What is a Hurricane?

A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, the general term for all circulating weather systems over tropical waters(counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere). Tropical cyclones are classified as follows:

  • Tropical Depression: An organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph (33 knots) or less.
  • Tropical Storm: An organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph (34-63 knots).
  • Hurricane: An intense tropical weather system with a well defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph (64 knots) or higher. In the western Pacific, hurricanes are called "typhoons," and similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called "cyclones."

Hurricanes are products of a tropical ocean and atmosphere. Powered by heat from the sea, they are steered by the easterly trade winds and the temperate westerlies as well as by their own ferocious energy. Around their core, winds grow with great velocity, generating violent seas. Moving ashore, they sweep the ocean inward while spawning tornadoes and producing torrential rains and floods. Each year, on average, 10 tropical storms, of which six become hurricanes, develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, or Gulf of Mexico. Many of these remain over the ocean; however, about five hurricanes strike the United States coastline every three years. Of these five, two will be major hurricanes, category 3 or greater on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

Scale Number 

Winds (MPH)

















Timely warnings have greatly diminished hurricane fatalities in the United States. In spite of this, property damage continues to mount. There is little that anyone can do about the hurricanes themselves. However, NOAA's National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service field offices team up with other Federal, state, and local agencies; rescue and relief organizations; the private sector; and the news media in a huge warning and preparedness effort.

Breeding Grounds

In the eastern Pacific, hurricanes start forming by mid-May. In the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes season starts  in June. For the United States, peak hurricane threat exists from mid-August to late October although the official hurricane season extends through November. Over other parts of the world, such as the western Pacific, hurricanes can occur year-round.

Developing hurricanes gather heat and energy through contact with warm ocean waters. The addition of moisture by evaporation from the sea surface powers them like giant heat engines.

Storm Structure

The process by which a disturbance forms and subsequently strengthens into a hurricane depends on at least three conditions. Warm waters and moisture are mentioned above. The third condition is a wind pattern near the ocean surface that spirals air inward. Bands of thunderstorms form, allowing the air to warm further and rise higher into the atmosphere. If the winds at these higher levels are relatively light, this structure can remain intact and allow for additional strengthening.

The center, or eye, of a hurricane is relatively calm. The most violent activity takes place in the area immediately around the eye, called the eyewall. At the top of the eyewall (about 50,000 feet), most of the air is propelled outward, increasing the air's upward motion. Some of the air, however, moves inward and sinks into the eye, creating a cloud-free area.

A Hurricane's Fury
Storm Surge
Storm surge is a large dome of water often 50 to 100 miles wide that sweeps across the coastline near where a hurricane makes landfall. The surge of high water topped by waves is devastating. The stronger the hurricane and the shallower the offshore water, the higher the surge will be. Along the immediate coast, storm surge is the greatest threat to life and property.

Storm Tide
If the storm surge arrives at the same time as the high tide, the water height will be even greater. The storm tide is the combination of the storm surge and the normal astronomical tide. For example as hurricane moves ashore, a 15-foot surge added to the normal 2-foot tide creates a storm tide of 17 feet. This mound of water, topped by battering waves, moves ashore along an area of the coastline as much as 100 miles wide. The combination of the storm surge, battering waves, and high winds is deadly.

Hurricane-force winds, 74 mph or more, can destroy poorly constructed buildings and mobile homes. Debris, such as signs, roofing material, siding, and small items left outside, become flying missiles in hurricanes. Winds often stay above hurricane strength well inland. Hurricane Hugo (1989) battered Charlotte, North Carolina (which is about 175 miles inland), with gusts to near 100 mph, downing trees and power lines and causing massive disruption.

Heavy Rains/Floods
Widespread torrential rains often in excess of 6 inches can produce deadly and destructive floods. This is the major threat to areas well inland.

Hurricanes also produce tornadoes, which add to the hurricane's destructive power. These tornadoes most often occur in thunderstorms embedded in rain bands well away from the center of the hurricane. However, they can also occur near the eyewall.

Who Is at Risk?
Coastal Areas and Barrier Islands
All Atlantic and Gulf coastal areas are subject to hurricanes or tropical storms. Although rarely struck by hurricanes, parts of the Southwest United States and Pacific Coast suffer heavy rains and floods each year from the remnants of hurricanes spawned off Mexico. Islands, such as Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico, are also subject to hurricanes. During 1993, Guam was battered by five typhoons. Hurricane Iniki struck the island of Kauai, Hawaii, on September 11, 1992, resulting in $1.8 billion damage.

Due to the limited number of evacuation routes, barrier islands are especially vulnerable to hurricanes. People on barrier islands and in vulnerable coastal areas may be asked by local officials to evacuate well in advance of a hurricane landfall. If you are asked to evacuate, do so IMMEDIATELY!

Inland Areas
Hurricanes affect inland areas with high winds, floods, and tornadoes. Listen carefully to local authorities to determine what threats you can expect and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself, your family, and your property.


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Information courtesy of The National Weather Service

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