By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, August 27th, 2020

Hurricane Laura nears the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday evening, August 26th. (Photo Courtesy of NOAA)

Many Americans remember Katrina, Sandy, Andrew, Hugo, but as Hurricane Laura comes ashore we send our thoughts to first responders and the people of the Louisiana and Texas coast, and also recall one of the deadliest but least talked about hurricanes of all time.

The storm occurred 240 years ago and was part of an uncannily busy, and deadly, hurricane season.

A list of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes begins with a storm that hit Nicaragua in 1605 and killed approximately 1,300 people. A storm that struck the Florida Keys on September 5, 1622, registered a death toll of 1,000. An October 1644 storm that hit Cuba and Florida caused 1,500 deaths, and an August 1666 storm that hit Martinique and Guadeloupe killed an estimated 2,000 people. One can only imagine the lives lived and the types of deaths that died in these monstrous early storms. One can only imagine what sort of weather forecasting there was, and how much time people in the path of the storm had before warnings went out and the storm struck.

Father Benito Vines, director of the Meteorological Observatory of the Royal College of Belén, set up what is regarded as the first hurricane warning service in the early 1870s in Cuba. He set up observation sites and created a method to track the movement of tropical cyclones. In August 1873 he issued the first known warning for a tropical system. It alerted New England and the Mid-Atlantic states about a hurricane that would eventually strike Newfoundland. Father Vines provided track details days in advance based on observing the clouds that typically progress well ahead of hurricanes. At that point, the United States still had no formal system for predicting and tracking storms.

Perhaps it is appropriate that a Caribbean country took the lead in hurricane forecasting, as the islands of the Caribbean have long found themselves in the path of massive storms. A storm remembered as the St. Lucia Hurricane of 1780 struck on June 13, relatively early in what is now regarded as hurricane season. The storm killed an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people. Then, later that same year—1780—a storm nearly as deadly struck in early October, rather late for a monster storm. This storm, known as the Savanna-la-Mar Hurricane of 1780, killed 3,000 people.

According to a 2016 article in the Caribbean National Weekly, Savanna-la-Mar, also known as Sav-la-Mar, is a coastal Jamaican town that contained an 18th-century fort constructed for colonial defense against Caribbean pirates. The town was “completely destroyed” by the storm.

From the National Weekly article:

“There was an unusual elevation of the sea, which then broke suddenly in on the town, and on its retreat swept everything away with it. There were no buildings left standing in the town or in the area for 30 to 40 miles around it. Allegedly, it caused the sea to rise to such a degree that ships were found stranded amongst the trees. On the next day, this was succeeded by the worst hurricane they had ever experienced, followed by an earthquake, which almost totally demolished every building in the parishes of Westmoreland, Hanover, part of St. James, and some parts of St. Elizabeth.

Jamaican folklore follows that the devastation of this western town as the work of the runaway slave known as Plato the Wizard, from beyond the grave. Just before his 1780 execution, the renowned obeahman pronounced a curse on Jamaica, predicting that his death would be avenged by a terrible storm set to befall the island before the end of that same year.”

And indeed, 1780 was not done yet. In fact, the big storm was yet to hit. Just days after the Savanna-la-Mar Hurricane, the Great Hurricane of 1780 tore through the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Bermuda.

According to an article on the History Channel’s website, “it is believed to have first made landfall in Barbados on October 10 before it swept through much of the rest of the eastern Caribbean over the next week. Barbados, Martinique, and St. Lucia were among the locations hardest hit, and there were thousands of casualties on these islands, along with significant property damage.” Great Britain and France, both still involved with fighting the Revolutionary War, lost ships and men. A Wikipedia article on the Great Hurricane of 1780 says that the storm likely struck Barbados as a category 5 with estimated wind speeds as high as 200 miles per hour.

Astonishingly, the year 1780 had more hurricanes left to give. On October 18 to 21 a storm known as “Solano’s Hurricane” tore through the Gulf of Mexico and killed 2,000 people.

Digital Dying has published a series of in-depth articles on hurricanes and the tragic loss of life they cause. We reported in 2017 on the spate of “lonely deaths” in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Of the dozens of deaths recorded in the Houston area, at least several of the victims “lived alone and died solitary deaths,” a critical reminder to check on our most vulnerable neighbors and loved ones in times of storm and crisis. We also reported on the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, in which G.L. Vaughan, manager of Houston’s Western Union office, conveyed via telegraph, “About 200 corpses counted from the train. Large steamship stranded two miles inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling.”

And we have reported on how the unique burial practices common to flood-prone sections of the Louisiana coast have led to a most unusual situation. During storms coffins pop out of the ground and float away with the bodies inside. And then we actually reported on that topic again!

Fortunately, storm forecasting has gotten better in the United States. The Signal Corp, which was responsible for meteorological observations in the United States from 1861 to 1891, was also charged with hurricane forecasts. But apparently the public grew dissatisfied with the service after a storm in 1875. The Corp responded with an avant-garde approach. A pair of red flags ten by eight feet in size and inset with black rectangles were hoisted in areas where hurricane warnings were in effect. At night, the flags were illuminated. In 1890, the Department of Agriculture passed the Organic Act, creating the Weather Bureau. And after the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, a hurricane warning office was established at New Orleans. On July 1, 1956, the National Hurricane Information Center was established in Miami, Florida, thus helping to begin the modern era of hurricane forecasting.

Most local meteorologists and weather-savvy residents all now turn regularly and with great confidence to the National Hurricane Center for hurricane forecasts. In May, the National Hurricane Center predicted that 2020 would yield “an above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.” The Center predicted, with 70 percent confidence, “a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher).”

Let’s just hope 2020 is nowhere near as deadly as 1780 when epic storms ran straight through the summer and deep into the fall. And for those in harm’s way, we recommend you visit the National Weather Service’s Hurricane Preparedness Page, and follow tips provided by the Centers for Disease Control. Please be safe out there everyone. 

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