Wrath of a Category 5

Hurricane Dorian’s trail of destruction and trauma exposes the realities of boating amid increasingly powerful storms
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Dorian destroyed up to 90 percent of the infrastructure on the Abacos.

Dorian destroyed up to 90 percent of the infrastructure on the Abacos.

Laurie McCoy couldn’t make the sounds stop in her mind: the deafening wind, the smashing of trees and debris, the air screeching like a train whistle through the cracks, the water sloshing into places it shouldn’t be. Simply seeing the news coverage of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian relentlessly lashing the Bahamas in September brought those sounds, and more, back for McCoy in a way that made her feel like Hurricane Irma had returned to haunt her all over again.

“Laurie feels that she has PTSD,” says her husband, Ken Reynolds, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “She’s been crying all week.”

The couple, from Canada, experienced the shock of Dorian’s destruction while watching the increasingly dire reports emerge from the Bahamas. As with countless other boaters, they’d cruised there and adored the place. Yet their own experience with a Category 5 storm made the reports feel wrenchingly personal. Two years ago, the couple had to abandon their 36-foot CS Traditional Mauna Kea at a marina and head for a cement house on Sint Maarten when Irma barreled into that island as a Category 5. A flying boat smashed into theirs, and then hit the next boat over, which took out a dock pylon and sent all the boats loose in the storm. Even still, the couple felt lucky: A family they knew had stayed aboard with three kids, and all but one child died.

Storms like Dorian and Irma are teaching the world about the ferocity of Category 5 hurricanes, and their potential to batter boats and people in unthinkable ways. Dorian was the slowest, strongest hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas. What Dorian inflicted left even seasoned storm professionals grappling for words. A top U.S. aid official, after touring the Abacos for the first time, said it looked “almost as if a nuclear bomb was dropped.”

Even compared to Irma—which killed more than 80 people in Florida and destroyed more than 50,000 boats—Dorian was a monster. Irma hit Sint Maarten with sustained winds of about 180 mph for around eight hours. By contrast, Dorian had sustained winds of 185 mph as she sat atop the Abacos for 22 hours. Irma caused an estimated $3 billion in damage on Sint Maarten. Early reports are projecting Dorian’s impact on the Abacos as at least $7 billion.

Officials say that some 90 percent of the infrastructure on the Abacos is wrecked or gone. At press time, the number of dead was in the dozens and rising. The United Nations’ World Food program reported that immediately after the storm about 70,000 people—more than 15 percent of the total Bahamian population—had no food or shelter. “We don’t know if some of our family members are dead or alive,” 25-year-old Yassmin Francis told the Sun-Sentinel after ending up at a Red Cross shelter in South Florida. “No way to call them. All you can do is post on Facebook and hope they respond.”

Floridians thought that they, instead of the Bahamas, were going to take the brunt of a hit. But then, Dorian made a turn to the north after coming within 100 miles of Florida’s Atlantic coast. As Dorian cleared out, Floridians poured into the Bahamas with assistance; marinas accepted donations of money and supplies, and yachts headed out to deliver them alongside emergency officials. Some boats returned with people needing shelter; one, the 240-foot Delta Laurel, cruised back to Florida with 50 Bahamian dogs in its cargo hold.

Given how soon Dorian hit following Irma, the question was raised: Are Category 5 hurricanes the new normal in parts of the world that boaters have, for so long, adored?

 Dorian, shown here at peak
 intensity, is one of 35 hurricanes to achieve Category 5 strength in 169 years.

 Dorian, shown here at peak intensity, is one of 35 hurricanes to achieve Category 5 strength in 169 years.

“I fear it’s worse than that,” Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann told USA Today. “As we continue to warm the planet, hurricane intensities will increase.

Essentially, hurricanes take heat from the oceans and convert it into energy that sustains their winds. That’s why, as the oceans warm with climate change, researchers expect storms to intensify.

Only 35 hurricanes have achieved Category 5 strength in the Atlantic, and only four of them have hit the continental United States during 169 years of record-keeping. The ones that made landfall in America were the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.

However, the past two decades have added some noteworthy data points to the historical record. September 2017 was the first time that two hurricanes—Irma and Maria—attained Category 5 strength in the same season since 2007, when Dean and Felix did the same. And, Michael’s Florida landfall in October 2018 was the third year in a row the Atlantic had at least one Category 5 storm; that’s only happened one other time, 2003-05. In 2005, there were four Category 5 hurricanes. The decade that recorded the greatest number of Category 5 hurricanes was 2000-09, with eight. Since then, from 2010 to 2009, five storms have attained that strength.

CBS News climate and weather contributor Jeff Berardelli says some Category 4s and Category 5s in the early 1900s and the 1800s may have been missed because of a lack of technology. “With that said, there seems to be a fairly robust signal that we’re seeing more intense hurricanes.”

Researchers at the NOAA-funded Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory say the apparent increase in the total number of Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes may be due to advanced technology. However, they also say the number of storms reaching Category 4 and 5 levels will likely increase throughout the 21st century, and that the bigger storms are going to do more damage: “It’s likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes,” they wrote in mid-August.

A Hurricane Dorian victim is airlifted from the Abacos by the United States Coast Guard.

A Hurricane Dorian victim is airlifted from the Abacos by the United States Coast Guard.

Joe Chillberg knows what it feels like to live through a Category 5 hurricane. He left his 49-foot Grand Banks Mud Puddle Rose and sought shelter on land as Dorian struck the Abacos. He wrote in his blog about winds shaking corrugated metal storm shutters and the sound of a large crash; it turned out to be Dorian’s winds tearing the roof off a raised pavilion that was nearby.

When it was all over, Chillberg went looking for his boat. He wrote that the search felt like seeking out a lost child, and that he still cries when talking about how he found her: upside down and partially sunk. “She was my dream boat and now the dream is dead. In nine hurricanes, I had zero insurance claims. Now I have essentially lost all my possessions.”

After being airlifted out, Chillberg wrote that he’s just happy to be alive. That’s how Reynolds and McCoy feel as well, two years after Irma. “We are always hoping that it will turn, turn, turn,” McCoy says, “although it didn’t for us.” 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.