105th Anniversary of the Five Day Hurricane

Track of the Five Day hurricane (Unisys)
Track of the Five Day hurricane (Unisys)

On the evening of October 13, 1910, a hurricane struck the western tip of Cuba.  Residents of Havana and Pinar del Rio province waited patiently for the storm to pass, but storm conditions persisted for the next five days, battering the coast and flooding the interior. The winds finally began to slack on Oct. 17th, and the storm left behind some of the worst destruction the island had ever seen.

The hurricane grew out of a disturbance that formed on Oct. 9th in the southwest Caribbean Sea, a climatologically-favored region for storm formation in mid-October.  It moved north-northwestward, becoming more organized.  By Oct. 12th, it reached hurricane strength and passed to the west of Grand Cayman.  It underwent a rapid intensification before hitting the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth) on the evening of Oct. 13th.  it moved slowly northwestward, to the west of Havana, and weakened slightly.  The decrease in the winds was seen as a sign the storm had moved away.  But the winds and heavy rains never completely stopped as the storm began a slow counter-clockwise loop just to the west of Cuba and regained strength.  This caused considerable confusion among the meteorologists at the weather observatory of Belén College.  They thought the hurricane had moved into the Gulf of Mexico and dissipated and another hurricane had then struck Cuba from the southwest.

The conditions in western Cuba became increasingly worse, as the rains pounded the area causing mudslides which claimed over 100 lives.  The waves generated by the storm battered cargo ships in Havana harbor, sinking many.  And the winds blew down or torn the roofs off warehouses near the harbor, ruining large amounts of goods awaiting shipping.  Eventually, on Oct. 17th the hurricane moved off to the northeast and within a day struck southwest Florida.

The Florida Keys had been experiencing heavy rain and high winds from the periphery of the storm since Oct. 13th.  By the time the storm passed to the west of Key West, the Weather Bureau’s office basement had flooded and its rain gauge washed out to sea.  Moderate damage was done in the Keys and in the Tampa area where the storm came ashore on Oct. 18th.  The hurricane weakened to a tropical storm as it moved up the Florida peninsula and into Georgia.  It remained an intact storm as it passed out to sea over Cape Hatteras by Oct. 20th.  The total death toll for the hurricane exceeded 115 and the damage was estimated to be greater than US$1.25 million.

Dr. Jose Carlos Millas (Sometcuba)
Dr. José Carlos Millás (Sometcuba)

The idea that this had been two separate hurricanes was eventually proven wrong by a careful analysis done by Dr. José Carlos Millás, of the Cuban government’s National Observatory.  He used ship reports to prove the storm had made a loop over the waters to the west of Cuba.  At the time, most hurricane tracks were considered to be gradually curving parabolas.  The notion that they might form twists and loops was radical, but this storm proved how quixotic hurricane tracks can be.