Three Atlantic hurricanes were lined up on September 8 . From left to right: Hurricane Katia, which made landfall in Mexico; Hurricane Irma, which pounded Florida two days later; and Hurricane Jose, nearing the Lesser Antilles. (Image credit: NOAA)
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season heads for the history books Thursday, finally gone but never forgotten.
It ends with record property damage of $368 billion, and at hundreds of deaths — perhaps many more since Hurricane Maria took such a toll on Puerto Rico that the number of fatalities remains in dispute.
The season’s emotional toll will remain incalculable.
The final total of 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes made 2017 much above average, but numbers alone don’t come close to describing the trail of catastrophe it left in its wake. The peak of the season from late August to the end of September was so brutal and other years — even the infamous 2005 — pale in comparison.
September generated the most major hurricane days — 17.5 — of any calendar month in the Atlantic on record, Colorado State University hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach said.
The 2017 season “will end up a top 10 season by most tropical cyclone metrics,” Klotzbach said on Twitter. The year had 19.25 major hurricane days — 494 percent over the median of 3.9 from 1981 to 2010, he said, and named storm days (91.25) was 152 percent of the median.
September broke records for named storm days (53.5); hurricane days (40.25); major hurricane days (18); and Accumulated Cyclone Energy (175), he said.
It was a busy early season — but pretty much par for the course — until mid-August, when some eye-popping tropical activity began. Tropical Storm Emily did cause some havoc in Florida when it made landfall on the West-Central peninsula with winds of 45 mph, and caused a tornado near Bradenton. Emily also brought heavy rain to parts of Florida’s East Coast.
But the real misery train began pulling out of the station on August 24, the 25th anniversary of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew’s strike on South Florida. August 24 was the day Tropical Storm Harvey began rapidly intensifying in the Gulf of Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. It reached Category 4 intensity late the next day.
Forecast models suggested an almost unbelievable scenario was about to unfold: Harvey would make landfall on the Texas Coast as a powerful Category 4 storm, and then stall out for days as atmospheric steering currents collapsed.
AccuWeather summed things up with the headline: “Hurricane Harvey poised to unleash flooding disaster on Texas into early next week.”
“Some communities could be under water for days,” the commercial forecasting service said.
Harvey was still a named storm 117 hours after landfall, as it drifted back into the Gulf of moved toward the Louisiana coast. Up to 60 inches of rain was recorded in several parts of coastal Texas, and Houston’s airport officially measured 37 inches.
The season’s follow-up act — Hurricane Irma — looked like trouble from the moment it formed far out in the Atlantic. Major forecast models predicted as early as August 31 that Irma would hit the Florida Keys or peninsula.
Irma reached Category 5 strength as it battered the Caribbean, and both Barbuda and Saint Martin were reported to be 95 percent destroyed by the storm.
It made landfall on Cudjoe Key on September 10 with 130 mph winds and then clobbered Marco Island off Florida’s Southwest Coast with 115 mph winds.
On Saturday, September 9, the National Hurricane Center put the entire coast of the Florida peninsula — from Jacksonville on the East Coast down through the Keys and up the West Coast to just south of Tallahassee — under a Hurricane Warning. Even the Florida panhandle was under a Hurricane Watch or Tropical Storm Watch.
Thousands of residents evacuated as the NHC forecast a major hurricane to slide up Florida’s East Coast, then up the spine of the state, and finally up the West Coast. But by the time the track was set for the West Coast, Florida’s roads were already clogged in a nightmarish evacuation scene that lasted for several days.
The highest wind gust from Irma was measured at 120 mph in Big Pine Key, but Irma cut a path of destruction up the entire Florida peninsula and even caused damage in Georgia as a tropical storm.
Hurricane Maria, the 10th most intense hurricane on record, devastated Dominica in the Caribbean and went on to cause catastrophic damage in Puerto Rico, where power outages are expected to continue well into next year.
Hurricane Nate made landfall on the Northern Gulf Coast as a Category 1 hurricane on October 8, and the development of Hurricane Ophelia several days later gave 2017 an unprecedented 10 hurricanes in a row.
Although the final storm — during the official season, at least — was Tropical Storm Rina — the last system to impact Florida was Tropical Storm Philippe on October 28-29. Philippe spawned a tornado near West Palm Beach and dropped more than 6 inches of rain.
“While the season was very active, it will be most remembered for several hurricanes that devastated portions of the continental United States as well as islands in the Caribbean and other parts of the tropical Atlantic,” Klotzbach said in the newly-released CSU post-season report.
“Hurricane Harvey brought epic flooding to the Houston metropolitan area, while Irma and Maria both brought devastation to islands throughout the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic.
“Irma also made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4, pummeling the Keys and bringing considerable damage to mainland Florida as well. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was also the first season on record (since 1851) to have two Category 4 hurricanes make continental United States landfall in the same year (Harvey and Irma).”
CSU will issue its 2018 hurricane season outlook on December 13.