Spanish explorers first encountered the violent winds and treacherous seas of hurricanes during their explorations of the 15th century. From the Taino Indians, they learned that there was a name for these storms, so powerful that they were believed to be the work of a god. The god’s name, perhaps taken from the Mayan language, was “Huracan” and today we call them hurricanes.
There are many different views of what hurricanes are. By one measure, hurricanes are classified by the National Hurricane Center according to the strength of their winds. Ranging from Category 1, with 74 mph winds, to Category 5, a storm with winds over 155 mph. Whatever their category, hurricanes are remembered by millions of survivors by the economic cost and the loss of life in the coastal areas they devastate.
The most powerful hurricanes in recent memory, Camille, Andrew, and Katrina and Rita have caused billions of dollars in damage across the Gulf Coast States. Hurricane Camille, in 1969, had wind gusts over 172 mph at one point, and Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, had sustained winds over 175 mph. Powerful, stormy ladies, indeed.
Another measure of the strength of a hurricane is the air pressure inside the eye. The lower the pressure is inside the eye of the hurricane, the greater a hurricane’s power to suck in air. A hurricane’s winds are generated by higher-pressure air rushing into the lower-pressure eye to equalize the difference. Typically, the lower the pressure, the faster the hurricanes winds are. However, because of other variables in each storm, a particular pressure does not always correspond to a specific wind speed.
A hurricane is born when the winds of a tropical storm reach average of 74 mph and a cloudbank, called an eye wall, begins to form around a rotating column of rising air. This is a category one storm, which may seem relatively insignificant when compared to the Category 5 storm’s winds. Once it is completely organized, a hurricane will tend to track in a westerly or northwesterly direction.
The ability to predict the path of a hurricane has been the focus of scientific research for decades. With the advent of satellite reconnaissance and powerful computers, hurricane predictions have gained some degree of respect, although the actual path of a hurricane always falls within a variable zone of probability.
All hurricanes are dangerous storms regardless of their wind velocity. Along with the fierce winds, they are also comprised of a wall of water called a storm surge, torrents of wind-driven rain, tornados, and lightning, rotating bands of thunderstorms, and treacherous tides and rip currents.
Once they are born, hurricanes feed on the warm waters of the Atlantic and the Caribbean, gaining energy every day while moving along a relatively unpredictable path towards the islands of the Caribbean and the North American continent. They may move quickly and directly, as if making a beeline towards a coastal city with millions of people in its sights. On the other hand, it may move quite slowly and erratically, sometimes crisscrossing lands and islands such as Hurricane Inga did as it made a loop around Bermuda in 1969.
Once the do make landfall, however, hurricanes rapidly lose their oceanic energy source and collapse into the form of a tropical depression. With lower winds, tropical depressions will carry their thunderstorms and rains inland until they lose their tropical energy entirely. Occasionally, they may re-emerge and re-organize themselves along the northeast coast in the colder north Atlantic waters. From then on, they will be pushed easterly and away from the continent, where they will eventually die out.