The Anatomy of a Hurricane

From June to November of every year, coastal residents dread the weather reports announcing the formation of an Atlantic hurricane. These destructive weather machines are some of the most feared weather events in the world. And they should be. Just one average sized hurricane can generate 600 trillion watts of energy from the condensation of water vapor in the storm. One average sized hurricane can decimate a coastal town, realign inlets along the coast, and take a life in the blink of an eye.

We’re lucky in today’s world. We benefit from the preparation that comes from intensive storm analysis, tracking, and evaluation. What did folks do before the advent of hurricane hunters, satellite pictures, and radar? Word of mouth from ships at sea and crossed fingers were the limit of the scientific analysis of a hurricane. No one knew the anatomy of a hurricane. The parts of a storm; the eye, eye wall, and feeder bands were simply a mystery of nature. Something to be feared.

Parts of a hurricane

The eye of a hurricane is the center point the storm revolves around. The eye typically features clear weather, calmer winds, but has the lowest barometric pressure of the entire storm. Hurricane eyes are usually 20 to 40 miles across, although they can be larger or smaller. In general, the narrower the eye of a hurricane, the stronger the wind speeds.

The eye wall of a hurricane surrounds the center eye of the storm. The eye wall packs the most punch with the highest winds of any other part of the storm. Eye walls feature towering walls of clouds, the heaviest levels of precipitation. The eye wall can best be described as a vertical wall of dense clouds.

Feeder rain bands exist outside the eye wall. These bands contain hurricane force or tropical storm force winds. This area features spiral winds that pull moisture up into the clouds of the storm. Feeder bands stretch for hundreds of miles and can drop heavy amounts of rain in the wake of a hurricane.

What you don’t know can hurt you

Imagine living on the coast before the time of up-to-the minute weather updates. Before the Weather Channel or NOAA weather radio made instant information available for everyone in the path of a hurricane. Imagine a 300-mile wide behemoth steadily plodding it’s way across the Atlantic at 10 mph per day. No one on the shore knew the magnitude of what was heading for land.

When a Category 5 storm hit the upper Florida Keys on Labor Day in 1935, this very situation played out. The Weather Bureau had “predicted” the storm would track south of the Keys. People choosing to take this prediction as fact caused the loss of over 400 people. A group of over 700 World War II veterans were constructing the road bridges for travel along the Keys. This unnamed hurricane featured a storm surge between 18-20 feet. For perspective, Windley Key has the highest elevation of any of the islands at 18 feet. These WWII vets and the residents in the path of the storm didn’t stand a chance. The death toll for this storm includes 164 residents and 259 veterans. Luckily, more than half the group of veterans was on the mainland during the storm.

From evaluation, models, and satellites, forecasters give us a “cone” of probable landfall for any hurricane approaching the shore. Those in the path of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane didn’t have that advanced knowledge. As sad as this truth is, we benefit today from the terrible losses of the past. Forecasters and governments take hurricanes very seriously and aim to move everyone out the way of danger, if possible.