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What is a Hurricane?

A hurricane is a severe tropical storm that forms in the southern Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico or eastern Pacific Ocean. To form, hurricanes need warm tropical oceans, moisture and light winds. They gather heat and energy from the warm waters. Evaporation from seawater increases their power.

Hurricanes rotate in a counterclockwise direction around an "eye." They have winds at least 75 mph. When they come onto land, they can bring heavy rain, strong winds and floods, and can damage buildings, trees and cars. They also produce heavy waves called storm surge. Storm surges are very dangerous and a major reason why people must stay away from the ocean during a hurricane warning.

Download the 2012 Virginia Interactive Hurricane Guide [4 mb .pdf]

Hurricanes need not make landfall or move directly across Virginia to cause great damage. The eye of Hurricane Gloria in September 1985 passed 45 miles east of Cape Henry. She was a category 3 hurricane with wind gusts to 104 mph. Damage to eastern Virginia was $5.5 million. The fastest wind ever recorded in Virginia was 134 mph from a hurricane in September 1944 at Cape Henry. Winds gusted up to 150 mph, though the storm stayed just offshore.

Fast-moving inland storms such as Hurricane Hazel in October 1954 maintained hurricane force winds after making landfall. Winds gusted to 130 mph in Hampton and 100 mph in Richmond and Fairfax. Virginia lost 13 people, and statewide damage was conservatively estimated at $15 million.

Eye: The eye is the calm center of a hurricane. Don't be fooled if wind and rain stop during a hurricane. You may just be in the eye of the storm. Listen to the radio to find out when the storm has really passed.

Floods: More people are killed by freshwater floods during a hurricane than by any other hazard. Never play in floodwater.

Watch – The danger of inland flooding from hurricanes: video from the National Weather Service

Classification: Hurricanes are classified into five categories, based on wind speed and potential to cause damage:

  • Category One – Winds 74-95 mph
  • Category Two – Winds 96-110 mph
  • Category Three – Winds 111-130 mph
  • Category Four – Winds 131-155 mph
  • Category Five – Winds greater than 155 mph

Evacuation order: This is the most important instruction people affected by hurricanes will receive. If issued, leave immediately.

Watches and Warnings

Learn the terms that are used to identify a hurricane.

  • Tropical Storm Watch: Issued when tropical storm conditions, including winds from 39 to 73 mph, pose a possible threat to a specified area within 48 hours
  • Tropical Storm Warning: Issued when tropical storm conditions are expected to affect a specified area within 36 hours or less
  • Hurricane Watch: Issued for a specified area when hurricane conditions, including sustained winds of 74 mph or great, are possible within 48 hours.
  • Hurricane Warning: issued for a specified area when hurricane conditions are expected within 36 hours. In coastal or near-coastal areas, a hurricane warning can remain in effect when dangerously high water, or a combination of dangerously high water and exceptionally high waves, continues, even though the winds may have subsided below hurricane intensity.