The Great Hurricane of 1780

No question about it—the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been a tough one. Across the Caribbean, Antilles, and southern United States, major hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, with thousands left homeless and billions of dollars in property damage done.

Hurricane IrmaOne haunting tale of devastation comes from the island of Barbuda, which received a direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Irma on 6 September. The island’s entire technological infrastructure was demolished by the combination of storm surge and sustained winds of 185 mph, rendering it uninhabitable. Occupants were evacuated to neighboring Antigua, also damaged in the storm, although not as heavily.

Many people wonder how so much death and destruction can occur when we’re able to see these hurricanes coming every time and prepare. What’s the historical perspective on hurricanes? What sort of impact did a Category 5 storm have before satellite imagery, before radar, before electricity, telegraph, or steam power?

By 1780 during the American Revolution, the war’s focus had shifted to the South—Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama—while the ferocity of fighting showed no sign of abating. However the death and destruction caused by warring humans in that conflict was trivial in comparison to what was generated by three major hurricanes that plowed through the Caribbean and the Antilles in October 1780. Yeah, the 1780 Atlantic hurricane season was a tough one, too.

Areas affected Great Hurricane of 1780In particular, the storm with the easternmost track of those three, later called “the Great Hurricane of 1780,” was a Category 5 monster with estimated wind gusts exceeding 200 mph and a storm surge at least twenty feet in height. It likely originated west of the Cape Verde Islands, as do many powerful Atlantic hurricanes. On 10 October, it demolished the island of Barbados—which, from witness accounts, received the storm’s eye wall but not the eye. Within a week, it had gone on to devastate the islands of St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Eustatius, Puerto Rico, and San Domingo—all crucial ports on the colonial chessboard. (Bermuda received a glancing blow that wrecked ships.)

On every island in the hurricane’s path, thousands of people died. Trees were yanked out by their roots or stripped of leaves, branches, and bark. (Tornadoes spawned in and around the eye wall of hurricanes have the capacity to strip bark from trees.) Thick-walled stone buildings and forts were ripped from their foundations and swept out to sea. Wind and water carried cannons hundreds of feet. Dozens of ships from the British and French fleets were caught in the hurricane and damaged or sunk, with heavy casualties.

By the time the Great Hurricane of 1780 spun off into the Atlantic and dissipated, approximately 18 October, it had killed more than 22,000 people. Some historians believe that the death toll was closer to 30,000. This storm is the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. In one week during the American Revolution, it killed more people than warfare killed in a year.

That’s quite a display of power from Nature. In the 21st century, if we expect to lower the death toll and property damage from these storms even further, we’ll have to be a great deal more prepared than we already are.

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The Great Hurricane of 1780 — 16 Comments

  1. It must have been terrifying; not having any clue that a devastating storm would be striking and not being able to prepare…And the aftermath; I shudder to think.

    • Sadly, it appears that most of the islanders had no choice but to hunker down and hope for the best. Because high-ranking officials such as governors survived — and often were the quoted witnesses — they obviously had heavily reinforced shelters and a stash of provisions for themselves and those closest to them, just in case. However there was no way that they could know how long they’d have to stay in the shelters or what they’d find when they’d emerge. And I cannot imagine that disposing of 3000 – 4000 bodies would be a fun job.

  2. How horrific. I suspect people could tell that it was going to be a bad storm – there was such a thing as weather sense. But I’m sure they had no idea how bad. As bad as our storms are today and however badly it’s handled by our government, we’re still in much better shape than then.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Anne. A lot of people get achy joints before a weather change. I think they’re responding to a change in atmospheric pressure. Every now and then, I’ll get a mild headache in advance of a high pressure system like a cold front. And extreme low pressure, like in a hurricane or tornado, makes my lungs feel like they’re collapsed.

      Agreed — it must have been horrific for people in the path of hurricanes before there was a way to give them a day or two of warning/preparation. Much of the damage and loss of life today is in countries where people are too poor to afford more solid housing. Of course, if you get the eye wall of a Category 5, it won’t matter what kind of house you’re in. :-(

  3. Very interesting,mother nature has always had the upper hand. We need to prepare every June-November. Don’t wait until a warning.

    • Rowena, you’re so right about being prepared for every June – November. And if you live in a place like I do (NC), subject to both hurricanes and frozen wintry precipitation, you generally keep batteries, candles, and non-perishable food around all year.

      Over the years when I lived in Atlanta, GA, several bad tornadoes touched down less than half a mile from where I was living. A neighbor and I were talking about the damage we’d both seen from an EF4 strike, and he said, “Even if people don’t believe in God when they see that, they believe in Nature.”

  4. I didn’t know about that hurricane. What a tragedy. I have wondered what people did before warnings. Did they see the storm coming? What could they do? Terrifying to consider!

    • Hi Caroline! Yeah, the 1780 Atlantic hurricane season was a bad one. The Antilles had been hammered earlier in the season by several other tropical systems, but October was definitely the worst month. In addition to the Category 5 “Great Hurricane,” there were two other hurricanes that month that were at least Category 3. One of them was in the Gulf of Mexico, and it trashed the Spanish armada on its way from Cuba to capture Pensacola from the British. The other October hurricane nailed Jamaica and Cuba.

      Without modern forecasting, there are distinct cloud patterns that herald the approach of a tropical system. First you get a lot of cirrus (high clouds), and those can be in concentric bands or wispy “mares’ tails.” The clouds get lower by the hour. The outer rain bands and wind gusts arrive. And conditions then deteriorate over the next 12 hours or so. You see this pattern with many tropical systems, regardless of their strength, and it’s difficult to judge early on whether what’s coming can be safely ridden out or not. Unfortunately by the time you decide you cannot ride it out, you’ve usually lost your chance to get away.

  5. This post captured my attention since most of the islands you mention are those I visited several years ago. When I did, they were lush, green and true paradises. To know that these islands were severely damaged in the 1780 hurricane and that over time became thriving once again gives me hope that the recent destruction of most of the same islands will be renewed once again. Mother Nature, I think, can give as well as take. This time, though, she’ll need a helping hand from us. Thanks for this tidbit of history that parallels the history of weeks ago, Suzanne.

    • Alice, I’ve also visited a number of those islands. I’m a native of Ft. Lauderdale, FL and went through the eye of Hurricane Cleo (1964) as well as a number of close shaves from other hurricanes when I was growing up there. I was saddened to read about the destruction of islands in the Antilles as well as the devastation in the Florida Keys, where my family and I often spent weekends. Thanks for the reminder that Nature also rejuvenates.

  6. Hurricane preparedness is difficult in coastal areas when homes and businesses are built too close to the water. Avoiding loss of life is “simple” with today’s advanced forecasting. People can leave the area; buildings cannot. A legendary hurricane hit Galveston, TX in 1906, I think. Over 6,000 lives were lost. Much better to be living in modern times.

    • Ah, Mary, you’ve hit on one of my peeves: building too close to the ocean. Here in central NC, they also build in the flood plains of creeks — with predictable results every few years. You cannot bargain with water.

  7. I read that when the White House was burned during the War of 1812, a very bad storm put out many the fires lit around town, but did more damage than the fires did. Sounds like a hurricane to me. (Ships sunk, etc.)