The last major hurricane to strike land anywhere in the Atlantic basin was Sandy in 2012. That may change tomorrow as Hurricane Gonzalo bears down on Bermuda.
Gonzalo is a Category 4 storm, the first in the Atlantic since 2011. Sandy was a Category 3 when it hit southeastern Cuba, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It weakened to a Category 1 storm by the time it was off the New Jersey coast and went ashore as a hybrid weather system.
Gonzalo, with hurricane-force winds reaching as far as 45 miles (72 kilometers) from its core, is forecast to pass well away from the U.S. East Coast on a track toward Newfoundland. The system will probably pass within 25 nautical miles (46 kilometers) of Bermuda or directly over it, that nation’s weather service said.
The last major hurricane to strike Bermuda was Fabian, a Category 3, in 2003, Feltgen said by e-mail.
“They got clobbered,” said Dan Kottlowski, an expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “It was the first time in the satellite era that they actually had people die in a tropical cyclone.”
Satellites began monitoring the Atlantic in 1967, according to Feltgen.
Tropical systems come in a variety of strengths, from depressions to hurricanes. Hurricanes are then divided into Category 1 and 2 storms, with winds from 74 miles (120 kilometers) per hour to 110 mph, and major ones that have winds in excess of 111 mph. Category 4 storm winds range from 130 mph through 156 mph. Category 5 storms go up from there.
The U.S. hurricane center said there was a 100 percent chance Bermuda will get hit by winds of at least 39 mph, the threshold at which a system becomes a tropical storm.
“Hurricane conditions are expected to reach Bermuda on Friday, with tropical storm conditions beginning late tonight or early Friday morning,” the center said.
A Category 3 storm would have “devastating” effects, while “catastrophic damage will occur” from anything stronger than that, the center said. Trees can be snapped off or uprooted, utility poles felled, roads blocked and roofs torn away, while electricity and water can be cut off for days.
On Bermuda, buildings are built of stone, with heavy roofs, according to the nation’s weather service. That minimizes the sort of wind damage often seen in the U.S.
Hurricanes can bring much more than wind.
The Bermuda Weather Service predicts seas will rise to 30 feet (9 meters) as Gonzalo nears, which raises the possibility of storm surge.
“Storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane,” the hurricane center’s website shows. “In the past, large death tolls have resulted from the rise of the ocean associated with many of the major hurricanes that have made landfall.”
Storm surge isn’t the same as tides, which can also get a boost from a hurricane. It happens when a hurricane’s winds pile water up against the shore as the storm gets closer to land, the website said.
Again, Bermuda may be fortunate here.
The island is “a single peak rising from the deep ocean bed,” the Bermuda Weather Service said on its website. “Therefore most of the surge flows past the island and does not ‘pile up’ as in locations with shelving coastlines.”
While Bermuda is a small place in a big ocean, it has dealt with major hurricanes before.
In records going back to 1851, 11 major storms, nine Category 3s and two Category 4s, came within 60 nautical miles of Bermuda, Feltgen said.
“They can deal with a lot more than most people can deal with,” Kottlowski said.
Fabian was reported to be the worst storm to hit since 1926, the hurricane center said in a 2003 report. Four people died in Bermuda, when their vehicles were swept off a causeway, and four others died in the U.S. and Canada. Property damage was estimated at $300 million.
The hurricane center’s forecast calls for Gonzalo to edge past Bermuda just to its west. Kottlowski said he agreed with that prediction.
In some ways, such a track could be just as dangerous as a hit because the strongest part of ahurricane in the Northern Hemisphere is its eastern side, the part that would be facing Bermuda if the track holds up.
“The question is, how close will it come to Bermuda?” Kottlowski asked.
–With assistance from Winnie Zhu in Singapore and Lars Paulsson in London.