Hurricane is one for the record books

Dennis: Already one of the four earliest named storms on record, it also became one of only four major hurricanes to make landfall in the United States in July.

July 11, 2005|By Maya Bell | Maya Bell,ORLANDO SENTINEL

MIAMI - When a weakened but still mighty Hurricane Dennis slammed into the Florida Panhandle's Santa Rosa Island yesterday, it joined an elite corps - becoming one of only four major hurricanes to make landfall in the United States in July.

In fact, since 1900, only one other major hurricane had an earlier July arrival than Dennis, an unnamed storm that struck Louisiana on July 5, 1916. And, as chance would have it, one of the other major July storms struck in the Panhandle, just east of where Dennis came ashore, in 1936.

Major storms, those classified as Category 3 or above with winds of 111 mph or more, are rare enough events, making up only 21 percent of all hurricanes that make landfall in the United States. But those coming so early in the six-month hurricane seasons are even rarer. Oceanic and atmospheric conditions usually aren't that favorable for intense hurricane formation.

But in Dennis' case, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are warmer than usual and other conditions were almost perfect, nearly producing the first Category 4 hurricane ever to hit the Panhandle, irrespective of the time of year.

Fortunately, though, Dennis' winds, which climbed to 135 mph Saturday afternoon, dropped to between 115 mph and 120 mph just before landfall, taking it down a notch to Category 3 strength.

Hurricane forecasters can't be sure until they analyze other contributing factors, but they suspect the same pool of shallow and relatively cooler water in the northern Gulf that sucked a little wind out of Hurricane Ivan last year, likewise dropping Ivan to a Category 3 just before it made landfall about 45 miles west of where Dennis came ashore.

But just how big a difference that made to shell-shocked Panhandle residents is relative. As Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center noted, the difference between a Category 3 and a Category 4 storm is "like the difference between getting run over by an 18-wheeler and a freight train."

And, surely, Pensacola-area residents must be feeling as if they got hit by both after being the target of two major hurricanes within 10 months. That, too, is a rarity.

During last year's unprecedented hurricane season, which brought four hurricanes to Florida shores, Frances and Jeanne made landfall within three weeks and less than five miles of each other in southeastern part of the state. But only Jeanne was a major storm.

"Two major hurricanes in the same area in [10] months is pretty remarkable," Mayfield said. "I can't remember two major hurricanes this close."

Even before making landfall, Dennis was one for the record books. With Tropical Storms Arlene, Bret and Cindy before it, Dennis rounded out the quartet of the four earliest named storms on record. It's also the earliest major storm to strike Cuba.

Cuba, which took a prolonged and deadly beating by Dennis last week, also played an unwitting role in the hurricane's surprising revival, according to Dave Nolan, a meteorologist at the University of Miami who specializes in hurricane intensity.

Early Saturday, forecasters were heartened that Dennis had weakened to a Category 1, bearing winds of just 90 mph, after leaving Cuba. They hoped Dennis would not have enough circulation, or time, to recover significantly before crossing the Gulf Coast.

But it did, and Nolan credits Dennis' small eye, which was just 9 miles across at landfall. The smaller the core of a hurricane, the faster it can reorganize after being disrupted by a landmass like Cuba.

And, according to Nolan, the eye wall stayed taut because it never went through an eye-wall replacement cycle typical of hurricanes that rapidly intensify as Dennis did, reaching a Category 4 with winds of 150 mph before striking Cuba.

The reason? That happens over water and when Dennis was ready to undergo its eye-wall replacement, it hit Cuba.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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