The Great Havana Hurricane of 1846: A Reconstruction of the Storm’s Track, Intensity, and Impacts

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1846 hurricane, Category 5, historical climatology, paleotempestology

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This article reconstructed the track, intensity, and societal impacts of the Great Havana Hurricane of October 1846, using all available historical data, which include ship logs, newspapers, diaries, and early instrumental records. Most of the data were extracted from original manuscripts at historical libraries and repositories. Meteorological aspects of the hurricane were analyzed by mapping twice-daily surface synoptic weather maps from geographic information systems methods, estimating central pressures from known wind–pressure relationships derived from modern hurricane studies, and assessing intensity based on damage descriptions from the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale and an inland decay model. The storm was found to be much stronger than previously known. In this study, we clearly define the first known record of a landfalling Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Basin, which likely ranks among the top of all those known in the modern (1851–present) Atlantic Basin official hurricane database. Although this storm has been previously referred to as one of the most destructive hurricanes in the history of Cuba, the impacts of the Great Havana Hurricane actually spanned well beyond the Caribbean, tracking from Florida through many major populated cities along the East Coast and into Atlantic Canada. Clearly, such a storm today, with much larger metropolitan areas, would have caused enormous economic damage and should be anticipated in long-term hurricane mitigation, zoning, and worst-case scenarios. This study highlights the importance of examining historical documentary sources for extreme events, providing a framework on how to research case studies of premodern Atlantic hurricanes back in time.

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Annals of the American Association of Geographers, in press