category 5 hurricanes Cosmic Journeys Super Storms

Why some tropical storms erupt into monster hurricanes capable of wrecking coastlines. Can they be predicted?

September 12th, 2008. A hurricane named Ike is headed toward the beaches of Galveston Island in Texas.

The eye of the storm, where the most intense winds are, is still hundreds of miles away…

Yet the rising water has already spread over much of the island.

Eight days back, researchers had flown into Ike and measured its winds… at 145 miles per hour. That made it a category 4 out of 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Moving into the western Atlantic, Ike fed on a deep layer of warm ocean water, sweeping it up and growing to deadly intensity.

Over a million people were evacuated from coastlines in Cuba as the storm approached.

Ike weakened as it passed over the island.

But as it entered the Gulf of Mexico by late September 10th, now on a beeline for Texas, it had begun to re-intensify.

Residents of Galveston were ordered to evacuate.

Most of the 58,000 residents did.

Thousands remained to brave the storm….

Despite the memory of another storm… over a century ago… that showed how vulnerable this low-lying island can be.

September 6th, 1900… powerful waves began lashing the coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi.

With swells rising in Galveston, on the 7th, a hurricane warning was put into effect.

That afternoon, a ship sailing from New Orleans encountered the storm. The captain estimated winds at 100 miles per hour.

But at this point, little was known about the storm… where it would hit… and how bad it would be.

By 5:00 PM, hurricane force winds began to pound the beaches of Galveston.

By the time the hurricane came ashore that evening, its winds had risen to 135 miles per hour… a category four by today’s standards.

Around 8,000 lives were lost… in what remains to this day the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

The city of Galveston was reduced to rubble by wind driven waves and tides, called storm surge, over 15 feet high.

The island had endured numerous storms since it was founded in 1838. What made this one so powerful?

Hurricanes, also called cyclones or typhoons, are tropical storms that feed on solar heat captured by the oceans.

When conditions are right, a hurricane can release this energy in a fury…

Of wind and rain….

A rare few, like the one that hit Galveston, go beyond the norm, to marshal the extreme power of the seas… and leave in their wake a legacy of devastation, death, and despair.

One of the deadliest ever hit what’s now Bangladesh in 1970. Moving ashore in a densely populated river delta, it claimed as many as 500,000 lives.

In 1969, weather satellites launched earlier in the decade showed hurricane Camille bearing down on the Mississippi coast.

The storm intensified suddenly… with category five winds of around 200 miles per hour, and a storm surge that reached 24 feet high.

Camille wrecked the coastline and drowned 143.

Inevitably, the storm carried huge volumes of moisture as it traveled inland. The result, when Camille hit the mountains in Virginia, was devastating floods that killed another 113.

Then there was Andrew in 1992, in an otherwise slow hurricane season.

Just two days after reaching hurricane status, Andrew took a turn into the warm waters of the Gulf Stream…

then accelerated into the Florida coastline with winds measured at 155 miles per hour.

It caused at least 26.5 billion dollars in damage. Could it get any worse?

Unfortunately, it did!