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Why Hurricane Ian poses a historic threat to Florida

This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite image shows lightning surrounding Hurricane Ian's eye while approaching Florida on Wednesday. (NOAA/RAMMB/AFP/Getty Images)

Hurricane Ian made landfall on the southwest coast of Florida on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, but just barely. Its wind speeds were at the upper end of the Saffir-Simpson range, making it one of the most dangerous storms to strike the peninsula in recorded history. It’s not unusual for a hurricane to hit Florida, but it is unusual for one to land where Ian did, particularly at such strength.

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Information on Atlantic hurricanes stretches back further than you might think. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has data on the paths and estimated strength of hurricanes back to the 1850s. While the numbers are necessarily incomplete — we lacked the sort of measurement systems in 1870 that we have now, for example — it still provides a good sense of how often the United States has been hit by large storms.

Hurricane Ian hit Florida on Sept. 28, bringing high winds and heavy flooding to the state. (Video: The Washington Post)

I used that data to make the map below, showing every hurricane (excluding tropical storms) to make landfall (not simply pass close by) in Florida through the end of 2021. There are 99 in total, 13 of which were Category 3 or above.

Ian arrived onshore near Cayo Costa, Fla., a bit past 3 p.m. on Wednesday. That’s near where Hurricane Charley came ashore in 2004, also as a Category 4. The two other hurricanes that made landfall in Florida as Category 4 storms hit the Florida Keys (the string of islands extending from the southern tip of the state) and Miami, not on the state’s western shore. (The latter was 1992′s Hurricane Andrew.)

The reason why should be obvious from the first map. Storms typically emerge in the Atlantic Ocean and head west. Sometimes they originate in the Gulf of Mexico or travel north toward Florida, as Ian did.

Often, though, they approach from the southeast. You can see that on the map of the Category 3 storms that the NOAA identifies as having made landfall in Florida. Most land near Miami or in the Keys.

The NOAA’s data includes one Category 5 storm that also made landfall near the Keys. That storm came ashore in early September 1935, before storms regularly had names. It’s simply called the Labor Day hurricane.

After the storm finished its path up the western shore of the state and into the rest of the United States, more than 400 people were dead.

This, of course, is why the NOAA and other governmental agencies invest so much time and energy into understanding hurricanes: the better to predict their emergence and path. Luckily for the residents of Florida, experts saw Ian coming and gave plenty of warning to the growing community near where it landed.

We’ll likely never know how many lives were saved as a result.

The Atlantic hurricane season

The latest: The 2022 season started out slow, but has rapidly intensified this fall with conditions prime for storms. Fiona brought severe flooding to Puerto Rico before making landfall in Canada, and now we’re tracking Hurricane Ian as it heads for Florida. For the seventh year in a row, hurricane officials expect an above-average season of hurricane activity.

Tips for preparing: We rounded up seven safety tips to help you get ready for hurricanes. Here’s some other guidance about keeping your phone charged and useful in dangerous weather, and what to know about flood insurance.

Understanding climate change: It’s not just you — hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the U.S. more frequently in recent years. And last summer alone, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster. Read more about how climate change is fueling severe weather events.