Skip to main content

Storm tracks were ‘highly unusual’

Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne not only packed powerful punches, the two storms also made unusual roller-coaster turns, looping around to take shots at the storm-weary Southeast.

“Ivan’s loop was particularly unique,” says James Franklin, a NOAA hurricane specialist. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a storm like that.”

Hurricane Ivan, at one point one of the more powerful hurricanes on record, slammed the Gulf coast and headed northeast. Before it fizzled out, a small portion of the storm broke off toward the South, crossed Florida and re-energized as a tropical depression as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico again.

“Then it came up and gave a pretty good clobbering to the U.S., with torrential rain and winds,” says George Caras, a forecaster for Commanders’ Weather Center in Nashua, N.H. “It’s highly unusual. You don’t see something like that.”

Unusual, yes, but meteorologists say they have seen a host of peculiar storm tracks through the years. “I’ve seen it all, but it always amazes me,” says Henry Margusity, a meteorologist with private weather forecasting firm AccuWeather in State College, Pa.

Experts weren’t sure Ivan, at one point a Category 5 hurricane, should be considered the same storm when it made its encore visit to the Gulf coast. “It could be argued that it was a new cyclone developing,” says Franklin.

Margusity says the debate was on whether it should be renamed. Since it was a remnant of Ivan, the moniker remained.

Ivan initially made landfall Sept. 16 between Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., as a deadly Category 3 hurricane. It roared ashore with 130-mph winds and a 10-to-16-foot storm surge, spawning tornadoes, flooding homes and businesses, and causing $150 million in damage to recreational boats, according to BoatU.S. Downgraded to a tropical depression, Ivan then moved northeast toward Virginia, where the upper level sheered off to the north, causing heavy rain in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, according to Margusity. The lower level spun back south with a fraction of its strength. Still, it made its mark.

“When it crossed Florida, it produced 8 inches of rain and 50-mph winds,” says Margusity. “Technically it could have been classified as a tropical storm [then],” he says. It officially regained named-storm status as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico, where conditions were favorable for it to redevelop. It made landfall as a tropical depression along southwestern Louisiana and Texas.

Ivan also was somewhat unusual — although not unprecedented — because it gained strength farther south than most hurricanes, says Caras. Ivan formed Sept. 2 as a tropical depression and strengthened to hurricane status off South America, skirting the continent’s north coast.

“When that one got going, it was very strong,” says Caras.

High winds and heavy rain pummeled parts of Venezuela. The storm strengthened as it hit Grenada, becoming a Category 4, and got even stronger with sustained winds of 140 mph and higher gusts as it swung into the Caribbean and across the Gulf. Ivan killed at least 70 people as it roared across Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad-Tobago, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba.

Hurricane Jeanne also took a somewhat unusual track, though not as much so as Ivan. Jeanne — responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in Haiti alone due to heavy flooding— was heading out to sea when it circled nearly 700 miles east of Florida and turned back toward the state.

“Jeanne was heading east-northeast away from the Bahamas when it reached light upper level steering currents,” says Caras. “It stalled, ended up making a clockwise loop toward the Bahamas, and swept across Florida.”

Margusity says it’s happened before. “The hurricane gets stuck between two systems and tries to find its way out,” he says.

In this case, Jeanne was trapped by a ridge to the east and a trough to the west, according to Margusity. Meteorologists didn’t know for certain which path it would take. “It kind of sat there and wobbled,” he says.

But the ridge from the east eventually won out, says Margusity. Category 3 Jeanne made landfall Sept. 25 near Stuart, Fla., a few miles from where hurricane Frances hit three weeks earlier and closely following that storm’s track.

“The really unusual thing about Jeanne is it landed within miles of where Frances hit,” says Franklin. Hurricane Frances made landfall Sept. 5 near Stuart, Fla., as a Category 2 storm with winds of 100-plus mph.

“It’s amazing,” Dan Brown of the National Hurricane Center told the Florida Sun Sentinel. “It’s unfortunate it affected the same people. I can’t imagine having damage to your property, trying to repair it, and having to go through it all again a few weeks later.”

Though weaker by the time it landed, Frances was the most costly in terms of boat damage of the four hurricanes that hit Florida in August and September — including Charley — due to its size, slower track and the concentration of larger vessels in its path, according to BoatU.S. The association reports $300 million in damages to recreational boats from Frances, and a total of $680 million from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne combined.

Florida became the first state to be hit by four hurricanes in one season since Texas in 1886. And that was with two months to go before the hurricane season ends Nov. 30. Not since 1964 had Florida been hit so hard. That year the state was slammed by three hurricanes, according to officials.

Researchers had forecast an above-average Atlantic hurricane season this year, with 12 to 15 tropical storms — including six to eight hurricanes, of which two to four would become major hurricanes. Researchers say increased hurricane activity began in 1995.