Hurricane Alex started out as an area of disturbed weather in the Western Atlantic several hundred miles from Cape Hatteras, and brushed the Outer Banks as the season's first hurricane. After brushing North Carolina, Alex steered out over the Gulf Stream, where it strengthened over the warm water there to become the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season's first major hurricane with winds of 120 mph.
The 2004 season, which had gotten off to a slow start quickly picked up on the heels of Alex with eight more named storms, four hurricanes, three major hurricanes, and one depression over the next month. Now, the Atlantic Basin is on pace again to have its ninth above average season in the last ten years.
In the late afternoon of July 31st, 2004, the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season finally got itself underway after nearly two full months of extra hibernation with its first tropical depression. This depression was located some 175 miles to the South-Southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and it had winds of only 30 mph.
As it moved to the Northwest at 9 mph, the depression prompted officials and forecasters at the National Hurricane Center to issue a Tropical Storm Watch from Edisto Beach, South Carolina to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina including Pamlico Sound. Tropical Depression One, as it was first called, remained poorly organized for the next 18 hours or so as it meandered toward the Carolinas.
Then, at 11:00 AM on August 1st, signs indicated that things were beginning to change. The National Hurricane Center modified their Tropical Storm Watch into a Tropical Storm Warning for the region along the North Carolina coast from Cape Fear to Cape Hatteras while areas south of Cape Fear to Edisto Beach, South Carolina remained under a Tropical Storm Watch.
At this point, the discussion on the developing system by the National Hurricane Center indicated that the depression appeared to have deeper convection, higher winds according to Hurricane Hunter aircraft, and observations also indicated better organization and strengthening. Within three hours of this discussion, Alex was born some 80 miles South-Southeast of Charleston, South Carolina.
Winds were still quite mild at only 40 mph, and pressure remained fairly high at 1010 mb, or 29.83 inches of Hg, but the storm was still offshore, and in the vicinity of the Gulf Stream, which is known for rapidly deepening storms. The big threat was rain, which was forecast to be between one to two inches for areas impacted by the storm. This would be only the beginning though for Alex.
Within three hours, the next advisory out of the NHC extended the Tropical Storm Watch from South Santee River in South Carolina to Cape Hatteras, and the Tropical Storm Watch was also extended northward from Cape Hatteras to Oregon Inlet. However, over the next 18 hours or so, Alex remained stationary and at the same intensity some 100 miles off the coast.
Then, at 8:00 AM EDT on Monday morning, Alex, which still was only drifting some 120 miles to the South-Southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, showed some significant strengthening with its winds increasing to 60 mph, and its minimum central pressure dropping dramatically from 1010 mb to 992 mb, or 29.29 inches of Hg. Tropical Storm force winds extended some 105 miles from the center showing that the storm was growing.
Things remained status quo for much of the morning and afternoon until the 5:00 PM Advisory came out of the NHC, which issued a Hurricane Warning from Cape Lookout, North Carolina to Oregon Inlet, and a Tropical Storm Warning from Oregon Inlet to the North Carolina/Virginia border including Albemarle Sound. Winds with Alex remained at 60 mph, and pressure actually rose slightly to 993 mb.
The next nine hours showed Alex gradually intensifying more as its winds increased five miles per hour every three hours while its pressure dropped some ten millibars to 983 mb, or 29.03 inches of Hg. At the intermediate 2 AM EDT Advisory from the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday, August 3rd, 2004, Alex became the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season's first hurricane.
At the time Alex had become a hurricane, it was located some 75 miles South-Southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina. Tropical Storm force winds still extended some 105 miles from the center while Hurricane Force winds were in the immediate vicinity of the storm center. Moving to the Northeast at 9 mph, Alex was paralleling the coast, and Watches and Warnings remained status quo in response.
Some three hours later as the storm continued moving Northeastward at a similar pace, all watches and warnings south of Cape Fear were discontinued. Good thing because Alex had strengthened some more with winds now at 80 mph, and extending some 25 miles away from the center. An eye was trying to form, but had difficulty in the face of a strong southwesterly flow influencing the system.
Three hours later, Alex, which was now located some 35 miles to the south of Cape Lookout, North Carolina, grew in intensity once again as its winds were bumped up to 90 mph, and its pressure dropped at a rate of three millibars per hour to 974 mb, or 28.76 inches. Forward speed and direction had also changed as it was moving to the North-Northeast at 14 mph. Forecasts were now calling for rainfall amounts between two and four inches.
As another three hours passed, Alex became a Category Two Hurricane as of 11 AM EDT on August 3rd with its winds now sustained at 100 mph, and its pressure dropping some more to 972 mb, or 28.70 inches of Hg. The storm remained parallel to the coast as it picked up forward speed slightly to the Northeast at 15 mph. At this point, the Tropical Storm Warning from Surf City, North Carolina to Cape Lookout was discontinued.
Alex would come within 15 miles to the Southeast of Cape Hatteras before pulling away from the coast. Sustained winds near Cape Hatteras were reported to be as high as 72 mph with a peak gust reachng over 100 mph. Rainfall accumulations grew to a range between 3 to 6 inches. Even though Alex was pulling away from North Carolina, which was counting its blessings, the storm wasn't done writing its story yet. It was moving on to bigger things.
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As a much better organized and stronger Hurricane Alex began to pull away from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it was about to re-enter the much warmer waters of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is the largest warm water current in the world. It is responsible for sustaining warmer climates in areas that would normally be impossible for that to occur.
For example, Spain and Portugal are about on the same latitude as the Northeastern United States. Yet, folks on the Iberian Peninsula are able to grow Citrus fruits much like they do in much more familiar warm climates such as Florida. Farther north in Scandinavia, they are still able to grew barley despite being near the Arctic Circle.
Past hurricanes have taken advantage of this warm current that extends from the Florida Straits well into the North Atlantic. As a matter of fact, since 1989, there have been several storms that have strengthened rapidly over the Gulf Stream including Hugo, Andrew, Emily (1993), Bertha (1996), and Floyd.
Some eight hours after brushing the Outer Banks, all warnings for the Carolina coast were discontinued, and Alex even lost some of its strength as its winds waned slightly to 90 mph while its minimum central pressure rose to 973 mb, or 28.73 inches. Twelve hours later it weakened a bit more as it accelerated rapidly to the East-Northeast at 20 mph. In the next six hours though, the pressure dropped 9 millibars, and the winds grew back to solid Category two Hurricane strength at 105 mph.
Located nearly 1000 miles to the Southwest of Cape Race, Newfounland in Canada, Alex's had its Hurricane force winds extend some 60 miles from the center while Tropical Storm Force winds extended some 175 miles. Fluctuations in intensity were forecast, but there was no indication that the storm would become a strong Category Three, but it would. Some six hours later, Alex became the first major hurricane of the 2004 season with winds of 120 mph.
Fortunately for most living in the United States and Eastern Canada, this storm was just a threat to the shipping lanes even though its Hurricane force winds extended some 60 miles. Minimum central pressure dropped some 22 mb after it weakened to just 85 mph winds some 12 to 18 hours earlier. While Alex eventually passed on, it jump started the Atlantic Season, which spawned some eight new storms in the next five to six weeks.
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