The 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season will go down as one of the most hectic, strongest, deadly, and devastating seasons in recent memory. Among the numerous storms to form in a short time, powerful hurricanes making landfall across several different parts of the United States coastline, and heavy damage and deadly tolls they made, Hurricane Ivan will be one that stands out above the rest.
Forming at a very low latitude, Ivan grew rapidly into a major hurricane before undergoing some difficulty. However, prior to rolling through the Southern Windwards, Ivan regained itself, and then proceeded to slam the island of Grenada very close to major hurricane strength. After that, the storm became a Category Five Hurricane, and went through fluctuations between Category Four and Category Five strength several times as it pounded Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
Finally, the storm crashed ashore across the Gulf Coast of Alabama near Gulf Shores, a place that received the brunt of Hurricane Frederick back in 1979. This all happened after the storm nudged itself between the Western tip of Cuba, and the Yucatan in the Yucatan Channel, and moved into the Gulf of Mexico, where it encountered some shear and dry air before coming ashore as a strong Category Three Hurricane with 130 mph winds.
And, Ivan didn't stop there. After killing 70 people throughout the Caribbean, the storm killed another 46 people in the Eastern United States with a plethora of effects including storm surge, heavy rain, strong winds, flooding, and tornadoes. A storm that lived up to its billing, Hurricane Ivan will go down among the most powerful, deadliest, and costliest hurricanes on record.
As Hurricane Frances slowly bared down on the East Central Coast of Florida, Ivan began its journey as a strong tropical wave that moved off the West African coast into the Eastern Atlantic. Several days later on September 2nd, 2004, Ivan made its next step by becoming the ninth tropical depression of the season some 555 miles Southwest of the Cape Verde islands.
The depression was unusual in the fact that it formed at a very low latitude. Actually it emerged below 10 degrees North latitude, which is very rare. It is rare because most tropical systems develop between 10 and 30 degrees North latitude because they need spin or rotation in order to form. The closer to the equator these disturbances are, the harder it is to form, because there is usually little or no rotation. As a matter of fact, there is no rotation at all along the equator.
Starting out with winds only at 30 mph, the depression had meager beginnings. However, within twelve hours, Ivan was officially born as the ninth named storm of the season with sustained winds reaching the minimum threshold at 40 mph. Over the next 48 hours, from 5 AM EDT Friday morning, September 3rd to 5 AM EDT Sunday morning, September 5th, Ivan gradually grew in intensity to become the fifth hurricane of the Atlantic Season.
Then, suddenly over the next eight hours, the storm deepened rapidly with its winds reaching major hurricane force at 115 mph. This sudden development prompted the National Hurricane Center to issue a special advisory at 1 PM EDT on Sunday afternoon to reflect the growing danger in the Central Atlantic. By becoming a Category Three Hurricane, Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of the season behind Alex, Charley, and Frances. When things were all said and done, Ivan would be greater than them all.
The storm, which experienced a 37 millibar drop in just 12 hours, got even stronger by the late afternoon with its sustained winds now estimated at 125 mph, and its minimum central pressure fell to 950 millibars, or 28.05 inches of Hg. Three hours later, the NHC issued another special advisory that declared Ivan a Category Four Hurricane, the third such storm of the season. Its 135 mph sustained winds were now on par with Hurricane Hugo when it made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina back in September, 1989.
The next six to nine hours showed the storm leveling off in intensity although the National Hurricane Center indicated that it continued to strengthen. The storm's pressure bottomed out at 948 mb, or 27.99 inches of Hg. By the end of the nine hour period, the storm had weakened slightly as it experienced a slight pressure rise, and decrease in winds in the early morning of Labor Day 2004. Hurricane Hunter aircraft was scheduled to fly into the storm later in the day.
By the early afternoon, the Hurricane Hunters arrive, and fly into the storm. They find that Ivan is even weaker than it was earlier, and the system is downgraded to a minimal Category Three Hurricane with 115 mph winds. One issue that may have been inhibiting the storm's development at this time was its rapid forward motion. This often occurs with tropical systems that have circulations racing ahead of their convection. It just makes it hard for such powerful storms to organize and strengthen.
Pressure continued to rise with the system as it completed a 20 mb rise to 968 mb, or 28.59 inches of Hg. The sustained winds dropped some more to 105 mph, which made it a Category Two Hurricane in the late afternoon of Labor Day. Forecasters at the Hurricane Center warned that Ivan could still restrengthen, and had Hurricane Watches and Warnings already issued for parts of the Windward Islands.
Within three hours, pressure started to fall again with the hurricane as it rapidly moved westward at 24 mph some 250 miles to the East-Southeast of Barbados. On this rapid track, the storm would be in the Southern Windwards by Tuesday morning, September 7th. Late in the evening though, Ivan slowed down a bit with its forward motion dropping to 21 mph, which may have helped the storm catch its breath. Over the next six hours, the forward speed continued to drop while its sustained winds climbed slightly back to 110 mph.
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Hurricane Ivan began its deadly and destructive march through the Caribbean on Tuesday, September 7th, 2004. In the early morning hours, the storm was situated some 140 miles to the South-Southeast of Barbados, and directly 140 miles to the East of Tobago. By 8 AM EDT, Ivan was reclassified as a major hurricane with its winds exceeding the minimum threshold for a Category Three Hurricane at 115 mph. The situation was getting dangerous for those in the Southern Windwards, particularly Grenada.
Grenada, for those who don't remember, was the tiny Caribbean island nation that was invaded in October, 1983 by the United States to get rid of a Marxist government supported by Cuba. This day would mark a dark moment in this island's history as Ivan proceeded to ravage it with its powerful winds, waves, and rain. As the storm passed to the South of neighboring Barbados, winds were measured at 90 mph. Ivan's core winds and pressure remained steady at minimal major hurricane intensity.
By the mid afternoon, NOAA P3 reconnaissance aircraft had found that the storm's winds had increased slightly to 120 mph, and its pressure fell to 28.23 inches of Hg. At this point, a number of the Southern Windwards such as St. Vincent, Tobago, and Grenada were reporting roofs being blown off homes while structural damage had also occurred in Barbados.
The late afternoon saw the eye pass over the island of Grenada, which suffered tremendous damage. Anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of all homes were either damaged or destroyed by the storm. A prison facility, which housed a number of political prisoners that were captured in the 1983 U.S. invasion had escaped during the chaos. Meanwhile, watches and warnings were issued for rare areas such as the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao as well as the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia, and the Northern coast of Venezuela.
To give you an idea how rare it is to have a hurricane or tropical storm this far south, the last time a major hurricane impacted the ABC islands was in 1877. Tropical Storm Bret affected the Northern Coast of Venezuela in 1993 with mudslides and floods that left several hundred people dead. Hurricane Cesar also impacted this region back in 1996, but more in the extreme Southwestern portion of the Caribbean before moving across into the Eastern Pacific.
Winds reached as high as 116 mph in Grenada, and after Ivan passed that tiny island, it continued to experience a resurgence. At 8 PM EDT on Tuesday evening, September 7th, the hurricane regained Category Four intensity with winds of 135 mph, and a minimum central pressure of 950 mb, or 28.05 inches of Hg. The storm's forward motion also slowed to 16 mph, but it still was heading west, which put the ABC islands in the crosshairs. Ivan would eventually steer north of those islands, but still brought hurricane force winds to the area.
The left a good 550 miles of warm water between the storm, and its next conquest, Jamaica. Within 48 hours of becoming a Category Four storm, Ivan went one notch better as its pressure dropped to 921 mb, or 27.20 inches, and its winds rose in response to 160 mph, which made it the second Category Five Hurricane in as many years. Isabel was a Category Five Hurricane back in September, 2003 as it headed toward eventual landfall in the Carolinas.
At 5 AM EDT on Thursday, September 9th, Ivan's pressure was lower than that of Hurricane Andrew when it slammed into South Florida on August 24, 1992. At that time Andrew was a Category Four Hurricane, but in 2002 it was upgraded to Category Five as its tenth anniversary was commemorated. Over the next five days, Hurricane Ivan would fluctuate between Category Four and Category Five intensity three times just like Isabel did in 2003.
Prior to Isabel and Ivan making it back to back hurricane seasons with Category Five storms, the last Category Five Hurricane was deadly and devastating Hurricane Mitch in October, 1998. During this five day period of peak intensity, Ivan moved just south of both Jamaica and Grand Cayman in the Cayman islands. While the powerful storm, which attained the sixth lowest pressure ever recorded at 910 mb, or 26.87 inches of Hg, spared those islands its core maximum winds, it left a trail of death and destruction. Jamaica went into a period of chaos as many stayed in their homes to protect them from looters.
Lawlessness prevailed in parts of the island as gunmen took to the streets. The rest of the resort island, which last received a direct hit from a major hurricane was in September, 1988 by another Category Five storm, Hurricane Gilbert, experienced tremendous damage and flooding from the storm. Children were taken right out of their parents arms as the storm's tidal surge swept them away. The Cayman Islands, which is a center of not only tourism, but banking as well, was under a Hurricane Warning for over 24 hours as it succumbed to the relentless fury of Ivan.
During this time, the NHC forecast, which originally had the storm going over Central Cuba, and into the Port Charlotte area of Florida's Gulf Coast, was shifting its forecast westward to have the storm move over the Western tip of Cuba, and into the Florida Panhandle between Apalachicola and St. Marks. Some of the global models were suggesting a more westward track with the storm brushing the Yucatan Peninsula and finally making landfall from as far West as New Orleans to Mobile Bay, Alabama.
Despite a more northward motion with Ivan, the storm still managed to hit the Western part of Cuba very hard. Hurricane Ivan passed just West of the extreme Western tip of Cuba. Ivan seemed to have a knack for just missing some of the islands in the Caribbean. After mowing down Grenada, Ivan passed south of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and just to the West of the very tip of Cuba. Ivan did leave a heavy toll behind as 70 people throughout the Caribbean were killed by this storm.
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As Ivan left the Caribbean, it began to undergo somewhat of a weakening trend. A frontal boundary to the north of the storm deepened a trough building in from the Great Plains that had wedged itself between the subtropical ridge in the Atlantic, and another ridge in the Southwestern United States. Ivan had no choice, but to exploit the weakness between the ridges and head north.
People all along the Gulf Coast fled in advance of the storm. Some two million people evacuated. Folks in New Orleans feared the worst as they seemed to feel that this was the big storm experts had often warned about. New Orleans is one of the most vulnerable cities in the entire United States to a hurricane. Not only does it lie several feet below sea level, but it is also surrounded by water on three sides with the Gulf of Mexico to the South, Lake Ponchatrain to its East, and the Mississippi River to the West.
To visualize this, imagine yourself in a bowl, and having that bowl filled with water. Well, that's basically what the Big Easy would be if a major hurricane were to strike there. Other areas were fearing the worst too. The Western Panhandle of Florida, which had not been hit by a major hurricane in almost ten years, still have nightmares about Hurricane Opal. People along the Gulf Coast of Alabama's last brush with a major storm was in September, 1979 with Hurricane Frederick slamming into Mobile Bay.
The ironic thing about the Gulf Coast of Alabama is that since Frederick's visit, the area has undergone significant development with hotels, condominiums, and beachfront homes lining much of the coast. This is particularly prevalent in the Gulf Shores area, which drew concern from Bob Sheets, former director of the National Hurricane Center, when he addressed a Congressional committee in the wake of hurricanes Andrew and Hugo.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi last experienced a major hurricane in 1985 with Hurricane Elena although it did get impacted by powerful Hurricane Georges in 1998, but as a Category Two Hurricane. Folks in that area still have bad memories from Hurricane Camille, which was the second of three Category Five Hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States.
By this time, the hurricane force winds of Ivan extended out some 105 miles while its tropical storm force winds extended almost 300 miles. In other words, it was a massive storm that was much bigger and more powerful than Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Frances although Frances was closer in size. From the time it had emerged into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category Five Hurricane until the time it made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, Ivan had dropped in intensity to a strong Category Three Hurricane with 130 mph winds.
Hurricane Ivan finally came ashore early Thursday morning September 16th between 2 :00 AM and 3:00 AM CDT. The houses, condos, and hotels that dotted Gulf Shores picturesque landscape laid in ruins as Ivan's winds and storm surge revealed major damage. Some homes were demolished while others were heavily damaged with walls ripped open leaving rooms exposed to more wind and rain. Not your ordinary litter was found in the streets.
You could find things such as air conditioners, ceiling fans, sinks, and beds lying in the street as if they were tossed around like rag dolls. Initial estimates had the storm surge ranging from six to eight feet above normal. Meanwhile, farther east in Florida, where storm surge can be much higher, the dome of water accompanying Ivan ranged from 10 to 16 feet above normal. Ivan's powerful Northeastern quadrant, which contains the storm's fiercest winds, spawn a number of tornadoes in the Sunshine State as well.
A section of Interstate 10 in Escambia County was washed out, leaving it impassable. Some 1.5 million customers in the directly affected area of the Gulf Coast were without power at landfall. The storm gradually wound down to a depression within 24 hours, but it spawned 114 tornadoes, which is the most by a hurricane since Hurricane Beulah in 1967. Hurricane Frances spawned 75 twisters earlier in the month. Heavy rains also came as a result of the storm as it combined with a low pressure system moving into the Northeastern United States.
The remnants of Ivan even affected parts of the Northeast including New Jersey. In South Plainfield, skies were cloudy for much of the day on Friday, and early Saturday morning, but there was no rain. Then, suddenly at 7:00 AM on Saturday morning September 18th, the skies opened up with torrential rains. Between 7:00 and 7:30 AM, 1.03 inches of rain fell on the town that lies some 30 miles to the South-Southwest of New York City. Meanwhile other parts of New Jersey received several inches of rain.
It was quite windy as well. Winds gusted as high as 49 mph at Newark International Airport during one of the lingering thunderstorms Ivan left behind. Farther west in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, heavy rains caused flooding. More than eight inches of rain fell in some areas from Georgia to Ohio. Tornadoes occurred as far north as Maryland as portions of Virginia and North Carolina were under the gun much of the afternoon on Friday, September 17th.
As of the time of this report, Hurricane Ivan had become the deadliest storm in the United States since Hurricane Floyd that occurred five years ago to the day in 1999. The storm left 54 dead throughout the Eastern United States, and that is in addition to the 70 or so people killed in the Caribbean for a total of about 124 deaths. Furthermore, the latest damage estimates have Ivan costing some $14.2 billion dollars. Hurricane Ivan has certainly left its mark not only in terms of power and fury, but also in respect to death and destruction as well.
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