Hurricane Kate

Hurricane Kate, the “pick-up-sticks” hurricane.

I arrived to Tallahassee from Oklahoma in July 1985, leaving being the acting Deputy Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) of the movie “Twister” fame, to become a Professor of Meteorology at Florida State, where 12 years earlier I had earned a Ph.D. degree.  I was looking forward to studying hurricanes in addition to tornadoes, hail, and lightning.  I didn’t have long to wait for on November 16, 1985 Hurricane Kate formed near  the Bahamas and continued to strengthen.  After visiting Cuba, she (I guess we can say that) entered the Gulf and continued to intensify, becoming a category 3 hurricane.  A trough steered Kate to the north and Kate made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Mexico Beach late on November 21 (the first hurricane to make landfall on the Florida Panhandle since 1975). Kate then headed northeast, weakening, Kate passed 40 miles to the west of Tallahassee.  90% of the 80,000 people living in Tallahassee lost power.

 But the big story about Kate was all the fallen trees.  They were EVERYWHERE.  It was very much like a giant game of pick-up-sticks.  There were many blocks with 10 or more pine trees across very impassible roads. Unfortunately one person died in Tallahassee when a tree fell on his vehicle.  Overall, five people died from Kate.

There is a common misperception that Tallahassee experienced the hurricane force winds of Hurricane Kate, and that hurricane Kate hit Tallahassee.  It is not the number of downed trees, but the maximum one minute averaged wind speed at 30 feet above ground that defines a hurricane.  The fact is: the strongest sustained winds in Tallahassee were 46 mph, which is equivalent to a weak Tropical Storm. 

There certainly was damage to homes, but none of the widespread structural damage and loss of shingles common with hurricanes.  Kate may have spawned a number of small tornadoes and for certain there were many strong wind gusts.

Remember that storm winds are measured 30 feet above the ground, and that many trees were as tall as or higher than 100 feet.  The winds increase dramatically with height and no doubt the winds aloft were near hurricane force.  Many mature pines and other trees were not strongly rooted to the soil.  Foliage high in these mature trees provided a tremendous moment arm (leverage) and acted as a sail and pushed the trees over.  This also happens on a smaller scale in the summer with our summer thunderstorms all the time.  However this time, it was all over the city. 

The last hurricane thought to have hit Tallahassee was on September 19, 1873, so it can happen, rare as it is. In the 1870s there were less than 2,000 whites and non-whites outnumbered the whites by about 3 to 1 in Tallahassee.  You would certainly recognize the names as well as the streets named after some of these prominent early citizens (and slave owners).

Did you know Florida is the lightening capital of the USA, and 3rd in the most tornadoes per square mile, and yet a lot more people die in floods each year that die from hurricanes, tornadoes and lightening combined?