Hurricanes are rated solely by the strongest wind speed found in the storm, not by size, rainfall, storm surge, fatalities, cost, or whether or not they make landfall. A major hurricane is conventionally defined to refer to a Category 3, 4, or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale... those storms which from an engineering perspective will create "devastating" or "catastrophic" damage to buildings, trees, and infrastructure. The term "major" is not a socio-economic label, it applies to hurricanes anywhere based on their peak winds.
Since Wilma, there have been 29 major hurricanes observed in the Atlantic, 11 of which made landfall as major hurricanes on other countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Bahamas, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Bermuda. The U.S. has just gotten lucky to the point where 11 hurricane seasons have gone by and none of those 29 major hurricanes have crossed our shores.
|Tracks of 27 of the 29 major hurricanes that have been observed in the Atlantic since Hurricane Wilma. Hurricanes Gaston and Matthew from 2016 are not shown.|
A hurricane of any intensity is going to be destructive if it makes landfall somewhere. By the time a tropical cyclone is organized enough to be classified as a hurricane, it is a significant storm capable of producing inundating storm surges and tremendous rainfall if it is near land. It does not take a "major" hurricane to do those things -- Ike, Irene, Sandy, and Matthew prove that point well. In fact, over 75% of all hurricane-related fatalities in the U.S. are caused by storm surge and rainfall, while just 8% are linked to wind. This is why it is never a good idea to shrug off a hurricane because it's "only" a Category 1. There's more to the story than the category!
|Fraction of tropical cyclone related fatalities in the U.S. caused by various factors from 1963-2012. (Rappaport 2014)|
If you have experienced the devastation caused by just the water-based facet of Category 1-2 hurricanes such as Ike, Irene, Sandy, and Matthew in the U.S., you can appreciate that a hurricane of any intensity means business. But the stakes are increased even higher when the destructive wind speeds are added from a Category 3+ hurricane.
The 2016 season ends in five weeks, and something could still happen to end the U.S.'s major hurricane "drought", but the odds are historically very slim in November... so the record span will likely reach well into 2017.
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