Skip to content
Batten the hatches: It's hurricane time
What a week for weather. It started with one of the toughest nor'easters of the winter-spring season laying a lashing or two on the Virginia coastline. Then scientists are worried about a hunk of the Continental Shelf breaking off, creating a tsunami, or tidal wave. Now today kicks off the 2000 hurricane season that runs through Nov. 30.
And it's too cold to be the first of June. With forecasted temperatures in the mid-60s for the rest of the week, it is more like the start of autumn than the start of summer. So what's with this hurricane June 1 business?
The hurricane season starts when water temperatures in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic Ocean basin reach 80 degrees, said Hugh Cobb of the National Weather Service in Wakefield. "Traditionally, the water reaches that temperature around June first," he said.
Although early season storms have visited Virginia -- the most memorable was Agnes, which caused major flooding in 1972 -- August through October is when we see almost 80 percent of our tropical storms and hurricanes.
"June storms are rare for Virginia," Cobb said. "But there are storms in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. And there can be storms around here, too."
Colorado State professor William Gray, the guru of hurricane forecasters, predicts seven hurricanes this season. Three of them will be major storms that will reach at least Category 3 status. In all, the Atlantic Ocean will produce 11 named storms this season, he said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, also predicts 11 storms, with at least three major hurricanes.
Hurricanes are ranked in five categories based mostly on wind speed -- Category 1 (74-95 mph), Category 2 (96-110), 3 (111-130), 4 (131-155), and 5 (greater than 155 mph).
This year's predictions, and last year's memories, have generated a rash of early season activity:
* Gov. Jim Gilmore has declared June 4-10 as Hurricane Preparedness Week. The Virginia Department of Emergency Services, the National Weather Service, and city and county emergency services will provide hurricane safety information to people who request it.
* The National Hurricane Center has scheduled a news conference for 10 this morning at the Virginia Air and Space Center.
* The Hampton Roads Emergency Management Committee already has begun a series of seminars -- the next one on the Peninsula is Aug. 5 at Patrick Henry Mall. The committee's goal is to distribute literature about evacuation routes, emergency shelters, high-risk areas and flood insurance. It also will use the seminars to educate the public about the risks and preparation associated with hurricanes.
Why all of this early season activity? Because Virginians were lulled and then hammered last year.
The 1999 season carried the prediction of higher-than-usual hurricane activity. Still, the first hurricane of the season didn't form until July 7 -- and it never made landfall. By mid-August, other hurricanes had formed and disappeared without threatening the Virginia coast.
On Aug. 24, the bottom started to drop out. Hurricane Dennis had formed and started a slow crawl toward North Carolina's Outer Banks. After drifting and meandering for almost a week, Dennis sloshed ashore near Morehead City, N.C. By Sept. 5, the storm had drenched North Carolina and Virginia with enough rain to cause some flooding.
The biggest problem was a tornado that zipped through the Coliseum Mall area of Hampton. In just a few minutes of savage winds, the tornado demolished parts of five apartment complexes, one nursing home, and an assisted living home. Damage was estimated at more than $7.2 million.
Virginians didn't have time to clean up from the damage of Dennis and the tornado it spawned when a tropical wave that had puffed off the coast of West Africa on Sept. 2 built into a hurricane named Floyd. By Sept. 12, Floyd had become a monster with maximum sustained winds of more than 135 mph.
On Sept. 14, a hurricane watch was posted for the lower Chesapeake Bay, from New Point Comfort to Cape Charles Light. The next day was crazy. Tropical storm warnings overlapped hurricane warnings from South Carolina to New England.
The waiting ended at 6:30 a.m. Sept. 16. Floyd wallowed ashore near Cape Fear, N.C., as a huge, sloppy Category 2 hurricane. Its winds had dropped to less than 100 mph. The threat, experts pointed out, would be from the rainfall.
They were right.
In Wilmington, N.C., more than 19 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours. Parts of North Carolina received as much as 25 inches of rain before Floyd slobbered into Virginia as a tropical storm. Although its highest sustained winds were 46 mph as it passed over Norfolk Airport, Floyd continued to pour record amounts of rain -- Newport News got 17 inches of rain in three days.
By Sept. 16, both North Carolina and Virginia were sodden messes. Rivers crested at record flood stage levels. Dams and levies were washed away and lakes, such as Lake Powell in Williamsburg, disappeared. Peninsula homes and apartments were left flooded and condemned.
The town of Franklin and most of Southampton County remained under water. Repairing and replacing buildings is still going on today.
The 1990s was the second-busiest decade on record with 20 hurricanes; the 1940s produced 23. The century ended with 178 hurricanes having hit the U.S. mainland.
Virginia, however, escaped the century with a couple of surprising statistics. The only direct hit by a hurricane occurred Aug. 23, 1933. The flood tide crested at a record 9.8 feet above normal, sending most of the Peninsula under water.
On Sept. 14, 1944, a weather station at Cape Henry in Virginia Beach measured sustained winds of 134 mph, making that hurricane the only Category 3 storm of the century to punch Virginia.
Now we're starting a new century in the midst of what Gray and other scientists predict will be prime hurricane conditions.