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Historical Analysis Upgrades Two South Florida Hurricanes

April 7, 2014

By Ken Kaye, Sun Sentinel

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South Florida, no stranger to powerful hurricanes, now has two more Category 4 systems on its storm list, even though both struck more than 60 years ago.

One hit Lake Worth in August 1949 while the other, Hurricane King, clobbered Miami and Fort Lauderdale in October 1950. Both systems were upgraded from Category 3 to 4 status following a National Hurricane Center reanalysis of all 50 tropical systems that formed between 1946 and 1950.

"We added in another extra nine tropical storms during those years," said Chris Landsea, the hurricane center`s science and operations officer.

In the past 163 years, southeast Florida has been struck by 41 hurricanes, 15 major. Of those, five were Category 4 systems with sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph -- more than any other region in the United States.

The four-year study is part of a much larger quest to make the entire tropical database, dating back to 1851, as accurate as possible. To recheck storm intensities and paths, Landsea and a team of graduate students at the University of Miami studied wind and barometric pressure data for each storm as well as historic maps.

Landsea said many of the observations were collected "by ships, weather stations and the early Hurricane Hunter Navy and Army Air Force aircraft reconnaissance planes."

In the case of the 1949 storm, its top winds actually were lowered from 150 to 130 mph, even though its category was increased.

The reason: At the time, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale had yet to be developed and the system was incorrectly labeled, said Andrew Hagen, a former UM grad student who recalculated the storm`s strength.

"We based the wind speed on a barometric pressure observation in West Palm Beach and a wind measurement taken at a Jupiter lighthouse," said Hagen, today a hurricane forecaster for ImpactWeather in Houston.

Jim Lushine, a tropical historian and retired forecaster, said the 1949 storm left its "worst destruction from West Palm Beach to Jupiter, where hundreds of buildings were unroofed."

Hurricane King was first thought to have sustained winds of about 120 mph when it struck near downtown Miami, but based on low barometric pressure readings and the system`s compact size, that was upgraded to 130 mph, Hagen said.

"King was a very tiny but very intense storm," he said.

That system damaged more than 20,000 homes in Miami-Dade County, Lushine said.

"It weakened as it moved through what was then West Hollywood, damaging 200 homes and 55 buildings at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport," he said.

(c)2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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Story Image: Archive weather map showing 1950 Hurricane King over south Florida. (NOAA Central library, Wikipedia)

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