Historic Hurricane Season

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season was both destructive and expensive

Avery Thomas | December 17, 2017

Total Number of Named Tropical Storms compared to those classified as Major Hurricanes (CAT 3 - 5) | Data: National Hurricane Center.

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season was one of the most destructive on record. Out of the 17 named storms this year, 7 made contact with the United States. Furthermore 6 of the 17 storms were classified as major storms, meaning they reached at least a category 3 out of 5. While 2017 didn't have the most named storms seen since 2008, it did have the most major storms and may have been the most expensive on record.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 each year. Most storms form off the Western coast of Africa and move across the Atlantic ocean through the Caribbean. Central America and islands in the Caribbean frequently see effects as well as many states along the Gulf Coast and Southeastern Atlantic coast in the United States. However there are rare storms that cause damage along other portions of the East Coast, like Hurricane Sandy that caused damage in New Jersey and New York. This year, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands saw extreme damage. Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina also reported damages this year.

Below are the paths of all of the storms from this season.

Mapped Paths of the 2017 Named Tropical Storms in the Atlantic Basin | DATA: Unisys Weather

Hurricane Harvey

NOAA's GOES-East satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Harvey in the western Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 26 at 6:45 p.m. EDT. | Image: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

The first of the year's major tropical storms hit the gulf coast of Texas on Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane with peak winds at 132 mph ENE of Port Aransas, Texas, according to NOAA. The following day the hurricane's path turned back to the Gulf of Mexico and after four days of the slow eastward movement, Harvey made a second landfall in Cameron, Louisiana.

In addition to the devastating wind damage and storm surge in cities and towns along the coast, Harvey's slow movement brought record-breaking amounts of rain to the nation's fourth most populous metropolitan area, Houston. In a ranking of the Top 50 wettest days seen at the Houston Hobby Airport, the top four all occurred during Harvey, Aug. 24 - 30 2017. By the end of the storm, the Harris County Flood Control District estimated that 70% of the county was covered in at least 1.5 feet of water after four days of historic rainfall.

Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston following Hurricane Harvey August 30, 2017 in Houston. | Image: TIME

All that rainwater needed somewhere to go, but due to rampant growth in the area over the past several years, much of the prairies and floodplains that would absorb water have been paved over. 2017 was the first in the last 9 years that Houston was not named the fastest growing city in the area, but it still came in at number 2, according to The Houston Chronicle.

Approximately 100,000 homes were damaged to varying degrees during the flooding that came with the storm. The final number has yet to be determined for the costs of damages in the Houston area due to Hurricane Harvey, but many estimate that it may be the county's first $200 Billion disaster.

Rainfall During Hurricane Harvey in East Texas | Data: Weather.Gov

Hurricane Irma

This visible image of Category 4 Hurricane Irma was taken on Saturday, September 9, 2017 at 10:37 a.m. EDT by the NOAA GOES East satellite. | Image: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

A cluster of thunderstorms and showers accompanied by a weak wave of low pressure off of the west African coast formed on Aug. 27, 2017. Only 30 hours after being classified as a Tropical Storm on aug. 30, 2017, Irma's winds had intensified, with top speeds over 115 mph, making the storm a major hurricane as a Category 3 storm. In the coming days, the storm traveled across the Atlantic and reached category 5 status on Sept. 5, 2017, with sustained winds of 185 MPH. Irma at this point was the strongest storm ever observed in the Atlantic.

Irma passed through the Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands, then passed north of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola allowing the storm to maintain its category 5 strength winds for 3 days as it made its way through the Caribbean. It decimated many of the small islands, with Barbuda reporting damage in over 90% of the island's buildings.

As the storm approached Florida, mandatory evacuations were ordered in several counties affecting an estimated 1.3 million people. The storm made landfall near Marco Island on the south western side of Florida on Sept. 10th as a category 3 storm. It quickly lost strength as it passed over Florida but still did a lot of damage in Jacksonville and brought Tropical Storm strength winds to a large portion of the Southeastern United States, including the Atlanta metropolitan area.

House sliding into ocean after Hurricane Irma in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida | Image: Orlando Sentinel

Although the path of hurricane Irma ended up taking a path that significantly reduced the damage in the mainland United States, it left a trail of destruction in its path. Florida International University estimated that the damage in Florida alone was worth $19.4 billion, while South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama also some damages.

Hurricane Maria

On Sept. 20 at 10:50 a.m. EDT NASA's Terra satellite provided this visible image as Hurricane Maria was moving over Puerto Rico. The eye had become obscured by clouds. | Image: NASA

Hurricane Maria grew rapidly in strength as it barreled towards the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In the hours that followed the category 5 storm's landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, Puerto Rico experienced extreme flooding and catastrophic winds that completely knocked out its energy infrastructure, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello. Their communications system was also severely damaged as 80 percent of their 1600 cell towers were inoperable. It also left, 44 percent of the Puerto Rican population, 1.7 million people, without access to drinkable water.

Nearly two weeks after landfall, President Trump visited the island and tossed relief supplies to a crowd. In a news conference he applauds the government's response saying that "we saved a lot of lives," and insisted that the death toll was only 16 people. However, Puerto Rican government officials continued to criticize the federal response to the storm.

As of today, the official death toll for Hurricane Maria is 66 people, but many expect that number is closer to 500 people. When comparing the number of deaths in Puerto Rico in September 2016 to September 2017, there is a 472 death difference.

Recovery in Puerto Rico has been slow. Almost 3 months later, the StatusPR website says that 95 percent of the island now has access to drinkable water. The website states that 68.7 percent have working electricity and 89 percent of telecommunications services are operational. All hospitals, postal office, ports and bus routes are now open.

A Puerto Rican highway with fallen concrete power lines after the storm | Image: The Wall Street Journal

Costs

After an intense hurricane season that left Houston under water and Puerto Rico without power, experts expect it to be one of the most expensive hurricane seasons on record. Only 5 years since 1980 have had costs over $50 Billion, with 2005 being the most expensive to date at $212.9 billion (when adjusted) following Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Wilma and the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. Conservative estimates for the 2017 season are close to $200 Billion, but some estimates have the estimated cost for Hurricane Harvey alone at $200 Billion.

As water temperatures in the Atlantic continue to rise, it is likely that we will continue to see these active and disastrous hurricane seasons with huge financial costs.

* 2017 values are based on estimates. The final values have not yet been determined and could exceed the estimated $200 Billion.
About This Story

Story by Avery Thomas. Animation by Austin Thomas. Data from National Hurricane Center, National Centers for Environmental Information, weather.gov and Unisys Weather. Graphics generated using Highcharts JS.