Hurricane Dorian: September 2019
The Bahamas are used to hurricanes. There is no official “hurricane alley” (like tornado alley) but if there were, the Bahamas would be smack in the middle of it. The island nation is generally under a hurricane watch and warning several times a year and has been ravaged by storms in the past. But nothing like Dorian. The storm moved through the Caribbean and took aim on the islands before rapidly strengthening as it approached. Dorian made landfall on September 1, 2019, on Grand Abaco Island with sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts over 220 mph, let me repeat that sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts over 220 mph (!), making it one of the strongest storms on record in the Atlantic and Pacific.
Dorian was an unusual storm in several ways. Remember in the last module we learned that hurricane strength is generally measured by the minimum atmospheric pressure, and Dorian’s pressure was not that low. But, the storm was enormous. Dorian was particularly deadly because the devastating winds were combined with an extremely slow forward motion of about 5 mph so that the storm ravaged the Bahamas for days. Devastating storms like Andrew and Katrina had much faster motion, but the slow speed of Dorian made the damage much, much worse. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like for all the citizens of the Bahamas to have experienced the impacts of the storm for that long. After pummeling the Abacos, a group of islands in the northeast Bahamas, the storm went back over open water and made landfall without weakening on September 2 on Grand Bahama, the largest Bahama island, where it literally stalled for a day before weakening a little and moving back over open water. The damage to the Bahamas was truly catastrophic, as the pictures show.
The Bahamas had plenty of time to prepare for Dorian. Evacuation orders for low-lying areas were given the day before the storm and residents were urged to seek shelter on higher ground, boats picked people up from small, low-lying islands, and resorts were closed, but even so, many people ignored the warnings. At landfall on the Abacos and again on Grand Bahama, Dorian’s intense winds were accompanied by a massive storm surge of about 6-9 meters (20-25 feet) and heavy rain. In total, about a meter (3 feet) of rain fell over most of the northern Bahamas. Again, imagine experiencing these winds, rains, and storm surge for almost a whole day like folks in the Abacos and Grand Bahama did! It must have been truly terrifying on both sets of islands. There are harrowing tales of people clinging on to trees and other harrowing survival stories, but sadly many were not so fortunate. The official death toll from Dorian is 70, but is almost certainly much, much higher because there were many undocumented citizens living in shantytowns. Initially, there were over 1000 people missing, and now that number is around 300, so the death toll is likely to be 500-600. The true number may never be known.
Watch these short videos that show incredible footage of the peak of the storm and its aftermath!
Video: Hurricane Dorian batters Bahamas with severe flash floods and ferocious wind (1:48)
Video: The town forgotten in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian (4:33)
On the Abacos, 60 percent of homes were destroyed, in total thousands of homes, including most of the poor shanty town dwellings. The power grid was completely destroyed and the airport flooded. 60% of Grand Bahama island was left underwater, hundreds of homes destroyed and a hospital was badly contaminated by sewage. Dorian will certainly be remembered as one of the most devastating Atlantic storms.
Moving forward, the lesson from Dorian, like Harvey, is definitely that our warming climate often results in storms that move super slowly. We need to prepare for a Dorian-like storm to hit Miami or New Orleans or under the right circumstances, even Washington DC. Building codes and infrastructure need to be adapted for this eventuality. It’s just a matter of time.