This post has been updated.
Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday morning. Now, forecast models are honing in on a path north and toward the U.S. coast. Its evolution, in many ways, has resembled that of Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
Just like Hazel, Matthew rapidly developed in the Caribbean Sea before taking a sharp north turn towards Haiti and Cuba.
While Hurricane Matthew’s origins and evolution have been eerily similar thus far, it is very unlikely to follow Hazel’s path exactly and track right over Washington, D.C. More likely, it will track east of where Hazel did near the Mid-Atlantic coast or even offshore.
Hazel was just one of three major hurricanes that struck the coast in 1954, a series of storms that prompted large and lasting efforts to improve hurricane observations, forecasts and warnings.
The hurricane season of 1954 is infamous, and for good reason: 16 tropical storms formed that year, and three of them went on to become major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). All three of those major hurricanes — Carol, Edna and Hazel — tracked up the East Coast, killed hundreds of people and caused tremendous damage. The tracks of the terrible trio are shown below, with Hazel’s highlighted for reference.
Hazel formed just east of the Windward Islands, then became a major hurricane when it stalled over the warm Caribbean water and turned north. The hurricane passed over Haiti and the Bahamas and then made landfall near the South Carolina-North Carolina border. The highest wind ever recorded in Washington was caused by Hazel: 78 mph sustained wind speed and a gust to 98 mph at National Airport.
Hurricane Hazel killed 13 people in Virginia, six in Maryland and three in the District. As it moved inland, Hazel merged with another area of low pressure. When the storm reached Canada, it killed 81 people in Ontario.
Hurricane Carol caused significant damage and killed 72 people in North Carolina, New York, New England and Canada. It produced a 14.4-foot storm surge in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, larger than that generated by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Then, just 11 days later, came a repeat sucker punch from Hurricane Edna. Edna’s track was a but farther offshore, but it was also a more intense storm. It was very destructive and costly in New England, and killed 20 people.
Needless to say, these storms generated a lot of public (and federal) interest in hurricanes. At the time, hurricane forecasts only extended out to one day, and were not that great. Weather satellites and numerical models did not exist, and aircraft could only reach known storms within range of land. In 1955, Congress poured money into improving the nation’s radar network and formed the National Hurricane Research Project, or NHRP. The late Bob Simpson, who co-created the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, was the original director of the project. The NHRP has evolved in scope and in name, and it now operates as the Hurricane Research Division, located in Miami.
Climatologically, the central and western Caribbean is a favored region for tropical cyclones to form in October. And with troughs and fronts reaching farther south this time of year, those storms that do form tend to get pulled northward. This storm may end up fitting that description perfectly.
The Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz and Jason Samenow contributed to this post.