55th Anniversary of Hurricane Flora

Satellite picture of Flora over eastern Cuba (NOAA)

On the night of October 3, 1963, Hurricane Flora smashed into the southern coast of Haiti.  It raked the country with 145 mph (230 km/hr) winds and dumped tremendous downpours on its mountains.  It would become one of the deadliest and wettest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

Flora began as an African easterly wave, moving over the tropical Atlantic in late September.  It remained a weak disturbance as it traveled over the Main Development Region, but found favorable conditions once it approached the Windward Islands.  It underwent a rapid intensification and was a major hurricane by the time it struck Tobago.  There it destroyed thousands of homes, ruined crops, and killed 18 people.

It continued to strengthen over the next three days as it moved northwestward across the Caribbean and toward the Greater Antilles.  On Oct. 2nd and 3rd, the Research Flight Facility’s two DC-6 research aircraft flew missions into the storm documenting its continued strengthening. By the time it reached Hispañola, Flora was at its peak as a Category-Four hurricane.

Rainfall from Hurricane Flora 1963 (NOAA)

It brought a storm surge of approximately 12 feet (3.5 m) to the southern peninsula of Haiti.  But the most destruction came from the drenching, persistent rains, which caused flash floods and mudslides throughout the island.  Miragoane recorded 57 inches (1448 mm) of rain over three days.  An estimated 5000 Haitians died in the floods with another 400 deaths in the Dominican Republic.

Hurricane’s loopy track over Cuba (NOAA/NHC)

Flora quickly moved across the Windward passage to Cuba.  But a high pressure ridge to the north stalled its forward movement and over the next four days the storm center meandered over the eastern end of the island.  Although the peak winds slowly weakened during this period, the rainbands continued to funnel tropical moisture over the area.  Jamaica also received the heavy rains from the dawdling storm.  Spring Hill recorded 60″ (1525 mm) of rain.  The resulting landslides caused about US$12 million in damage.

By the time Flora departed Cuba on the morning of Oct. 9th, Santiago de Cuba had registered an astounding 100″ (2550 mm) of rain!  The people of the Oriente Province suffered miserably for four days, as the hurricane winds never quite relented and the rains never seemed to end.  Casualties were over 1000 and all the crops in the region were ruined.

As the hurricane tracked northeastward over the Bahamas, one of the RFF planes flew a last research mission to find the hurricane was regaining some strength with its maximum sustained winds reaching 110 mph (175 km/hr).  Finally caught up in the midlatitude westerlies, Flora raced out to sea, regaining Category-4-force winds as it passed east of Bermuda.  It eventually became extratropical by Oct. 13th over the North Atlantic.

During its destructive path, Flora caused more than 7000 deaths and brought US$770 million in damages, primarily agricultural.  Cuba’s economy was devastated and Castro was force raise food and tobacco prices.  He accused the United States of withholding weather data about the storm from the Cuban weather service and demanded that the US withdraw its economic sanctions.  But the sanctions remained in place and it took about four years for the island’s economy to recover.