Latest hurricane danger could plot an ‘unusual track' toward Florida

·6 min read

AccuWeather meteorologists are warning of the possibility that Hurricane Ian in the Caribbean could undergo rapid intensification in the days ahead as it churns northward and the wind shear subsides, with the storm's sights potentially set on striking the west coast of Florida -- an often missed target.

After making the trek from the Caribbean into the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the current forecast track of for Ian shows the hurricane rapidly intensifying, reaching a Category 4 strength on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and then impacting the United States by the middle to end of this week.

According to a historical database provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there have been about 160 hurricanes, excluding tropical storms, that have affected Florida. Only 17 of the 160 have passed close to the west coast, north of the Florida Keys.

Of those 17, there is no record of a hurricane having tracked entirely up the west coast of Florida since reliable records began in 1944. If the potential track of the storm stays along the west coast, it could be a "very unusual track," AccuWeather Senior Weather Editor Jesse Ferrell explained, stating that most storms typically travel northeast or northwest, not up the coast.

This image taken on Monday shows a strengthening Hurricane Ian in the western Caribbean Sea. (AccuWeather Enhanced RealVue™ satellite)

"In fact, there was only one hurricane before 1944, a Category 5 hurricane in 1935, that hit the Keys then ran up the west coast," Ferrell said.

Tampa's highest storm surge on record, however, came from the unnamed Hurricane of 1921. Downtown, the water rose 10.5 feet. That hurricane plowed directly into the west coast north of Tampa, delivering a worst-case-scenario storm surge that was funneled into Tampa Bay. The surge destroyed much of the seawall that existed then, inundating much of the area and reducing buildings to rubble.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, which covered the 90th anniversary of the 1921 storm in 2011, the population of the five-county area was around 135,000 people when that storm hit. According to Census.gov, that population had expanded to 3.38 million in 2021.

"It's important to note that Florida has had recent hits from storms that were hurricanes but were downgraded to tropical storms before landfall," Ferrell said, noting the two most recent storms that made landfall as tropical storms -- Elsa in 2021 which made landfall just west of Tampa on Treasure Island and Eta in 2020 which made landfall north of Tampa in Cedar Key.

Ferrell narrowed the data down even further to six of the biggest hurricanes to affect the west coast of Florida. While the current brewing threat likely won't follow the exact same path as any of these storms, understanding how previous storms made landfall on Florida's west coast gives insight into comprehending how unusual the storm's track is right now.

Starting with the most recent, Hurricane Irma came crashing into Marco Island in southwestern Florida as a Category 3 major hurricane in 2017.

"Hurricane Irma took that extremely unusual north-northwest track up the western half of Florida as a Category 1, causing widespread damage in the state," Ferrell said. "It was a wake-up call for west coast Floridians [who were] not prepared."

Irma resulted in more than $320 million in damages across southwestern Florida, according to a report from NOAA.

In this geocolor GOES-16 satellite image taken Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at 18:30 UTC (2:30 p.m. EDT), the eye of Hurricane Irma moves northwest just off the coast of Cuba and south of Florida. (NOAA via AP)

Twelve years earlier, Hurricane Wilma took advantage of the warm Caribbean waters and low wind shear in the atmosphere and the storm underwent a record-setting and staggering period of intensification, strengthening from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane in just 24 hours. After making landfall in Mexico, Wilma took aim at the Florida Peninsula, making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane near Cape Romano, Florida.

The aftermath was devastating. Wilma was the ninth-costliest hurricane to impact the U.S. in history, with a total estimated cost of more than $25 billion, according to the 2020 Consumer Price Index adjusted cost.

Just one year before Wilma wreaked havoc on Florida's southwestern coast, Hurricane Charley left its mark. Charley made landfall just west of Cape Coral in 2004 as a Category 4 hurricane and was one of the most severe hurricanes to make landfall on Florida's west coast.

It rapidly intensified from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane just before landfall. After landfall, Charlie sliced through the center of the state and worked its way up the East Coast. By the time it crossed North Carolina, it had weakened into a tropical storm.

Hurricane Charley shortly before peak intensity near landfall in Florida on Aug. 13, 2004 (NOAA)

Charley was blamed for killing more than a dozen people in the Caribbean and the U.S. combined, with damages estimated to cost close to $17 billion.

Hurricane Gladys in 1968 and Hurricane Donna in 1960 both had similar tracks. Gladys made landfall as a Category 2 between the Florida Panhandle and Tampa, which is considered to be a rare track for any hurricane, much less a Category 2, Ferrell explained. Gladys sliced through northern Florida and continued as a hurricane to the Outer Banks, just off North Carolina.

Although Hurricane Donna carved a similar path as Hurricane Gladys, it made landfall farther south, hitting just south of Cape Coral as a Category 3 hurricane. Donna then sliced through Florida and continued as a Category 2 hurricane, making landfall in North Carolina. But instead of fizzling out and weakening after making landfall in North Carolina, Donna continued up the East Coast, making another landfall in Long Island as a Category 2 hurricane.

A Tampa man found the going rough when he stepped out to check the weather at one of the residential sections bordering Tampa Bay on Sept. 10, 1960. Wind gusts picked up considerably later and threatened to uproot trees in this section after dark as Hurricane Donna approached from the South. (AP Photo)

Donna was one of the most destructive hurricanes to affect Florida in modern times, according to the NWS, which noted that there were 12 fatalities in Florida. Damage estimates have ranged from $36 million to $350 million.

Last but certainly not least, Hurricane Easy in 1950 was a "nightmare storm" for western Florida, according to Ferrell.

Hurricane Easy made its first U.S. landfall in Florida as a Category 3 hurricane, just north of Tampa near Cedar Key. It meandered around and made a second landfall 24 hours later in Spring Hill, which is about 55 miles south of Cedar Key as a Category 2 hurricane.

Post landfall, Easy weakened into a tropical storm that continued north through Florida before becoming a tropical depression in Georgia and finally fizzling out in Arkansas.

Hurricane Easy dumped 38.7 inches of rain in 24 hours in parts of Florida and caused $3.3 million in damages, NOAA reported.

Once again, people along the Gulf coast of Florida, as well as elsewhere in the state, should remain vigilant and be prepared for a strike by an intense hurricane in the days ahead, according to AccuWeather forecasters.

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