140th Anniversary of the San Felipe (Primero) hurricane

Portrait of Father Benito Vines, SJ
Portrait of Father Benito Viñes, SJ

On the morning of September 13, 1876, a severe hurricane struck the island of Puerto Rico.  It caused wide-spread damage throughout the island and continued on to wreak havoc on Hispañola and Cuba.  As it struck on the feast day of Saint Philip Neri, it became known as the San Felipe hurricane.  The storm became a case study for the Jesuit Father Benito Viñes.

The storm was first detected on Sept. 12th, when it was a full hurricane and due east of the  Leeward Islands.  It moved westward and overnight brought storm conditions to Antigua, St. Kitts, and the Virgin Islands.  It strengthened before it hit Vieques and Puerto Rico with winds estimated at 120 mph (195 km/hr).  The eye of the storm passed along the length of the island in ten hours, leaving a reported 19 people dead in its wake.

Track of the San Felipe (Primero) hurricane 1876 (Unisys)
Track of the San Felipe (Primero) hurricane 1876

The storm weakened to a minimal hurricane by the time in crossed the Mona Passage and hit the eastern tip of Hispañola.  It then diminished to a tropical storm as it reached the Windward Passage.  Crossing tho warm waters of the Passage, it regained hurricane strength before making landfall in eastern Cuba.  It began to move up the spine of that island, but late on Sept. 15th it turned northward, and its center moved up the Bahama Channel as a weak tropical storm.

Again, it restrengthened to a minimal hurricane before making landfall in North Carolina on the morning of Sept. 17th.  It moved inland and brought heavy rains to the MidAtlantic states.  It dissipated as it turned eastward and moved off of Cape Cod.  The exact number of dead caused by the hurricane is unknown, but probably exceeded two dozen.

After the storm, Fr. Viñes, newly appointed director of the Belén Observatory in Havana, traveled to Puerto Rico to assess the damage and to collect eye witness accounts and gather what data was available.  He estimated the diameter of the storm over Puerto Rico to be 185 miles (300 km).  In 1928, another hurricane struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 13th and became known as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane.