Thu | Nov 22, 2018

Martin Henry | Big, bad hurricanes past and present

Published:Tuesday | October 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Houston, Texas, the fourth most populous city in the United States after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, has been inundated with the waters of Hurricane Harvey. Harvey is the wettest storm on record to have hit the continental United States.

Back in 1900, a hurricane on the night of September 8, which had affected Jamaica earlier in its passage through the Caribbean, destroyed Galveston, Texas. The booming city of 40,000 was on a flat island whose highest point was only eight feet above sea level. A 15-foot storm surge swept over the island, killing as many as 12,000 people, making that hurricane, up to today, the deadliest natural disaster in US history.

But the number-one spot for Atlantic hurricane deaths goes to the Great Hurricane of 1780, followed by Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras and other parts of Central America in 1998.

The hurricane season of 1780 was both extraordinarily active and extraordinarily destructive. It remains the deadliest Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history, with more than 28,000 known deaths. There were four major hurricanes that year and some lesser storms, one hurricane in June, and three in October. This has never been repeated, and only in the 1893 and 2005 seasons were there two such hurricanes. The 1780 season also had the deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all time, known as the Great Hurricane of 1780.

Jamaica was hit by one of the October storms on October 3. The Gleaner Geography & History of Jamaica tells us, "A terrible hurricane devastated the parish of Westmoreland ... . The misery caused by this calamity was very great. The town of Savanna-la-Mar was again completely destroyed."

Many of the residents of Savanna-la-Mar had gathered on the seashore as spectators when a 20-foot storm surge engulfed the onlookers, ships docked in the harbour, and many of the town's buildings. In Lucea, 400 people and all but two structures perished. There were 360 deaths in Montego Bay.

A week later, the Great Hurricane of 1780 devastated the Eastern Caribbean, beginning with Barbados on October 10. That hurricane devastated St Vincent and St Lucia, totally demolished the capital of Martinique, and hit Grenada, St Eustatius, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Bermuda and parts of the Eastern United States, killing at least 22,000 people in its path. The Great Hurricane was so strong that its winds stripped the bark off trees, suggesting wind speeds of more than 200mph. Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale begins at wind speed of 157mph. So this was some superstorm.


Hurricane Mitch kills 19,000


Hurricane Mitch is the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. The storm was the 13th tropical storm, ninth hurricane, and third major hurricane of the 1998 hurricane season. Up to that time, Hurricane Mitch was the strongest Atlantic hurricane observed in the month of October, though it has since been surpassed by Hurricane Wilma of the 2005 season. Because of its slow motion from October 29 to November 3, Hurricane Mitch dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, with unofficial reports of up to 75 inches. Deaths from catastrophic flooding made it the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history after the Great Hurricane of 1780. There were over 19,000 casualties.

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 drove business and people to Houston 47 miles away inland, and Galveston never regained its position of dominance. Now, it's Houston's turn to be hit by a powerful hurricane. Only a relatively few deaths, in the region of 70, but massively flooded out. With so many hurricanes one behind the other from late August through to mid-September, are we seeing in 2017 a rerun of 1780?

People here went into overdrive after our May and June flood rains, demanding from the Government bigger and better drains and drain cleaning. But given a sufficient intensity of rainfall fast enough, any drainage will be overwhelmed. Big, wet Hurricane Harvey set a record for rainfall in the continental USA, dropping 51.88 inches of rain.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and