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Florida Hurricanes in 2004

The year 2004 was a rough one for Florida, with four hurricanes and a tropical storm plaguing the Sunshine State. To give us a run-down on all the storms that brushed Florida -- where they started, what paths did they take and so on -- I'm pleased to present the following article by Bruce Supranowicz. There's a lot of fascinating information here for weather-watchers!

The five storms in this article are: Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

First There was Tropical Storm Bonnie

Bonnie developed from a tropical depression which first formed about 150 miles north of the Yucatan Peninsula on August 10. After drifting westward for several hours, the tropical depression intensified into a tropical storm. Ordinarily, at this time of year, Bonnie would have moved in a general northwesterly direction, but a strong trough over the eastern U.S. influenced Bonnie’s direction of movement.

The tropical storm veered towards the north and then turned northeastward over the Central Gulf of Mexico. Bonnie intensified to a 65 MPH tropical storm while still several hundred miles west of Ft. Myers, Florida, but then upper atmospheric shear from the trough to the north of the system started to weaken it. By August 12, when Bonnie moved inland into the Florida panhandle just east of Panama City, it was merely a 50-MPH tropical storm which brought heavy rain and some wind to the region, but not much else.

Then Hurricane Charley Came Along

Charley was first identified as a tropical depression crossing the Windward Islands near Grenada on August 9.  This system became a tropical storm on August 10 and a hurricane on August 11 as it moved through the Caribbean Sea, just to the south of Jamaica in a general west-northwesterly direction.

Charley veered more towards the northwest and then the north-northwest as it intensified into a category 2 hurricane. The hurricane hit the southwest coast of Cuba near the Isle of Youth early on August 13. Like its predecessor Bonnie, it might ordinarily have moved farther west-northwest or northwest and hit the upper Gulf coast region at that time of the year, but the same trough of low pressure in the eastern U.S. which caused Bonnie to swing towards the northeast affected Charley’s direction of motion.

After moving over western Cuba with very little weakening, Charley moved northward over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. It passed about 100 miles west of Key West, Florida, raking the island chain with gusty winds and squalls. But unlike Bonnie, which was weakened by shear, Charley intensified rapidly into a category 4 hurricane while about 60 miles west of Naples, and turned towards the north-northeast.

Forecasters, which had initially targeted the Tampa area as a possible landfall, had to scramble while revising the target area to near Ft. Myers. With sustained winds of 140 MPH, Charley roared ashore just south of Ft. Myers. Fortunately Charley was small in size compared with the average hurricane (destructive winds extended only up to about 25 miles from the eye of the storm). Most of the Southeastern portion of Florida east and southeast of Lake Okeechobee didn’t experience much in the way of wind and rain. Neither did the west coast of Florida from Tampa northward, nor the Ocala/Gainesville regions.

As Charlie moved rapidly north-northeast through the peninsula towards Orlando and Daytona Beach, much of the inland areas in its path experienced destructive winds and heavy squalls within a thirty-to-forty mile swath. Orlando recorded gusts near 100 MPH and Daytona Beach, where the storm exited the state, recorded hurricane-force winds. Numerous power outages and downed trees occurred close to where the center of the storm passed, mainly on the eastern side of the center.

After exiting Florida and moving into the Atlantic, Charley hit the southwestern coast of North Carolina as a borderline minimal hurricane before weakening further and moving northeastward along and near the east coast of the United States.

Hurricane Frances Came Calling

Frances was a classic Cape Verde hurricane and organized into a depression on August 25 while it was several hundred miles southwest of the Cape Verde islands.

After moving in a westerly direction and intensifying into a tropical storm, Frances started to move in a more northwesterly direction as it became a hurricane late on August 26. The storm seemed destined to recurve towards the north and miss the United States, but encountered a strong ridge to its north. Frances intensified steadily over the next few days as it moved slightly north of due west and became a category 4 hurricane while still several hundred miles east of the Leeward Islands.

Although Frances dropped down to a category 3 hurricane for a day and a half, it regained category 4 status as it passed about 100 miles or so north of Puerto Rico. As it headed towards the Bahamas, the hurricane turned more towards the northwest and appeared as if might possibly just miss the Florida east coast.

Frances, however, turned back towards the west-northwest as it reached the extreme northern Bahamas. Although Frances weakened to a category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 105 MPH, it was a very large hurricane in terms of size. Since it was moving very slowly, with a forward motion of only about five or six MPH, portions of eastern Florida along the coast from the Ft. Lauderdale region to the Cocoa Beach area experienced hurricane-force winds for a number of hours, along with heavy rain.

During the evening of September 5, Frances moved ashore about thirty-five miles north of West Palm Beach and crossed the state while moving towards the west-northwest. Inland cities such as Orlando and Lakeland experienced hurricane-force wind gusts. By the time Frances’ center reached the west coast of Florida near Spring Hill, north of Tampa, it had been reduced to a 65-MPH tropical storm. Frances exited the state and briefly moved out over the Gulf of Mexico before turning more towards the north and hitting the upper Big Bend area of the Florida coast as a tropical storm. It moved inland and eventually dissipated, but left behind many downed trees and power outages, not to mention some localized flooding.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan began as a tropical depression several hundred miles to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands on September 3 and began to intensify steadily. It was still another classic Cape Verde-type hurricane.

The system became a tropical storm later that day. By the early hours of September 5, Ivan achieved hurricane status. This storm was at a low latitude in the Atlantic and moved steadily westward towards the southern Windward Islands, where it became a category 3 hurricane. After crossing those islands and causing extensive damage to Grenada, it moved out into the southeastern Caribbean Sea and assumed a west-northwesterly direction of forward motion while still intensifying.

Floridians which had just experienced the wrath of Hurricane Frances were warily watching this storm. Ivan reached category 5 status for several hours while in the south-central Caribbean, then weakened slightly to a category 4 hurricane as it approached Jamaica. The hurricane passed just south of Jamaica, battering the island, and continued towards the west-northwest.

As Ivan passed south of the Isle of Youth, it turned towards the northwest and regained category 5 status, just missing the western tip of Cuba, but still giving hurricane-force winds and heavy rain to the western portions of Cuba. As Ivan cleared the western tip of Cuba, it weakened back to a category 4 hurricane but veered more towards the north-northwest.

Eventually, Ivan turned more towards the north, towards the central Gulf coast and hit just west of the Florida/Alabama border as a category 3 hurricane early on September 16, causing a large tidal surge and widespread damage. Much of the Florida panhandle from Panama City westward experienced hurricane-force winds and heavy rain from Ivan.

The storm gradually dissipated as it moved inland, but curiously enough, a portion of the low-pressure area broke off and moved southeastward while it was over the mid-Atlantic states, moved out over the Atlantic Ocean, and then towards the south and southwest. This “ghost of Ivan” reentered Florida near West Palm Beach on September 21 as a tropical disturbance, moved across the state and into the Gulf of Mexico and reached tropical storm status south of New Orleans before hitting the northwest Gulf Coast near the Texas/Louisiana border as a weakening tropical depression on September 24.

And Last There Was Jeanne

Jeanne began as a tropical depression in the southern Leeward Islands on September 13. Floridians didn’t know it at the time, but the term “Lightening strikes twice” would take on new meaning to them days later!

The storm headed directly towards Puerto Rico and slammed into that island late on September 15 while it was just below hurricane strength. Jeanne then sideswiped the northern coast of Hispaniola, but the mountainous terrain appeared as if it would break the storm apart. The tropical storm weakened to tropical depression status as it continued along the coast, and actually almost dissipated, but enough of a circulation remained for it to still be classified as a depression.

Once the disorganized tropical depression moved as far west as the north coast of Haiti, it turned northward, away from Hispaniola. Tropical depression Jeanne regained tropical storm status as it drifted further out towards the easternmost Bahamas and slowly reorganized.

It continued northward, over and then away from the eastern Bahamas, and for a day or two, it appeared as if Jeanne would drift harmlessly further out into the Atlantic. But a strong ridge developed just to the north of the tropical storm and Jeanne looped around in a circle, about six hundred miles east of the south Florida coastline. It also intensified into a category 2 hurricane at that time and increased in size.

By the morning of September 24, the strong ridge to the north of the hurricane started to force the tropical cyclone westward and it became apparent that Jeanne might be a repeat of Frances, which had struck the southeast coast of Florida just a few weeks earlier. Horrified Floridians woke up that morning to find out that the hurricane, a large category 2 storm, was five hundred miles off the coast and coming their way instead of remaining out at sea. Jeanne approached the southeast coast of Florida and incredibly, late at night on September 25, the eye, about forty miles wide, reached the coast at almost exactly the same spot as Frances had done. By this time, Jeanne, a large, well-developed category 3 hurricane, had sustained winds of 115 MPH. The exact same areas which had been pummeled by Frances just weeks before were hit by Jeanne.

This almost unprecedented event of two hurricanes striking the same spot just weeks apart resulted in more localized flooding, trees being uprooted and power outages. After moving inland, still moving west-northwest, Jeanne began to weaken. By the time Jeanne was passing about sixty miles southwest of Orlando it was demoted to tropical storm status. Jeanne gave heavy rain to much of Florida as it veered to the north-northwest while east of Tampa, paralleled the west coast of Florida while remaining just inland and finally moved into Georgia, where it weakened into a depression. It dissipated days later near Delaware along the mid-Atlantic coast.

Wow -- that's some write-up! Thanks a bunch, Bruce, and you can check out more of his "storm stories" on the Articles page.

P.S. I happen to know that Bruce was affected by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, so he writes it with personal experience.

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