Editor’s note: This story was originally published on August 30, 2019, in advance of Hurricane Dorian. It’s still relevant today, August 1, 2020, as Hurricane Isaias moves toward the southeast coast of Florida.
Think you rode out a hurricane on the Space Coast during Erin in 1995, Frances and Jeanne in 2004, Matthew in 2016, and Irma in 2017?
In reality, Brevard County has not been hit by hurricane-force sustained winds in 40 years, said Kimberly Prosser, county emergency management director.
That’s when Hurricane David struck on Labor Day in 1979 — during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
Since David, four decades of subsequent cyclones generated only tropical storm-force sustained winds within county borders. Tropical storm winds range from 39 to 73 mph. Hurricane winds are 74 mph and greater.
“There are a lot of people in Brevard County who believe that they have experienced Category 2, 3, 4, 5 hurricanes in this county. And unless you were here in 1979, you did not experience a hurricane in Brevard County,” Prosser said.
“There have been hurricane-force gusts, absolutely. But sustained hurricane-force winds are not what Brevard County has experienced,” she said.
However, the Space Coast’s 40-year streak may end on Labor Day.
Hurricane Dorian’s uncertain track could start bringing tropical storm-force winds to Brevard by Monday morning — followed by hurricane-force winds Monday night, Tuesday and possibly Wednesday, Don Walker, county spokesman, said Friday during a FLORIDA TODAY Facebook Live broadcast.
“It’s a dangerous system,” Walker said, adding that some Space Coast locations could receive 6 inches to 18 inches of rainfall.
Sustained storm winds are calculated by recording an average speed during a 1-minute period, said Kevin Rodriguez, a meteorologist at the Melbourne National Weather Service station.
On Sept. 3, 1979, David made landfall near West Palm Beach as a Category 2 hurricane, then skirted the Florida coastline northward before striking Brevard.
David spawned a tornado that swirled into a Melbourne Beach condominium and mobile home park, causing almost $2 million in damages.
“Hurricane David: 1979. If those folks were not here in 1979, they have not experienced hurricane-force sustained winds in Brevard County,” Rodriguez said.
Most recently, Irma struck the Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 hurricane and Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane. But Irma generated tropical storm-force sustained winds in Brevard, Rodriguez said.
“By the time it got up here to Brevard County, the strongest (sustained) winds that we had were in the 50- to 70-mph range,” Rodriguez said.
“Wind gusts got up to 80, 90 mph. But that was only along the coast. If you were not on the barrier island, you did not get those hurricane-force gusts,” he said.
More: Gov. DeSantis visits Rockledge urging residents to prepare as Hurricane Dorian approaches
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Many of Brevard’s strongest storm gusts are measured from a NASA wind gauge on a radio tower 54 feet above the ground at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Rodriguez said. This gauge recorded a 94 mph wind gust during Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
“With sustained winds, you’re talking about a constant wind on a structure, or a tree, or whatever it’s hitting. A constant wind of 80, 90 mph is different than a gust that would last maybe 3 to 5 seconds,” Rodriguez said.
Regardless, Irma showed that sustained wind speeds represent only a portion of a storm’s destructive potential, Prosser warned.
Irma damaged more than 7,100 homes across Brevard and spun off eight confirmed tornadoes, which struck Melbourne Beach, Palm Bay, Indialantic, Mims (two), Rockledge, Patrick Air Force Base and Merritt Island.
What’s more, Irma’s waves separated an underwater Cocoa water main in the Indian River Lagoon near State Road 520, halting the drinking water supply for about 300,000 residents for 2½ days.
“People always think only about the category of a hurricane. But there are five hazards of a hurricane — and wind is just one of them,” Prosser said.
“There’s wind. There’s storm surge. There’s tornadoes. There’s inland flooding. And there’s rainfall,” she said.
“And with (Dorian), the rainfall — as slow as this storm is moving — is going to be extremely significant,” she said.
Neale is the South Brevard watchdog reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or [email protected] Twitter: @RickNeale1