Into the Eye of the Storm

Learn why hurricanes are one of the most powerful and destructive tempests on Earth.

Photo by Adobe Stock/lavizzara.

The United States and its territories have seen unprecedented destruction in the past two years due to hurricanes. According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), major storms produced roughly $265 billion in damages in 2017, making it the costliest hurricane season ever recorded in U.S. history. Three of the most damaging hurricanes on record occurred in 2017: Harvey destroyed $125 billion worth of property, and Irma and Maria racked up $50 billion and $90 billion in damages, respectively. Rounding out the top five costliest hurricanes on record are two slightly older storms: Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), with Katrina being the costliest storm on record, totaling $161 billion in damages (allowing for inflation).

Damage costs are still being assessed for 2018, but hurricanes Florence and Michael are expected to join some of these fierce storms in the top 10. And hurricanes are causing more casualties now than ever — Atlantic storms directly and indirectly killed more than 3,000 people in 2017 alone.

Hurricane Katrina decimated more than 800,000 homes. Photo by Getty Images/PattieS.

When a Storm Is Brewing

A hurricane is an extreme type of tropical cyclone. A cyclone is a low-pressure area that spins counterclockwise (clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere), sucking air into its center. “Tropical” means the storm has developed in the very warm and humid air located above tropical or subtropical waters.

When meteorologists describe a storm as a “hurricane,” it implies a certain intensity; hurricanes have minimum sustained surface winds of 74 mph. “Sustained winds” refers to the average wind speed over one minute. Because it takes time to build up to these speeds, a storm passes through several classifications before it’s deemed a hurricane. In its earliest stages, these systems are called “tropical disturbances” — areas of convection (showers and thunderstorms) with no surface circulation. When circulation develops, but sustained surface winds are less than 39 mph, the system is referred to as a “tropical depression.” Once winds increase to at least 39 mph, the system is classified as a tropical storm and given a name.

The practice of naming storms started in 1953 to help the public better recognize individual storms. Today, an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization comes up with the lists of names used around the world. (There are different sets of names for the Atlantic Basin, the eastern and central Pacific, the western Pacific, and so on.) If a storm is extremely destructive, the name is permanently retired.

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