Twin Anniversary of Hurricanes Irma and Luis, where do they Stand Among the Worst Hurricanes to Impact Antigua and Barbuda

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Dale C. S. Destin |

They both struck on September 5-6 after traversing over the warm waters of the Tropical North Atlantic. Twenty-six years to the day Hurricane Luis (1995) almost totalled Antigua and Barbuda; twenty-two years later, four years ago, Hurricane Irma (2017) did similarly to Barbuda.

Twenty-six years to the day Luis overwhelm our islands, with the centre partially passing over Barbuda and within 25 miles (40 km) of Antigua. Four years ago today, the date of Irma evoked memories of Luis, but it was no Luis.

Irma set a virtually unreachable bar for strength, but Luis set the record for size and cost. Luis was a great big giant while Irma was a mighty midget. The diameter of Irma’s hurricane-force winds was less than 75 miles (121 km) with a radius of less than 25 miles south of the centre. Contrastingly, the diameter for the hurricane-force winds of Luis was at least twice Irma’s, over 150 miles (241 km), with the hurricane force-wind extending about 50 miles (80 km) to the south.

Hurricane Irma on Sep 5 (top) and Hurricane Luis on Sep 3 (bottom) via NOAA satellites

Strength matters but clearly size matters more. Although both hurricanes took a similar journey through the area, Luis caused hurricane-force winds to reach both Antigua and Barbuda, whereas none reach Antigua from Irma. While in our neck of the woods, Luis had peak sustained winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) and Irma had 180 mph, 129% the strength of Luis but about 50% its size. This is what saved Antigua from the Category 5+++ wrath of Irma.

The actual paths of Hurricanes Irma and Luis courtesy NOAA Historical Hurricane Tracks

Antigua and Barbuda has been impacted by 14 major hurricanes, passing within 69 miles (111 km), on record dating back to 1851. There have been four in the last 26 years–Jose and Irma 2017, Georges 1998 and Luis 1995.

Meteo-France radar image showing the eye of Hurricane Irma passing over Barbuda, about 25 miles north of Antigua, 1:15 am (05:15 UTC) Wednesday Sep 6, 2017

A hurricane that compares well with Irma and Luis is Dog of 1950. Dog, also known as “the great hurricane of the central Atlantic”, came through as a Category 4 hurricane with wind of 130 mph (209 km/h). Its centre passed within 10  miles (16 km) of Antigua and within 15 miles (24 km) of Barbuda. Its powerful eyewall would have impacted both islands, like Luis 45 years later.

Prior to Luis, Dog was considered the most severe hurricane on record in Antigua and Barbuda. The damage caused by Dog amounted to up to US$1 million. In today’s currency, that is equivalent to US$8 million, paling in comparison to the US$100 to US$350 million (US$216 to US$755 million 2021) caused by Luis. Dog’s damage also pales in comparison to that of Irma’s US$136 million (US$153 million 2021). Total damage and loss from Irma were about US$155 million (US$174 million 2021).

Downtown St. John’s, Antigua with piles of galvanize

Irma ranks as the strongest hurricane to pass within 69 miles of Antigua in the record books, which dates back to 1851. Luis ranks sixth and Dog ranks seventh. Interestingly, 9 of the 14 major hurricanes passing less than 70 miles of Antigua and Barbuda occurred in the pre-climate change era–1980. The second and third strongest were in 1899 and 1928 respectively.

Major hurricanes to pass within 69 miles of Antigua and Barbuda 1851 to 2021. Multiply by 1.61 to get km/h
NOAA satellite image showing Barbuda in the eye of Irma 1:45 am (05:45 UTC) Wednesday, 6 Sep 2021

Congratulations to all who survived these hurricane nightmares, which I hate to call anniversaries. Let’s hope we don’t see another Luis or Irma-like major hurricane, which is perhaps wishful hoping. More realistically, let us prepare as much as possible to be hurricane strong i.e. hurricane resilient, so that we are able to put up a better fight to resist the next hurricane be it major or not.

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Correction: In the original blog post published on September 6, 2021, I mistakenly calculated the current day value of the damage and loss caused by Hurricanes Dog, Luis and Irma. I updated the post to fix the mistakes on September 13. Apologies for the miscalculations.

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