Discover the 4 Most Powerful Hurricanes to Rip the U.S. in October

Written by John Perritano
Published: October 7, 2023
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October is an interesting month. Temperatures are falling. Days are getting shorter. Nights are longer. Watching football, raking leaves, carving pumpkins, drinking apple cider, and trick or treating are all hallmarks of the month. But October has a nefarious side, too. It is one of the most active months for hurricanes in the United States. In fact, it is the third busiest month behind September and August. Some of those storms, as history has reminded us, can be intensely brutal and dangerous.

You wouldn’t think so, considering October is a chilly month, and hurricanes begin their lives nursed by warm ocean water. But in October, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean hold on to their heat. Mix in an increase in wind shear — the change in the direction of the wind’s speed high in the atmosphere — and the results can be catastrophic. Here are 4 of the most powerful hurricanes to rip the U.S. in October.    

Eye of the Hurricane. Hurricane on Earth. Typhoon over planet Earth.. Category 5 super typhoon approaching the coast. View from outer space. (Elements of this image furnished by NASA)

View of a hurricane from Earth’s orbit.

©Evgeniyqw/Shutterstock.com

Hurricane Sandy (2012)

2012 was a busy time in the Atlantic hurricane season. By the end of October, some 17 tropical cyclones had formed. Sandy was the 18th. It came to life over the Caribbean on October 22 barreling its way toward Jamacia, the Bahamas, and Cuba. Sandy became a Category 1 hurricane on October 24 with 80-mile-an-hour winds.  As it approached the warm waters of Jamaica, Sandy strengthened into a Category 2 storm, eventually slamming into eastern Cuba. It weakened as it approached the Bahamas.  

For three days beginning on October 25, Sandy continued to climb north, although it weakened substantially. But as it paralleled the southern East Coast of the United States, Sandy, once again became a Category 1. Then, something happened off the Delmarva Peninsula that drastically changed Sandy’s’ impact. The storm took a turn toward the northwest with winds of 85 miles per hour, putting the mid-Atlantic States in its crosshairs. When it made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, at 8 p.m. on October 29, Hurricane Sandy had turned into an extratropical cyclone with 70 mile-per-hour sustained winds.

Sandy’s Impact

The storm impacted 24 states. New York and New Jersey were among the hardest hit. Streets flooded, especially in New York City, when the Hudson and East rivers poured out of their banks. High winds ripped roofs off buildings and downed numerous powerlines. Millions of people were without power for days. Sandy’s storm surge swept away homes and part of Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk. The storm impacted travel as it dumped three feet of snow in the mountains of Tennessee, West Virginia, and Maryland.

When the devastation was over, Sandy was responsible for the deaths of 233 people (106 directly) from the Caribbean to the northeastern United States. The storm caused widespread devastation that totaled more than $70 billion.  

FAR ROCKAWAY, NY - NOVEMBER 4: Destroyed beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on November 4, 2012 in Far Rockaway, NY

Hurricane Sandy destroyed this beach house in Far Rockaway, New York.

©Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.com

Hurricane Mitch (1998)

Mitch was nothing more than a tropical wave blowing off the West African coast on October 10, 1998. Within 14 days, that wave developed into a hurricane fueled by the steamy waters of the Caribbean southwest of Jamacia. By October 26, Mitch had become a Category 5 hurricane. As it barreled toward Central America, Mitch weakened substantially into a Category 1 storm. It made landfall on October 29 in Honduras with 81-mile-an-hour winds and a storm surge of 12 feet.

Although weakened, Mitch slowly crawled across Central America, dumping copious amounts of rain in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The storm caused widespread flooding and landslides, killing an estimated 20,000 people. Mitch also destroyed tens of thousands of homes, leaving 20 percent of Honduras’s population homeless.

But Mitch wasn’t done. After ravaging Central America and parts of Mexico, it made a right turn, crossed the Yucatan, and took aim at southern Florida, spurring a number of tornadoes. Mitch destroyed some 645 homes as it crossed the Sunshine State. Hurricane Mitche became the deadliest hurricane since 1780, when one storm killed 22,000 people in the Caribbean. Mitch also overtook the 1900 Galveston Hurricane to become the second deadliest storm. At one point, Mitch’s sustained winds reached 178 miles per hour for 15 hours.

Hurricane Hazel (1954)

North Carolina has seen its share of hurricanes, but nothing could compare to Hazel in 1954. Hurricane Hazel is still the only Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in North Carolina. It was a monster storm.

The entire month of October in North Carolina was hot, with record-setting temperatures pushed along by a high-pressure ridge created by the jet stream that had kept the state in its warm grip for the entire summer. The temperature spiked to 102 degrees on October 6 in Albemarle.   

Hazel came to everyone’s attention on October 5 as it moved east of the Windward Islands. It eventually became a hurricane and moved westward over western Haiti and eastern Cuba. By October 13, the storm crossed the Bahamas and turned northwest. By October 15, Hazel was moving north, strengthening to a Category 4 hurricane. It appeared at first that the same ridge in the atmosphere that had left North Carolina hot and dry would block Hazel. But the high-pressure system moved out to sea. Hazel had nothing to stop her.

Landfall

Hazel made landfall on October 15 along North Carolina’s border with South Carolina. High winds blanketed a large chunk of the East Coast, with one 106-mile-per-hour gust slamming into Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Experts estimated Hazel’s windspeed at between 130 and 150 miles per hour as it moved up the coast. In Washington, D.C., sustained winds reached 78 miles per hour. Ninety-mile-an-hour gusts extended all the way to New York City. As Hazel churned, it produced an 18-foot storm surge along the Carolina coast.

Crashing Down

Hurricanes are known for their huge waves.

©Oskari Porkka/iStock via Getty Images

When Hazel made landfall, it was beyond devastating. Wind speeds reached 90 miles per hour in Raleigh and 110 miles per hour in Fayetteville. Along the coast near Cape Fear, the wind blew at 150 miles per hour. A full moon and a high tide helped create a storm surge of some 18 feet.

Nineteen people in North Carolina died. Hazel wasn’t done when it left North Carolina. It moved inland, ripping a swath of destruction all the way into Canada. By the time it was over, Hazel had killed 95 people in the United States, 100 in 400 to 1,000 in Haiti. Hazel caused $281 million in damage in the United States and another $100 million in Canada.

Hurricane Wilma (2005)

On October 24, Hurricane Wilma collided with Florida, a Category 3 hurricane with a sustained maximum windspeed of 103 miles per hour at the south end of Lack Okeechobee.  Wilma began as a typical tropical depression that formed off the Jamaican coast on October 15. Within two days, Wilma had become the 21st named storm of the year. It rapidly intensified from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 in 24 short hours, setting the record for the lowest pressure drop since scientists began measuring such things.

Wilma moved northwest from Jamaica, taking aim at the Yucatan. As it skirted the coast, the storm stepped on the gas as it accelerated toward the Gulf of Mexico. It then eyed Florida’s southwest coast, making landfall on October 24 as a Category 3 storm. The eye was exceedingly large, 55 to 65 miles wide. Wilma barreled through Southern Florida on a northeasterly path. Gusts ranged from 100 to 120 miles per hour. The winds on the backside of the storm were exceptionally strong.

Wilma’s Impact

As Wilma blew, it also ravaged. The storm picked up railroad cars from their moorings.  Some 6 million people in Florida were left in the dark as power went down. Wilma ripped through the state quickly and hit the Atlantic northeast of Palm Beach County on October 24. By then, it had weakened to a Category 2. Once over the Atlantic, Wilma intensified yet again and headed in a northeasterly direction, passing Nova Scotia, Canada.   

In its wake, Wilma had cut a path of destruction, with Broward and Palm Beach Counties on the east side of Florida bearing the brunt of all structural building damage. The storm’s maximum storm surge was 18 feet. Wilma was directly responsible for the deaths of 23 people, half of whom lived in Haiti. Total damages added up to $29 billion.

Hurricane Wilma heading towards the West Coast of Mexico in October 2018 - Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Hurricane Wilma over Mexico.

©lavizzara/Shutterstock.com

The photo featured at the top of this post is © forestpath/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

I am an award-winning journalist who has a written numerous articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for adults and children. I've worked for some heavyweight publishers include Scholastic, Time/Life, National Geographic, among others. I have a passion for animals, including my dogs, cats, and a frog who doesn't have a name.

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