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Hurricaniac Digest Chapter 1

September 15th finds us two highly auspicious events on the commemorative calendar for 2005. It was 60 years ago yesterday, at 10:15am, that the underrated Richmond Heights H. smashed dramatically and unmercifully into South Dade County. Those unfortunate enough to have witnessed this calamitous landfall but fortunate enough to be alive to tell it, will tell you that regarding the Richmond Heights hurricane versus H. Andrew at ground level there was no appreciable difference. In fact, the 1945 event, although considerably less intense at 951mb, actually recorded the stronger winds with a gust officially measured at the obliterated Richmond Heights NAS of 196mph; this same instrument, calibrated and corrected later, also yielded a two-minute velocity of 170mph, sustained! This was serious weather on that Wednesday morning by any standard!

Of more recency but considerably less remarkable was the overrated H. Ivan, Alabama-bound at 2:15am one year ago. Overrated only at landfall, Ivan was a wrath to be reckoned with in the Southern Gulf at 929mb. Ultimately, he succumbed to that which strickens virtually all Northern Gulf cyclones, the dreaded dry intrusion, to the extent that the highest-velocity wind measured was 102mph. And that was observed by a C-Man rig just offshore Fort Walton Beach. Now, compare this number to H. Opal, 4 Oct 1995, clocking in at Hurlburt AFB at a blistering 144mph. I've even heard it spoken that Ivan the Terrible was the "worst storm ever to hit this area." How? Opal was not only stronger but 1 mb more intense at 942. The tendency at work here is to aggrandize one's own experience with the cyclone; the rest of us better not believe it because what they got in Pensacola was leftovers. In defense of Ivan, I will report that he put out a boatload of tornadoes, the most ever and deadliest from a cyclone, one of which author happened upon while out on the chase late the evening of the 14th. There were so many, staying put wouldn't necessarily avoid them and anyway I wasn't having any of that. So I salute H. Ivan for putting a scare into the old storm chaser, but that's all.

It is well known, by hurricaniacs and civilians alike, that this is the anniversary of the catastrophic "San Felipe" of our mythology. Early on, in the aftermath of H. Katrina, it looked inexorable that the great storm of 1928 would be relegated to third place in deaths due to a single calamitous natural disaster. As of this writing, we now know this morbid distinction to be threatened no longer. This realization diminishes the horrific impact of Katrina not at all; rather, it serves to indelibly illustrate just how powerful was San Felipe. Let us further observe that San Felipe and Katrina are the two most-similar of the great storms in both meteorological terms and in terms of human tragedy. Parallels are many, analogies are abundant and valid. SF came on shore at W. Palm Beach at 929mb, 5th lowest in the 20th Century; K. was measured by recon at 927mb, slightly more intense, at landfall on the MS gulf coast. Both hurricanes were massive, i.e., more encompassing in volume than average. Historically, the human manifestations are even more strikingly similar: We've all seen or heard of the helpless victims of the flooding resulting from the assault of Katrina upon New Orleans; we know that the levees, there ostensibly to protect the Crescent City, failed at precisely the point when they were purportedly to have held. San Felipe took its greatest toll inland when the levees protecting the itinerant workers living on or around Lake Okeechobee also failed. Many of the casualties were migrants, most of them were black. Any listing of the death toll from San Felipe puts the number at ~2150. I do not choose to be more precise with this figure because I do not believe it. That hurricane blew everybody and everything on the south side of Lake Okeechobee far into the Everglades, including the water. The exact figure is not knowable. It is therefore unavoidable to conclude that among the denizens of the Lower Plaquemines, and Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, too, that those who of their own sovereign volition sat for Katrina did so as their last act on Earth and most likely will never be found let alone their corpses counted. The exact death toll from the catastrophic Katrina is today as unknowable as its magnificent and terrible harbinger's 77 years ago.

And in the aftermath, there was a great hue and cry from politicians featuring lots of useless finger pointing and promises of reconstruction. President Hoover went down to South Florida the following week; from there he vowed to make the levees better and stronger and to learn from the past failures of government. Was this a promise kept? Did the Army Corp of Engineers actually rebuild the high levees now standing hard on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee to withstand another San Felipe? The question reverberates out there still, in the deep tropics, perhaps to be answered in some future epoch. Or by the disturbances slowly but steadily organizing east of the Windward Islands tonight? This is, after all, still the height of the season.