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After Hurricane Irma: Florida is vulnerable to October storms

Hurricane King came swinging at Florida in 1950 with an open palm, like it planned a smack that would leave the peninsula holding a stinging cheek, but largely unscathed.

In the final hours before landfall, however, King balled up a Category 4 fist and punched South Florida dead on the chin, tearing up Miami before slicing through the center of the state in a narrow swath of carnage that observers said resembled the aftermath of a tornado.

King was the most severe hurricane to hit Miami since the city was devastated in 1926, and it came ashore in the pre-dawn darkness of Oct. 18.

RELATED: What scary tropical cyclone formed one year ago last week?

While much of the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard experience a winding down of hurricane season in October, Florida remains vulnerable – a sore thumb surrounded by warm waters, and a target for anything that spins up in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea.

“Unfortunately, on the heels of Irma, the riskiest time of year is still ahead of us,” said Michael Brennan, acting branch chief of the hurricane specialists unit at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “If you are going to get a major hurricane landfall in October, it’s likely going to be in South Florida.”

Since 1851, Florida has had 36 hurricanes make October landfalls, including 10 major hurricanes, which is considered a Category 3 or higher. That’s five times higher than runner-up Louisiana, which has experienced seven October hurricane hits, including three major hurricanes.

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Florida’s October hurricane numbers are nearly as high as the peak month of September, when Florida has experienced 39 October hurricane landfalls, 19 of which were Cat 3 or higher, according to Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach.

“You can certainly see the west coast of Florida is under the gun in October,” Klotzbach said, noting that 24 hurricanes targeted areas from the far western reach of the panhandle to Chokoloskee, which is south of Everglades City at the mouth of the Turner River.

Before Hurricane Irma tore into Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10 as a Category 4 storm, the last major hurricane to hit Florida was 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, which ran aground Oct. 24 as a Category 3 on the west coast near Cape Romano.

Hurricane Matthew, which swept by Palm Beach County Oct. 7, 2016 as a Category 4 hurricane, eventually made landfall near McClellanville, S.C.

The reason for Florida’s vulnerability deep into October is largely a function of seasonal shifts in wind patterns and sea-surface temperatures.

In early summer, most storms form in the Caribbean Sea as the atmosphere starts its summer wind-up and the mid-level African Easterly Jet is just beginning to spin up waves that will begin rolling off the continent in August and September.

Those tropical waves, which become the big Cape Verde hurricanes, travel the Atlantic east to west and have more options for routing, heading into the Gulf of Mexico, smacking the east coast or wandering harmlessly off into the northern Atlantic.

But by October, mid-latitude wintertime air starts to seep into the tropical Atlantic, increasing the westerly wind shear to muzzle African tropical waves that also find cooler sea surface temperatures.

Instead, storms find room to grow in the deeply warm waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Once in the Gulf, early wintertime troughs of low pressure digging down through the U.S. can pick storms up and fling them at Florida.

“In this strange twist of fate cold fronts can introduce thunderstorms over the warm waters and lead to tropical formation,” said Greg Postel, a hurricane expert with The Weather Channel. “In October, Mother Nature likes to put all the ingredients closer to home.”

Hurricane King was one of three major hurricanes to hit Florida’s east coast in October. It came during a year where hurricane names were picked form the joint British-U.S. World War II spelling alphabet and followed hurricanes How, Item and Jig.

King was described as a “small, but violent,” hurricane in a January 1951 weather review from the Weather Bureau Office in Miami. It is noted for having an eye that contracted from 20 miles to 5 in only a few hours. Total damage for Florida, including agriculture, was about $27.7 million. Three people were killed and there were 199 injuries.

“Despite the good warning service provided, many people remained complacent and failed to take adequate precautions,” the 1951 report said.

Brennan is hoping that’s not the current sentiment in South Florida.

“I think people feel like they had their turn this year already with Irma, but you can‘t think that way,” he said. “Just because you’ve been hit once, doesn’t mean you won’t be affected again.”

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