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With tropics reawakening, we can learn from Hurricanes Sandy, Hazel and other destructive October storms

By Anthony R. Wood, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Weather News

PHILADELPHIA - With a potentially explosive hurricane eyeing the densely developed Florida Panhandle and its mystically beautiful beaches, the folks at the National Hurricane Center were in a high state of anxiety because no one else seemed to care about the spinning behemoth in the Gulf.

This was the first week in October 25 years ago, and no major hurricane had made landfall on the Florida Panhandle in October in more than 100 years. A certain inattentiveness perhaps might be understandable, especially with Floridians and the rest of the nation riveted on the outcome of a sensational murder trial.

Never mind that more than a fifth of all named storms in the Atlantic Basin have formed in October. That included two - Sandy, in 2012, and Hazel, in 1954 - that became two of the most-destructive and disruptive events of any kind in the Philadelphia region's weather history.

But on Oct. 3, 1995, a major hurricane could not compete for the public's attention with a verdict in the trial of former football star O.J. Simpson.

The following day, Hurricane Opal attacked the Panhandle with 115 mph winds, killing nine people.

Opal not only emphatically signaled the end of a 25-year "lull" in hurricane activity and the beginning of an active period that has continued in this record season, which appears to be reviving. It also was a dramatic reminder that the hurricane season doesn't end with September.

 

Of the October hurricanes to affect the United States, 22 would qualify as billion-dollar storms based on today's rates of inflation and levels of building and wealth, according to the ICAT catastrophe-insurance firm.

Three of the five costliest October storms have had impacts on the Philadelphia region: Sandy, Hazel, and a nameless predecessor in 1944. Sea-surface temperatures are still warm in October, supplying storm fuel, plus with temperature contrasts sharpening in the cool seasons, storms can move quickly and are more likely to retain strength as they speed northward.

Catastrophic October storms have affected the Caribbean and Central America. Mitch, in 1998, was blamed for killing 20,000.

And while the United States never has experienced a death toll that high in any disaster, it has endured deadly and destructive late-season storms originating in the tropics.

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