What’s It Like to Experience a Category 5 Hurricane?

Hurricane Andrew
Hurricane Andrew, seen here as it progressed over three days, was not the deadliest to strike the U.S. But the compact, fast-moving storm remains one of the strongest and costliest on record. NASA

On Aug. 18, 1969, Hurricane Camille made landfall along the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest storm on Earth. Hurricanes are rated by wind speed and the damage they inflict, with Category 5 defined as sustained winds of 157 miles per hour (252 kilometers per hour) or greater, strong enough to flatten even well-built homes and send debris flying like airborne missiles. Camille had winds as high as 175 miles per hour (282 kilometers per hour).

Camille was Ruth Clark’s first hurricane. The then-27-year-old native of Richton, Mississippi, 70 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, took shelter in her church’s partial basement, huddled with her husband and neighbors as the storm tore straight through her hometown. Hours earlier, at the Trinity Episcopal Church in coastal Pass Christian, Mississippi, 15 people drowned in Camille’s historic storm surge.

Surviving a Category 5 Hurricane

Hurricane Andrew
Homestead Air Force Base located in Miami-Dade County was all-but destroyed during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. U.S. Air Force

“You really can’t describe to anybody what it’s like to sit through a hurricane,” says Clark, who also rode out Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, in 2005. “It’s almost like they describe the sound of a tornado, like listening to a train go by, except it doesn’t pass on and it’s over with. It just keeps going and going and going. You’re hearing the popping and the crackling of the trees, and the fireworks from the power lines going down, popping and snapping. It’s just a horrendous sound.”

During both storms, Clark wondered more than once if it was the end. The giant oak trees lining Richton’s streets toppled in the brutal and relentless winds, which raged for hours. All it would take was for one of those trees to come crashing through the roof, or for the walls to succumb to the terrible force.

“The house is trembling like it’s an earthquake. You just feel everything shaking and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Clark, who now lives outside of Atlanta. “You do a lot of praying.”

Doug Rohan was just starting his senior in high school when Hurricane Andrew, another Category 5 storm, slammed into South Florida Aug. 24, 1992. Rohan and his family took refuge in his father’s boarded-up office building and spent a long, blacked-out night listening to the rattle and thump of unknown objects careening across the rooftop.

“When daylight came and we opened the door to look outside, we realized that the rumblings were heard on the rooftops were probably very large tree limbs or porta-potties blown four to five blocks from construction sites,” remembers Rohan. “There were faces of office buildings that were sheared off from the facade. That’s what a Category 5 hurricane can do in a direct hit.”

Rohan lived just 2 miles (3 kilometers) north of the worst devastation in the Homestead district. At the Homestead Air Force Base, fighter jets were sucked out of hangers. Rohan says that entire neighborhoods were leveled as if a “Hiroshima-style bomb” had detonated in South Miami. More than 180,000 people in Miami-Dade County were left homeless and 1.4 million people had no power, many for weeks. Rohan will never forget that most of what remained standing was slathered on the windward side with a pea-green slurry.

“Every single leaf was stripped from every single tree and minced up like it was in a blender,” says Rohan. “So, you had all this sap oozing out, mixed with the rain, and it was like a poultice on all the buildings and cars. It was like snow drifts, except it was like finely chopped green leaves.”

How Do Category 5 Hurricanes Form?

Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes
This image shows the tracks of all known Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes between 1851 and 2019. The points on the map show the location of the storm at six-hour intervals. The colors represent the storms’ maximum sustained wind speeds as classified in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Red points mark where each storm reached Category 5 strength, which is sustained winds greater than 157 miles per hour (252 kilometers per hour). Public Domain

Corene Matyas researches tropical cyclones (aka hurricanes) at the University of Florida. She explains that Category 5 hurricanes draw their massive power from a set of ideal storm-generating conditions that converge in late summer over the Atlantic. Tropical cyclones extract their energy from warm ocean waters, and the Atlantic and Caribbean are the warmest in August and September. All it takes is an area of low pressure and an influx of air (wind) to “fill” the pressure gap. The wind evaporates warm water from the ocean surface and draws the moisture upward where it condenses into a swirling column of clouds.

“Soon you have a positive feedback mechanism,” Matyas says. “The faster the wind, the more productive the storm, which then lowers the surface pressure further, which makes the winds faster, which makes it evaporate more. If everything is set up just right for the storm, this process can keep going and going, which is what we’re seeing with Irma. There isn’t anything disrupting this process right now.”

A Category 5 hurricane is likely to do 500 times more damage than a Category 1 hurricane, which has winds of 95 miles per hour (152 kilometers per hour). Only four Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. to date: The most recent was Hurricane Michael, which slammed into the Florida Panhandle in October 2018. It left behind catastrophic damage from wind and storm surge, particularly in Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas, Florida.

The other three hurricanes to make landfall as Category 5 storms were Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Hurricane Camille in 1969 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that hit the Florida Keys. Several others have reached Category 5 strength, including Hurricanes Hugo in 1989, Mitch in 1998, Ivan in 2004, Katrina in 2005, and Irma and Maria in 2017.

How Much Destruction Can a Category 5 Cause?

The types of damage Clark and Rohan experienced are very typical of a Category 5 hurricane. The Weather Channel notes that at this level of storm, “People, livestock, and pets are at very high risk of injury or death from flying or falling debris … A high percentage of industrial buildings and low-rise apartment buildings will be destroyed … Nearly all trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed.”

But Clark and Rohan agree that although living through a storm is terrifying, what no one is prepared for is the aftermath. The debris and destruction can be overwhelming, as is the late summer heat without air conditioning. Power may be out for weeks, grocery stores are closed and roads are often impassable. Ice becomes one of the most critical commodities as people try to salvage and preserve the food quickly thawing in their chest freezers.

With phone lines down (this was before cell phones), Rohan’s uncles followed their instincts and drove a pickup from Gainesville, Florida, with five coolers of ice, two chain saws and a bunch of hotdogs. Rohan was a newly minted Eagle Scout and he and his family camped in the backyard for two weeks cooking on the propane grill. Tens of thousands of other South Floridians slept for months in tent cities set up by the National Guard.

After Katrina, Clark’s small town of Richton was cut off by flooded rivers from the bigger city of Hattiesburg. The National Guard sent in Blackhawk helicopters with ice and MREs (meals ready to eat). Clark had to have the roof replaced on her house, and it took her several months just to clear the fallen trees and other debris from her yard.

Hurricanes can be incredibly fickle and almost random with their destructiveness. “Even with all of those hurricane models and cool graphics, there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” says Rohan. “A couple of miles are going to make the difference between the worst weather and basically a severe thunderstorm. You could evacuate because you think you’re going to get hit and then nothing happens. Or alternatively, you can hunker down and ride out the storm and then — pow! — you’re hit with 220-miles per hour gusts and your home is flattened.”

Originally Published: Sep 7, 2017

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