Hurricane Matthew has been called the most powerful Atlantic storm in more than a decade.
It is expected to violently churn up the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina this weekend, after reportedly killing more than 800 people in Haiti early in the week.
Originally, Hurricane Matthew was declared a Category 4 hurricane — though it has since been reduced down to a still very dangerous Category 3. These categories refer to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale — a 1 (least powerful) to 5 (most) scale used to measure the strength of a hurricane, based on wind speed:
The projected force of Hurricane Matthew made me curious about the most powerful hurricanes to ever touch US soil. So, using historical data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, I looked back at the numbers.
Since 1950, eight hurricanes have produced greater than Category 3 force winds on or over US land. Six have been Category 4 hurricanes, and two have reached Category 5. Over the same time period, there have been a total of 30 Category 3 hurricanes — about one every two years, on average.
Most of these hurricanes affected multiple states, but we’ve placed the dots below where the storm struck at the peak of its power.
Collectively, these hurricanes killed an estimated 952 Americans, and caused $79.1 billion (adjusted for 2016 dollars) in damage. Five of the eight occurred prior to 1970.
Three of the hurricanes that caused the most extensive damage occurred in Florida, including Hurricane Charley (August 9 to 15, 2004), which flattened large portions of Punta Gorda, as small town on the coast.
Florida, in general, is hit by an astonishing number of powerful hurricanes. Of 290 Category 1+ hurricanes documented by HURDAT since 1851, 117 — or 40 percent — have occurred in the Sunshine State.
As hurricane researcher Chris W. Landsea told Scientific American, there are two chief reasons for Florida’s hurricane frequency.
“[First], hurricanes in the northern hemisphere form at tropical and subtropical latitudes and then tend to move toward the west-northwest,” he says. "The second factor is that the Gulf Stream provides a source of warm (above 80 degrees Fahrenheit) waters, which helps to maintain the hurricane.” Florida, which juts out in the ocean, is uniquely positioned to bear the brunt of these factors.
To stay up to date on Hurricane Matthew, you can follow these live updates from my colleague, Brad Plumer. He’ll be keeping an eye on the storm through the weekend.