame homes can experience major damage.
4 130—156
EXTREME damage: There is a very high risk of injury or death to people due to flying and falling debris. Nearly all older mobile homes will be destroyed. A high percentage of newer mobile homes also will be destroyed. Poorly constructed homes can sustain complete collapse of all walls as well as the loss of the roof structure.
5 >157
CATASTROPHIC damage: People are at very high risk of injury or death from flying or falling debris, even if indoors in mobile homes or framed homes. Almost complete destruction of all mobile homes will occur, regardless of age or construction. A high percentage of frame homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse.

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Hurricane Tracking Chart shows locations, tracks, and intensities of Atlantic hurricanes, tropical storms, and depressions in 2017. Tracks of "major" hurricanes (MH) are purple; other hurricanes (H), red; tropical storms (TS), yellow. Numbers in square boxes at beginning and end of each track reference the hurricane number in the table at upper left. CREDIT: NOAA, National Hurricane Center