UWF’s hurricane history and potential future

By Morgan Givens
Staff writer

With the recent events of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the University of West Florida and Pensacola have dodged a bullet. In the past, however, our area hasn’t been so lucky. Here is a look back at the hurricane history of the area since UWF’s inception.

With the opening of the college in 1967, it was half a decade before the first hurricane struck. Although there were several tropical systems that have hit the area, Hurricane Agnes was the first hurricane that dealt force to UWF — not directly, however. Agnes was not a major hurricane, only recorded as a Category 1 at landfall.

In the following years, UWF felt the effects of two more hurricanes, both stronger than Agnes, before the 1970s wrapped up – Eloise, a Category 3, and Frederic, a strong Category 4. Both ravaged much of the Gulf Coastline.

With little hurricane damage in the 1980s, the local area avoided the catastrophic Hurricane Andrew, which reached Category 5 status and became the costliest hurricane of its time after hitting South Florida in 1992.

It was in 1995 when the first major hurricane to make a direct impact since UWF opened hit Pensacola — Hurricane Opal. Opal’s initial path showed no signs of a Panhandle impact until it made a u-turn in the Gulf.

Opal made landfall on Oct. 4 with 115mph winds. Pensacola received over seven inches of rain during Opal’s landfall, with peak rainfall reaching over 15 inches.

Less than a decade later, the area was hit by two hurricanes, both direct impacts to Pensacola. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan made landfall on Sept. 16 and caused extreme damage to the area, costing over $18 billion in property damage. A year later Hurricane Dennis struck the area, but dealing less damage compared to Ivan.

Other than Hurricane Katrina, which trailed behind Dennis in 2005, the only tropical forces the UWF area has experienced have been tropical storms and depressions.

The Pensacola area and the state have a long history with hurricanes, which prompts many local residents to project and forecast for future seasons. Dr. Jason Ortegren, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said there’s not enough statistical support to conclude that there are patterns in terms of hurricane seasons.

“There’s a very general expectation,” said Ortegren, “That warmer oceans could and should produce more powerful tropical cyclones, but there’s no sign of a trend in either warmer oceans or more powerful cyclones.”

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"The Great Hurricane" hit Pensacola on Sept. 27, 1906 and was believed to be the strongest to hit Pensacola since the town was wiped off Santa Rosa Island in the 1730's (Photo courtesy of UWF Libraries)

Ortegren did add one factor that can increase the likelihood of Southeastern landfalls is El Nino, and the neutral periods without the weather event tend to see more storms. He also emphasizes that this timeframe should be researched more before a solid conclusion, and the same can be said about those who blame these weather events on climate change.

“Climate change has a definition, which many people don’t understand” said Ortegren, who studied at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, “And it’s that it cannot be defined until 30 years after it occurred. Climate is the long-term statistical data.

“Usually when you think of climate change you think of the global mean surface air temperature, or global warming, but you cannot trace that to any single weather event.”

Along with speculating future hurricane seasons, the question of the area’s preparedness for an Irma-like storm or another Ivan is asked. UWF, which is a certified Hurricane Ready campus, has withstood many major storms.According to Joshua Huber, an instructor for the Department of Instructional Workforce and Applied Technology at UWF, the campus has the ability to respond and recovery faster than other areas in Pensacola.

“Looking back at Ivan, which was similar to Irma when it made landfall there was damage to several buildings on UWF that affected the schedule of the semester as well as the living conditions of the student body,” said Huber. “But the response after the storm made for a more rapid recovery.”

In terms of structures and buildings, Huber links their storm-preparedness to how recent their building codes were at the time they were constructed. Older buildings with less strict codes would be more susceptible to damage than more recent structures.

“It’s not a stretch to assume our campus would incur some damage,” said Huber, “But past hurricanes have taught us how to anticipate where the damage would occur and how to adjust emergency policies accordingly so occupants are kept safe.”

2 Responses to UWF’s hurricane history and potential future

  1. Dean DeBolt says:

    Additional photographs of hurricanes in Pensacola and pictures of how Hurricane Ivan affected UWF can be found in the digital files of the UWF Archives and West Florida History Center at: http://archives.uwf.edu/Archon/ just do a search on ‘hurricane’ and click on the digital content to see the thumbnails.

  2. Emily says:

    This was really well written. Glad to see my University writing about things that are interesting and relevant.

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