20th Anniversary of Hurricane Bertha

Hurricane Bertha near peak intensity on July 9th, 1996
Hurricane Bertha near peak intensity on July 9th, 1996

On July 12, 1996, Hurricane Bertha roared ashore at Wrightsville Beach, NC, smashing piers and boats.  The storm had already left a trail of destruction across the northern Caribbean islands and subsequently brought heavy rainfall along the Eastern Seaboard.

Bertha grew out of an African Easterly Wave that became a tropical depression on July 5th in the mid-Atlantic.  It maintained a steady WNW course as it slowly strengthened.  It became a hurricane on the evening of July 7th as it approached Guadeloupe.  The center of the minimal hurricane passed over Antigua and Saint Martin the next morning, causing moderate damage.  But the hurricane rapidly intensified into a Category-3 hurricane as it passed over the Virgin Islands and north of Puerto Rico.  Although Puerto Rico missed the maximum winds, it did receive torrential rains from Bertha, up to 7″ in the eastern rain forests.

Track of NOAA43 into Hurricane Bertha on July 10th, 1996
Track of NOAA43 into Hurricane Bertha on July 10th, 1996

Bertha’s winds peaked at 115 mph (190 km/hr) as it passed close to the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Shortly after this maximum, NOAA43 carried out a reconnaissance mission into the hurricane.  The track of the storm shifted to the NW over the northern Bahamas and seemed aimed at Charleston, SC as it weakened back to a Category-1 hurricane.  But on the night of July 11th, the track swerved northward and the maximum sustained winds intensified to 105 mph (170 km/hr) at landfall.  Bertha rapidly declined in strength as it moved along the eastern coast of the United States, but managed to dump copious amounts of rain along the way, more than 9″ in North Carolina and over 7″ in areas of New York and New England.

Bertha caused about US$335 million in damage, most of that in the Carolinas.  It also cost 12 lives, many in Florida from rough seas.  Less than two months later the same area of North Carolina was struck by Hurricane Fran.

HRD research paper referencing Hurricane Bertha:

Powell, M. D., and S. K. Rinard, 1997:  Marine forecasting at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.  Wea. Forecast., 13, 764-782.