Monsters of the Atlantic: The Basin's Category 5 Hurricanes

Tom Moore
Published: June 12, 2018

The Atlantic produced rare Category 5 hurricanes three times in back-to-back years with Matthew in 2016 followed by Irma and Maria in September 2017.

(MORE: Hurricane Central)

Category 5 hurricanes are among nature's most powerful forces. While they earn their top-category status by virtue of their destructive winds – 157 mph or greater – they can also unleash catastrophic storm surge and churn up waves higher than an eight-story building.

In the Atlantic, only a small percentage of hurricanes have reached Category 5, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

(MORE: Retired Atlantic Hurricane Names)

Historical records in the Atlantic Basin date back to 1851, but the first Category 5 hurricane wasn't recorded until 1924. It's likely there were Category 5 hurricanes before 1924, but some probably missed islands and coastlines – and ships probably avoided others – so data was sparse. 

Most Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes have been confined to the lower latitudes, but a few developed in the Gulf of Mexico and near the Bahamas.

Several of the most notable Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes were "Cape Verde" storms, meaning they began to develop around the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic from tropical waves that emerged from the African coast.

(MORE: 88 Percent of U.S. Hurricane Deaths Are From Water, Not Wind)

From 1924 through 2017, there are 33 Category 5 hurricanes on record in the Atlantic Basin, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The lion's share (28) of them occurred during the peak of the hurricane season in August and September.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew became the first Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Basin since Hurricane Felix in 2007.

September 2017 marked the first time two hurricanes had attained Category 5 strength (Irma and Maria) in the same season since 2007 (Dean and Felix).

The decade that recorded the greatest number of Category 5 hurricanes was 2000-09 with eight.

In the Atlantic, 2005 was a banner year for hurricanes. Of the incredible 15 Atlantic hurricanes recorded, four of them reached Category 5 status (Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma).

(MORE: Top-10 Most Extreme Atlantic Hurricane Seasons in the Satellite Era)

Notable Atlantic Category 5 Hurricanes Before 2016

Labor Day Hurricane (1935)

With maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, this hurricane was the most intense to make landfall in the U.S. Landfall occurred in the upper Florida Keys on the evening of Sept. 3, 1935, on Labor Day.  The combination of destructive winds and a storm surge destroyed nearly all structures between Tavernier and Marathon.

The town of Islamorada was left in shambles.

A special train that was sent to evacuate veterans work camps in the Florida Keys was swept off the tracks, but there were no deaths in that incident.

The hurricane weakened as it made a second landfall in the eastern Florida Panhandle, but it still produced damage in parts of northern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. All told, over 400 people lost their lives as a result of this monster storm, according to NOAA.

The Great New England Hurricane/Long Island Express (1938)

This photo shows a damaged ferry boat sitting in shallow water in Providence, R.I., in the aftermath of this devastating hurricane.
(AP Photo/Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones)

This was a classic Cape Verde hurricane that tracked westward from the African Coast all the way to the East Coast of the U.S. in September 1938. Because the hurricane was moving rapidly at 50 mph, it came suddenly and produced incredible damage across much of Long Island a large part of New England. 

Although this hurricane peaked at Category 5 intensity, it made landfall on Long Island, on Sept. 21, 1938, as a Category 3, which was the most intense on record for the area. It then made a second landfall in Connecticut. Much of Long Island and southern New England experienced sustained winds exceeding hurricane force.

Blue Hill Observatory (southwest of Boston) reported a peak gust to 186 mph. Providence, Rhode Island reported a wind gust to 125 mph. Strong winds extended well inland across new England.

According to NOAA, the death toll from this hurricane is estimated to be over 600 and damage has been estimated at over $300 million in today's dollars. A storm surge of 12-15 feet destroyed most homes and marinas on Narragansett Bay. Providence, Rhode Island was inundated with almost 20 feet of water. 

There was widespread damage to homes, trees and crops. Power was lost for weeks in many locations and downed power lines sparked a number of catastrophic fires in Connecticut. If that wasn't enough,  up to 17 of rain produced severe and damaging river flooding over parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

Hurricane Camille (1969)

A ship carried by Camille's storm surge rests alongside a home in Biloxi, Mississippi
(NOAA Photo Library)

Hurricane Camille is the second-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., the farthest north for a Category 5. After a brief interlude with western Cuba, Camille intensified rapidly to a Category 5 and made landfall along the coast of Mississippi just before midnight on Aug. 17, 1969 with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph. Harrison County, Mississippi experienced total destruction.

Overall, nearly 4,000 homes in Mississippi were totally destroyed.

An extremely high storm surge of nearly 30 feet destroyed the beaches at Biloxi and Gulfport and several blocks inland. Highway 90 was flooded and there was extensive damage along that route eastward through Alabama and into the Florida Panhandle. 

The death toll across the Gulf Coast region was estimated to be over 140, according to NOAA. As a weakened Camille moved across parts of the Appalachians, one reporting station in Virginia recorded 27 inches of rain. Landslides and flash flooding were common and damage was widespread.

It's estimated that 113 more people lost their lives in Nelson County, Virginia due to flooding and mudslides, according to NOAA.

Hurricane Allen (1980)

Damage seen after Hurricane Allen.
(Wikimedia Commons/Jay Phagan)

Another Cape Verde storm, Hurricane Allen became well known for both its size and strength. Hurricane Allen reached Category 5 status three different times and is tied with 2004's Hurricane Ivan for the longest time of any hurricane as a Category 5 (three days). It also had the highest sustained winds of any Atlantic hurricane on record at 190 mph.

Before it threatened the U.S., Allen produced a path of destruction and left a high death toll across the Caribbean Islands. Extensive damage was reported in St. Lucia where it struck as a Category 3 hurricane and the death toll was reported to be eighteen. High winds battered Haiti and flooding was extensive.

Over 200 were killed and over 800,000 people were left homeless in Haiti. Barbados and Martinique were also hit hard and damage was extensive. There was much trepidation for those who lived across the Texas Coast as Hurricane Allen strengthened to a Category 5 after it reached the Gulf Of Mexico.

Fortunately, before making landfall, Allen weakened to a Category 3 storm. It finally made landfall near Brownsville, Texas, on Aug. 9, 1980. A maximum wind gust of 138 mph was recorded at Port Mansfield, about 40 miles north of Brownsville. The death toll in Texas was six, according to NOAA.

A tornado, spawned by Allen touched down in Austin and caused $100 million in damage. 

Hurricane Hugo (1989)

The damaged Ben Sawyer Bridge linking Charleston, South Carolina, to Sullivan's Island after Hurricane Hugo.

Hurricane Hugo was another Cape Verde storm that formed in the eastern Atlantic in September 1989. Hugo gradually strengthened and became a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic before reaching the Leeward Islands. It crossed the island of Guadeloupe as a Category 4 storm and then weakened to a Category 3 storm as it moved past St. Croix in the Virgin Islands before hitting the east coast of Puerto Rico.

A sustained wind of 117 mph was recorded at the airport before the instrument failed. Damage was extensive across Guadeloupe with nearly nearly a third of the building on the Island destroyed and almost three-quarters of businesses sustained damage. Over 10 percent of the population became homeless and the death toll was estimated at twelve. 

On Montserrat, more than 90 percent of the residents became homeless. The death toll was estimated to be at 21. Hugo produced severe damage over eastern Puerto Rico and agricultural concerns were impacted the most. Trees and power lines were downed by the strong wind and many roads and bridges were swept away. The estimated death toll was twelve. 

Clipping Puerto Rico knocked Hugo down to a Category 2 hurricane, but it was far from finished. It intensified once again, to a Category 4, as it passed over the warm Gulf Stream and took dead aim on the Southeast coast of the United States. Hugo made landfall at Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, just north of Charleston at midnight on Sept. 22, 1989.

A storm surge of over 20 feet was recorded near McClellanville, South Carolina.

Had Hugo made landfall a bit farther south, the storm surge would have inundated the low-lying Battery area of Charleston and damage would have been much worse.

There was considerable wind damage in Charleston and damage extended and well inland across South Carolina and  into North Carolina. A wind gust of 108 mph was recorded Charleston, and Folly Beach had a wind gust of 107 mph. Destruction of beach homes on Sullivan's Island was three rows deep.

Many boats were washed ashore on the Isle of Palms.

Trees and power lines were down everywhere. All power was lost in Marion County, South Carolina. 

In South Carolina's Francis Marion Forest, 70 percent of all lumber-quality trees fell from the storm. 

Hugo's winds remained strong quite far inland. Sumter, South Carolina (Shaw AFB) reported a wind gust to 109 mph. Residents in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area were shocked when Hugo moved in as a tropical storm and wind gusts of 90 to 100 mph were recorded.

Trees and power lines were down everywhere and several trees fall on houses in the Charlotte area.

A few tornadoes were reported in the area, as well. Some schools were closed for two weeks.

U.S. damage estimates from Hugo was estimated to be over $7 billion, according to NOAA. There were 21 fatalities.

Hurricane Andrew (1992)

Aerial view of a heavily-damaged mobile-home community in Dade County, Florida following Hurricane Andrew.
(Bob Epstein/FEMA)

Unlike Allen, Hurricane Andrew was a much smaller hurricane, but it sure did pack a punch. Andrew developed in the central Atlantic in mid-August and took direct aim at South Florida. Unlike some other hurricanes that weaken when they approach landfall, Andrew actually became stronger.

Andrew made landfall around Ellicott Key, Florida, on Aug. 24, 1992, with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph. It produced extensive damage across southern sections of the Miami metro area and it destroyed much of Homestead.

Before reaching Florida, Andrew reached its peak intensity of 185 mph near Eluthera Island in the Bahamas. A storm surge of 25 feet destroyed about half of the houses in one village.

Although there was extensive damage over parts of the Bahamas, good communication with the public was credited with the low death toll of three. Andrew also spawned tornadoes that destroyed buildings in Eluthera Island.

In South Florida, advance warnings and the evacuation of over a million people saved many lives. Scenes of destruction along Andrew's path across South Florida was almost unbelievable. Damage was reported to 1,500 homes and 300 were totally destroyed. In Miami-Dade County, about 80 percent of mobile homes were destroyed.

The National Weather Service at Miami reported sustained winds of 115 mph and a gust of 164 mph before the instrument failed. 

Many businesses, schools, hospitals and farmlands were destroyed. Overall, the damage total in Florida was over $26 billion dollars, according to NOAA. Andrew weakened over Florida but there was an encore performance ahead as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened again.

This time, it wasn't a Category 5, but maximum sustained winds were able to get back to 115 mph (Category 3 intensity) as it made another landfall around Morgan City, Louisiana. There was significant damage along the Louisiana coast and Andrew spawned an F3 tornado at La Place, resulting in two fatalities.

Before reaching the Louisiana coast, Andrew caused about $500 million in damage to offshore oil drilling platforms. Hundreds of employees were evacuated ahead of time. 

According to NOAA, the overall death toll in the U.S. was 23.

(MORE: Tropical Storms and Hurricanes in Mexico, Central America Have Tragic History)

Hurricane Mitch (1998)

Ruins of a flooded street in Santa Rosa de Aguan, Honduras on Oct. 31, 1998 after Hurricane Mitch.
(Getty Images)

Hurricane Mitch was the strongest October hurricane on record until it was eclipsed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Although maximum sustained winds of reached 180 mph just north of Honduras, Mitch was far more notorious for its death toll of over 11,000 due to flooding and landslides rather than wind.

Mitch weakened to a Category 1 before making landfall on the coast of Honduras on Oct. 29, 1998, but it was moving very slowly and produced heavy rain. 

There were extreme rainfall totals across Honduras from Mitch. Choluteca received over 35 inches of rain and the higher mountains reported at least twice that amount. Flooding across the country was catastrophic with all rivers reporting record water levels and numerous landslides were triggered.

About 80 percent of their transportation network in Honduras was destroyed. Nearly three-quarters of the nation lost access to fresh water. 

In Nicaragua, over 25 inches of rain was reported in coastal cities and mountainous areas recorded twice that much. Many roads and bridges were washed out, especially in northern sections of the country. 

Mitch also produced flash flooding and mudslides In Costa Rica and El Salvador. Mitch actually looped around and moved up to the Yucatan peninsula where nine people lost their lives due to flooding. It moved up to the Florida Keys where it made landfall as a tropical storm.

Tornadoes spawned by Mitch produced damage to many homes and buildings and left about 100,000 customers without power.

According to NOAA, the estimated death toll in Central America was about 9,000, with another 9,000 missing.

Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina taken August 28, 2005, about 10 hours prior to landfall

Hurricane Katrina is notorious for its impacts on Louisiana and Mississippi, but it first made landfall in Florida. Katrina began in the southwestern Bahamas in late August. It gradually strengthened and made landfall near Hallandale Beach, Florida, as a Category 1 hurricane on Aug. 25, 2005.

The death toll in Florida was estimated at 14 with most fatalities due to downed trees and power lines. Flooding in Miami-Dade County damaged about 100 homes. 

Katrina crossed Florida and emerged in the Gulf of Mexico where it rapidly gained strength. Katrina became a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Although Katrina weakened to a Category 3 hurricane before it made a second landfall near Buras-Triumph, Louisiana on Aug. 29, it generated an incredibly high storm surge of nearly 30 feet along parts of the Mississippi Coast.

In some locations, the storm surge extended an unbelievable six miles inland.

Two bridges along Highway 90 were destroyed and the eastbound span of the I-10 bridge over the Pascagoula River was damaged. This severely hampered road transportation across coastal Mississippi for months.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast experienced catastrophic damage and the death toll was reported to be 238. Katrina was still a Category 3 hurricane when it made a third landfall near Bay St. Louis Mississippi. Damaging winds from Katrina extended well northward through the state and all 82 counties were declared disaster areas.

With all that occurred in Mississippi, Louisiana dominated the news from this horrific storm, especially the city of New Orleans. Although the eye of Katrina passed east of New Orleans, the city encountered hurricane-force winds and it knocked out power across the metro area. 

Wind was not the main impact from Katrina in New Orleans, but flooding was. A significant portion of the city sits below sea level and  a series of levees and flood walls were supposed to protect the city from disastrous flooding.

But that wasn't the case with Katrina. Many of these protective barriers were breached by the overwhelming storm surge. 

Although much of the city was evacuated ahead of time, the process began too late and many residents and ended up at the Superdome for shelter as 80 percent of the city that was within the levees was flooded. Others remained at their homes and had to be evacuated by helicopters.

There was plenty of criticism regarding the responses of local state and federal governments to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. The effects were long-lasting and more than 1 million people were displaced from the Gulf Coast to other areas.

Many positive changes have been made, especially dealing with communication between government agencies and from government agencies to the public.

Property damage from Hurricane Katrina was estimated at over $100 billion. The death toll from Katrina was estimated to be over 1,200, according to NOAA. 

Other Notable Atlantic Hurricanes

In 1980, Hurricane Allen had the highest sustained winds: 190 mph.

Labor Day Hurricane (1935), Hurricane Gilbert (1988), Hurricane Wilma (2005) and Hurricane Irma (2017) had sustained winds of 185 mph. 

The lowest air pressure was recorded in Hurricane Wilma (882 mb).

Labor Day Hurricane (1935), Hurricane Camille (1969) and Hurricane Andrew (1992) were the only Category 5 hurricanes to make a recorded landfall in the continental U.S.

Hurricane Camille (1969) made landfall on the coast of Mississippi which is the farthest north.

Cleo (1958), Ethel (1960), Edith (1976) and Emily (2005) are the only four Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes that didn't have their names retired.

Notable Atlantic Hurricanes Making Landfall As Category 5 Outside the U.S. 

Name Date Location Death Toll
Hurricane San Felipe-Okeechobee Sept. 13, 1928 Puerto Rico 2,166
Unnamed Sept. 16, 1937 Bahamas 51
Hurricane Janet Sept. 28, 1955 Mexico 600+
Hurricane Edith Sept. 9, 1971 Nicaragua 30
Hurricane Anita Sept. 2, 1977 Mexico 10+
Hurricane David Aug. 29, 1979 Dominica 2,000+
Hurricane Gilbert Sept. 14, 1988 Mexico 327
Hurricane Dean Aug. 21, 2007 Mexico 13+
Hurricane Felix Sept. 4, 2007 Nicaragua 101

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