Hurricane Dorian Is Not a Freak Storm

Its record-breaking power is in line with recent, worrisome trends.

A flooded community on Grand Bahama
A flooded community on Grand Bahama after Hurricane Dorian struck (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

After a second long night, Hurricane Dorian is still, improbably, lingering over the Bahamas. Since hitting Great Abaco as a Category 5 on Sunday afternoon, the storm has stubbornly refused to move, crawling along at just seven miles an hour, then five, then one, then virtually standing still as it unleashed “pure hell” on the island nation. Though the storm has been downgraded to a Category 3 and is now forecast to skirt past the coastline of the southeastern United States, it still threatens to bring strong winds, storm surge, and flash flooding to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

By the numbers alone, Dorian is an impressive beast. It made landfall in the Bahamas with 185-mile-an-hour sustained winds, which tied the landfall record set by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. Since records began in 1851, only one storm in the Atlantic has had more powerful winds at any point during its trajectory: Hurricane Allen, which killed hundreds of people in the Caribbean in 1980. Dorian is also the most powerful storm to ever hit the Bahamas directly; when Hurricane Andrew made landfall there in 1992, it blew at 161 miles an hour. Dorian’s winds also sped up by about 35 miles an hour over the space of just nine hours on Sunday; it’s the only storm of its caliber to ever intensify so quickly.

All that power has had dramatic consequences in the Bahamas. At least five people have died there, reportedly including an 8-year-old boy. The Red Cross said that as many as 13,000 homes might have been destroyed. Once search-and-rescue teams can venture out and anecdotal reports can be confirmed, the official death toll and damage report are likely to rise.

One hundred eighty-five miles an hour is a devastating wind speed. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew essentially flattened the city of Homestead, Florida, after making landfall with winds at just 165 miles an hour.

But as my colleague Robinson Meyer has reported, and as the Western Hemisphere has repeatedly learned over the past few years, the wind isn’t a hurricane’s only threat. Nearly half of all hurricane-related deaths in the United States from 1963 to 2012 were caused by storm surge, including the vast majority of the 1,000-plus lives lost in Hurricane Katrina. Two years ago, freshwater flooding from Hurricane Harvey killed 65 people in Texas—all but three of the official casualty count.

In the Bahamas, people in Dorian’s path were told to expect 18 to 23 feet of storm surge; for reference, the Louisiana coast suffered 10 to 20 feet of surge during Katrina. Dorian was also forecast to dump 30 inches of rain on the Bahamas. On Sunday, Hubert A. Minnis, the Bahamian prime minister, described the streets of Abaco Island as indistinguishable from the ocean. He also said that parts of Marsh Harbour—the main city on Abaco, with a population of 6,000—were “under water.” On Grand Bahama, Grand Bahama International Airport is similarly inundated.

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season was originally forecast to be a relatively average one, and it had a slow start. After El Niño ended, along with its moderating influence on Atlantic storms, the season’s prospects started to look more worrisome. Still, until last week, this year’s accumulated cyclone energy—a measure of the combined strength and duration of all tropical storms and hurricanes—was below normal for the North Atlantic. Dorian has more than made up that deficit.

Some of the storm’s most frightening attributes, though, are on a par with recent trends. Dorian made 2019 the fourth year in a row that spawned at least one Category 5 hurricane; that’s the longest streak on record. Dorian’s rapid jump in wind speed is in line with the major storms of 2017 and 2018; Hurricane Maria, for example, jumped from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 within 24 hours. And Dorian’s devastating stall over the Bahamas—the National Hurricane Center has listed the storm’s “present movement” as “stationary” since 5 p.m. yesterday—matches Harvey’s in 2017, Florence’s in 2018, and even Tropical Storm Barry’s earlier this year.

Each of these trends, in turn, can be traced back to climate change, and so is likely to get even more severe. A hurricane is more likely to have strong winds, and to rapidly intensify, if the waters it traverses are warm. And as temperatures rise worldwide, air will move more slowly, failing to push hurricanes around as speedily as it used to, which will lead to more stalled storms.

That last prospect might be the scariest of all. Dorian has now been pounding Grand Bahama for 35 hours, and in that time, it has moved only 41 miles. It’s one thing for a community to weather Category 5 winds for a matter of hours, as Florida did during Andrew. It’s quite another to withstand more than a day of hurricane-force winds and sheets of rain, to huddle inside amid feet of water long after the roofs have been torn off houses, while the storm surge continues to float cars and toppled trees past the window.