They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
That is especially true when it comes to hurricanes. Lessons from past storms could serve us well in future storms.
Here’s a look at 10 historic storms, what we’ve learned from them, and what we’ve forgotten.
♦ Great Galveston Hurricane (1900)
In September 1900, Isaac Cline, the local representative of the newly formed U.S. Weather Bureau, heard rumblings of a storm forming to the southwest of Cuba. But the weatherman, who had previously published an article detailing why he thought the chances of a hurricane hitting the coast of Texas an impossibility, dismissed the reports.
He was wrong.
Also known as the Hurricane of 1900, the Category 4 storm struck in the middle of the night, a 15-foot wall of water swept across the barrier island and destroyed more than half the homes there. Official estimates put the death toll at around 8,000, making it the deadliest natural disaster in North American history.
Pride and arrogance make for a deadly combination when it comes to hurricane predictions.
♦ Hurricane of 1921
Local legend has it that the Tampa Bay area has been spared a major hurricane because it is protected by the spirits of American Indians who once prospered along its shores. But back in October of 1921, a late-season storm sneaked up the Yucatan Channel, headed straight across the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into Tarpon Springs.
Hog Island, located a few miles south of the eye, caught the brunt of the storm. The hurricane carried a 9-foot storm surge that was powerful enough to scour a channel 20 feet deep, straight down to the underlying bedrock. The newly formed “Hurricane Pass” split Hog Island in two separate landmasses — Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island.
Also known as the 1921 Tarpon Springs Hurricane, a Category 4 storm with winds of more than 100 mph, it also devastated downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The question is not if it will happen again, but when.
♦ 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane
On Sept. 16, 1928, a Category 4 storm made landfall in Palm Beach and headed inland toward the farming communities that surrounded Lake Okeechobee. The rain that accompanied this storm soon swelled the lake, which overflowed the dike sending a 6- to 9-foot storm surge across the local farmlands, killing more than 2,000.
Most of the dead were poor blacks. Many of the bodies were unceremoniously buried in mass graves. Others were doused with diesel fuel and burned on funeral pyres. Author Zora Neale Hurston wrote about the tragedy in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Afterward, many vowed that the poor and disenfranchised should never suffer so again. (Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005.)
♦ Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
It was a small hurricane, with an eye just 8 miles across, but it packed a punch of a storm 10 times its size.
Thirty hours before landfall, this tropical system was barely at hurricane strength. But when it hit the warm water of the Florida Straits, it turned into a monster Category 5 with a barometric pressure of just 26.35. It was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States until Hurricane Camille struck Mississippi in 1969.
Authorities were slow to react. A train from Miami sent to rescue the hundreds of World War I veterans working on the Overseas Highway arrived just in time to be swept off its tracks by a 20-foot storm surge. More than 400 died.
Author Ernest Hemingway was so critical of the government’s poor response that the hurricane is sometimes called “Hemingway’s Storm.”
Lesson learned: Don’t wait, evacuate.
♦ Great New England Hurricane of 1938
In the summer of 1938, the popular notion among storm watchers was that Atlantic hurricanes usually veered out to sea before Bermuda. But this Category 5 storm had other plans.
Barreling up the eastern coast of the U.S. at 70 mph, the “Long Island Express” shot the gap, roared across the peninsula north of New York City then crashed ashore in New England, taking hundreds of thousands by surprise.
With peak winds of more than 180 mph and waves as high as 50 feet, the tropical cyclone killed more than 600 people. How did this killer hurricane catch so many off guard? Poor communication and lack of technology certainly contributed. But institutional arrogance was also a factor.
Like many Tampa Bay residents, the locals thought “it could never happen here.” Few had heard of the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 that nearly sent the Puritans packing. Historical research has shown that a major hurricane has hit the New York-New England region every 80 to 100 years, a fact not lost on the victims of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
♦ Hurricane Donna (1960)
This storm was like a shark on the deck of a fishing boat. Just when you think it’s done, it turns around and bites you.
Donna tore up Cuba in September of 1960 then hammered the Florida Keys. It roared across the Everglades into the Gulf of Mexico then turned north, came ashore at Fort Myers and travelled straight up the Florida Peninsula.
It exited at Daytona Beach but wasn’t quite done. Donna made landfall again in North Carolina and continued its path of destruction up into New England. At its peak, Donna had wind gusts ranging between 175 and 200 mph and a storm surge of 13 feet. At the time, Donna was the only storm to have ever produced hurricane winds in Florida, the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
Hurricane Donna showed the country just how unpredictable tropical cyclones can be. Because of its impact on so many people, the name Donna was retired. Her lessons were forgotten until 2004, when a storm named Charley followed an eerily similar path.
♦ Hurricane Andrew (1992)
One of the costliest and most intense storms in U.S. history, Andrew would have caused even greater destruction if it had made landfall a little further up the coast in Miami.
In 1992, few people living in South Florida remembered 1965’s Hurricane Betsy. Andrew, while smaller (just 40 miles in diameter), was more powerful. Only the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969, both Category 5 storms, had lower barometric pressures at landfall.
Andrew killed 65 people and left nearly 25,000 homeless. The widespread devastation, broadcast for months on network television, helped raise hurricane awareness. It also prompted government officials to take a closer look at the state’s building codes, which many believed to be woefully inadequate.
Because of Andrew, Florida now has some of the strictest building codes in the nation.
♦ Hurricane Charley (2004)
With seven named storms, August 2004 will be remembered as one of the most active months in hurricane history. But one storm stands out from all the rest: Hurricane Charley.
It started off slow and crossed Cuba, but picked up steam when it hit the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Tampa Bay area braced for impact as residents thought Charley might be the dreaded “100-year storm” they had long feared.
But then, contrary to all computer models, the hurricane suddenly made an abrupt turn to the right and came ashore south of the bay area, making landfall in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Despite minute-by-minute updates from the 24-hour news media, many locals were still caught off guard.
More than 12,000 homes were destroyed as Charley headed inland. Ironically, west coast evacuees found themselves in the storm’s path as the hurricane battered seemingly safe Orlando.
Charley left many weather forecasters, whose predictions proved wrong, scratching their heads. When it comes to hurricanes, there are no safe bets.
♦ Hurricane Katrina (2005)
Those who survived Hurricane Andrew’s wrath in South Florida brushed off the Category 1 storm that hit on Aug. 25, 2005. The eleventh named tropical system of the season crossed the peninsula and then grew in strength when it hit the warm waters of the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
As it headed northwest, Katrina grew stronger until it achieved Category 5 strength, kicking up waves that towered at nearly 50 feet. When it eventually came ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi it carried with it a 25-foot storm surge.
Damage up and down the coast was severe, but the worst loss of life occurred in a city that had been spared the brunt of the storm, New Orleans. Antiquated levees, designed to withstand a Category 3 storm, failed and flooded many poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The city, state and country were unprepared for what followed.
Grim images of the dead and stranded led the nightly news. Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and damaged $67.8 billion worth of homes, businesses and vehicles, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
But like the 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane, it was the poor and disenfranchised who suffered the most.
♦ Superstorm Sandy (2012)
At the height of its fury, Hurricane Sandy had tropical storm-force winds that extended 1,000 miles from its center of circulation. Its sheer size, some 2,000 miles in diameter, earned the designation “super.”
But Sandy was not only big, it was also strong, one of the most powerful systems ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras, N.C. High wind, heavy rain, big waves and a storm surge devastated the Jersey Shore, which had seen nothing like it in decades.
A wall of water nearly 14 feet high pushed into New York Harbor, which then flooded parts of lower Manhattan and Hoboken.
Superstorm Sandy knocked out power in 17 states and left more than 8 million people in the dark. As hurricane death tolls go, Sandy’s was relatively low: just 33 casualties in the United States.
But the psychological impact the storm had on the Northeast is immeasurable. A tropical cyclone can hit anyone on the East Coast anywhere, anytime.