2004, a most sinister season

Only Texas in 1886 had the misfortune that struck Florida last year. Who can forget the here-we-go-again of it all?

By Times Staff Writer
Published May 29, 2005

For Floridians, 2004 was a hurricane season not soon forgotten.

Four hurricanes raked the state in about six weeks, and three were classified as major storms. Never in the 153 years that records have been kept had Florida been hit so many times in a single season. Only once had any state ever been struck four times in a year: Texas, 1886.

"The 2004 season was one to tell your grandchildren about," Max Mayfield, NOAA's National Hurricane Center director, said on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site (www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2004/s2347.htm) The numbers alone are staggering: 117 killed by the four storms, $17.5-billion in damages, more than 9-million people evacuated. One in every five Florida homes was affected in some way by the storms. The insurance industry called 2004 the second worst year ever for natural disaster losses, behind only 1992 and Hurricane Andrew.

While things couldn't have been much worse, they may not get much better either. One forecaster, Stacy Stewart of the National Hurricane Center, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that while it's highly unlikely the state would get hit by four hurricanes again, Floridians should plan "on this being another above-average season."

An average Atlantic hurricane season includes six to 14 named storms, four to eight of those hurricanes, and one to three of the hurricanes Category 3, 4 or 5 storms. An above-average season could mean 10 to 19 named storms, six to 12 hurricanes and two to seven major storms. Officials say the period from 1995-2004 has been the most active on record.

Here's a summary of the 2004 season. Information was provided by NOAA.

1. Alex: Formed off North Carolina on July 31, it brought Category 1 conditions to the Outer Banks and later strengthened into a Category 3 storm. One person died, and minor damage was reported.

2. Bonnie: This tropical storm formed July 29, but shearing kept it from intensifying. Three people were killed by a tornado associated with the storm in North Carolina.

3. Charley: Formed as a depression in the Atlantic on Aug. 9 and moved into the Caribbean, traveling west-northwest. It strengthened into a hurricane as it approached Jamaica and began a more northwesterly path. After pounding the Caymans, Charley crossed Cuba, weakened and turned north. The storm, while small with hurricane-force winds extending only about 7 miles from the center, intensified rapidly into a Category 4 as it moved north. Originally forecast to hit Pinellas County, it veered east in its final hours and devastated Port Charlotte with 150 mph winds. It crossed the state as a hurricane, exiting around Daytona Beach with 75 mph winds. It came ashore again at Cape Romain, S.C., then again near North Myrtle Beach. It threatened Norfolk, Va., before being absorbed into a front near Massachusetts on Aug. 14. Rainfall across Florida ranged from 6 to 8 inches, and about nine tornadoes were spawned. Because the storm was smaller and moved quickly, storm surge was less of a problem, measuring about 6 feet on Sanibel Island. The deaths of at least 33 people in the state were attributed to Charley, and total damages of about $14-billion made it the second most costly hurricane.

4. Danielle: Formed Aug. 13 and became a Category 2 hurricane but never threatened land.

5. Earl: Formed Aug. 13, became a tropical storm and affected the lower Windward Islands before degenerating. No casualties were reported.

6. Frances: A Cape Verde storm, it became a depression Aug. 25. It marched to the west-northwest, strengthening into a Category 4 hurricane Aug. 31. Some shearing dropped it to Category 3 status as it ripped through Bahamas. As the storm moved west toward Florida, it weakened slightly to a Category 2 and struck just south of Hutchinson Island. It tracked west-northwest over the state and emerged in the gulf off New Port Richey on Sept. 6. A second landfall was made at the mouth of the Aucilla River in the Big Bend area of the state, then the storm turned northeasterly with strong winds until dissipating Sept. 10 near Canada. Frances was blamed for 38 deaths in Florida, eight in Georgia, one in Ohio and one in the Bahamas, and caused about $9-billion worth of damage, $4.1-billion of that in Florida. Up to 10 inches of rain was reported in some areas of Florida, and Frances produced storm surges of 8 feet in Vero Beach and 6 feet in Pinellas County. One hundred one tornadoes were reported in association with Frances.

7. Gaston. Sprang to life as a depression Aug. 27 and struck as a minimal hurricane at Awendaw, S.C., north of Charleston, a few days later. Landfall weakened the storm into a depression, but a day later it became a tropical storm again as it crossed Yorktown, Va. Up to 12 inches of rain was reported in six hours in areas around Richmond. Flash floods caused eight deaths, and damage was estimated at $130-million.

8. Hermine: The same front that gave life to Gaston also created Hermine, south of Bermuda, on Aug. 25. This tropical storm eventually moved north and struck New Bedford, Mass., though no deaths or damages were reported.

9. Ivan: Another classic Cape Verde storm that formed Sept. 2 and moved west-northwest across the Atlantic. It passed over the southern Windwards as a Category 3 storm and strengthened into a Category 5 in the southeast Caribbean with winds of 160 mph, the first of three times it would touch that status. Ivan hammered Grenada and then Jamaica with catastrophic wind damage, then turned north as it got into the gulf. It hit just west of Gulf Shores, Ala., on Sept. 16 as a Category 3, with the strongest winds striking western Florida. It dumped enormous amounts of rain and spawned tornadoes as it roared through Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia. Ivan then exited into the Atlantic and headed back to hit South Florida on Sept. 21, got back into the gulf and struck western Louisiana as a tropical depression Sept. 24. Ivan lived for 221/2 days, traveled more than 6,000 miles and killed 92 people. It dumped more than a foot of rain in the Panhandle, already saturated from earlier storms. It produced more than 100 tornadoes, 61 on Sept. 17. Storm surge was 10-15 feet in Destin, and a 3.5-foot surge was observed in Tampa Bay. Ivan knocked out power to almost 2-million people and destroyed millions of acres of woodlands. Ivan was judged the most destructive hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle in more than 100 years.

10. Tropical Depression 10 started off Cape Verde but shear tore it apart within two days.

11. Jeanne: Formed Sept. 7 off Africa, Jeanne moved west uneventfully for almost a week before it hit the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Haiti. Rain-induced flooding killed 3,000 in Haiti. Jeanne then headed north but circled and began a westward path again, crossing the Bahamas and hitting Florida near Sebastian. It crossed the state, causing wind and rain damage in the bay area, before curving to the northeast. Total U.S. damage: just under $7-billion.

12. Karl: This powerful Category 4 storm confined its path to the open Atlantic Ocean.

13. Lisa: This minimal hurricane was tracked for about three weeks but never hit land.

14. Matthew: Tropical storm hit Louisiana, causing minor damage and no deaths.

15. Nicole: This minor storm passed near Bermuda, causing no damage.

16. Otto: Developed at the end of the season but remained in the Atlantic.