Category 5 Super Typhoon Yutu, which decimated the Northern Marianas, is the latest in a string of behemoth storms to directly strike U.S. soil since August 2017. The United States or U.S. territories have been hit by five Category 4 or stronger tropical cyclones in the past 14 months. This is probably without precedent.
Brian McNoldy, a tropical-weather researcher at the University of Miami who examined historical data, could not find more than two Category 4 or stronger storms that previously hit the United States over a two-year period.
Category 4 and 5 storms are the most violent class of hurricanes, packing winds of at least 130 mph, and are notorious for their destructive force and, often, high death tolls.
The barrage began with Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. Then came Irma and Maria during the historic September 2017 hurricane outbreak in the Atlantic Ocean. This year, we’ve seen Hurricane Michael and now Super Typhoon Yutu. These storms have all wrought devastation where they’ve struck and will be remembered for generations.
Before this onslaught of violent storms, the contiguous United States was on a run of 12 years, or 4,324 days, without a major (Category 3 or stronger) hurricane striking land. It was the longest such streak on record. From Hurricane Wilma’s landfall in Florida as a Category 3 on Oct. 24, 2005, until Aug. 25, 2017, we waited. Big storms spun up all around the oceans, but not in our backyard.
That all seems to have changed with Harvey, and in a flash. “Our luck ran out,” said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University.
Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast of Texas, near San Jose Island, on Aug. 26, 2017. It had rapidly intensified into a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph at landfall.
Harvey packed winds that caused severe damage and major storm surges. In the end, biblical rain may be the lasting legacy of the storm, despite severe effects from its other facets. Harvey will be remembered as the wettest storm in U.S. records, at least until the next one.
After waiting 4,324 days between majors, the wait until the next would only be 16 days. Hurricane Irma was a classic long-track, violent hurricane in the Atlantic.
Part of a nearly unprecedented outbreak of storms over a several-week period, it mowed through the northern Leeward Islands of the Caribbean as a Category 5, demolishing much in its path. The storm then made landfall in the Florida Keys near Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017. It finally came ashore over the mainland near Marco Island as a Category 3.
Harvey and Irma’s back-to-back assaults marked the first time on record that the continental United States was hit by two Category 4 hurricanes in the same season.
The hits just kept coming in 2017. Hurricane Jose was another major storm, reaching Category 4 over open water, but it missed land.
Hurricane Maria would not be so kind. In the predawn hours of Sept. 20, 2017, it made landfall in Yabucoa Harbor, Puerto Rico, as a strong Category 4 with 155 mph winds. The humanitarian crisis — including thousands of deaths related to the aftermath of the storm — lingers more than a year later.
A scare came in September of this year with Hurricane Florence on the East Coast. It mercifully weakened on approach but still dumped torrential rain.
A few weeks later, Hurricane Michael explosively developed.
Roaring ashore Oct. 10 near Mexico Beach, Fla., as a Category 4 with 155 mph winds, Michael became one of the four strongest storms on record to make landfall in the United States. Its strength is without precedent for an October storm, as is where it made landfall, in the Florida Panhandle. The destruction of this event is still being calculated, and communities from the Florida Panhandle up into Alabama and Georgia will be dealing with the consequences of Michael for years to come.
Michael was the third Category 4 hurricane to hit the continental United States in two years, another record.
A number of scares have occurred in the Pacific of late as well. Some huge storms missed Hawaii by short distances. Then came Super Typhoon Yutu.
A true superstorm, Yutu topped out with scale-breaking winds of 180 mph and waves near 60 feet tall in the open ocean. This was happening as it was moving through the U.S. territories of Saipan and Tinian. The horrific details of this event are just emerging, as residents of the islands prepare for a long time of hardship. As it stands, Yutu is the second-strongest storm to strike U.S. soil, trailing only the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys.
While McNoldy found that five Category 4+ storms striking U.S. soil in such a short time is unprecedented, he cautioned that data gaps increase as you go further back in time. Klotzbach also noted that accounting for the frequency of such beastly storms becomes muddied when you include U.S. territories because the territories have changed over time. For example, the Philippines, which frequently is slammed by violent tropical cyclones, used to be a U.S. territory but no longer is.
This hurricane season is thankfully on the cusp of waning across the Northern Hemisphere as we head into winter, but as water temperatures remain very warm globally year to year, it is hard not to wonder whether this barrage of beastly tropical cyclones is a vision of the future.
A tip of the hat to Weather.com’s Chris Dolce, whose tweet inspired this report.
The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow contributed to this report.