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On This Day: Hurricane Ivan Made Its First U.S. Landfall

Satellite image of Hurricane Ivan making landfall on September 16, 2004
Courtesy of NOAA’s National Weather Service

Over a decade ago, one of the country’s most deadly and destructive tropical systems set its sights on the U.S. Gulf Coast. And, in the early morning hours of September 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan made its first landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, with sustained winds of over 120 mph. The Category 3 storm ravaged the the coastlines of Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle, producing waves over 50 feet high offshore.

By the time it completely dissipated nearly a week later, Ivan had claimed the lives of 57 people and caused more than $27 billion of damage (in 2017 dollars) in the United States. Another 67 deaths in Grenada, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cayman Islands, and Barbados were also attributed to Hurricane Ivan.

Round One: From the West Coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico

Two weeks prior to its landfall along the Gulf Coast, Ivan was first born as a tropical depression off Africa’s West Coast abnormally close to the equator. And, just one day later on September 3, Ivan obtained tropical storm status when its sustained winds exceeded 38 mph.

By late in the day on September 5, Ivan had intensified rapidly becoming a major hurricane with Category 4 strength on the Saffir–Simpson scale. At this point, Ivan was the southernmost major hurricane on record for the North Atlantic Basin.

Ivan continued westward, moving over Grenada on September 7 and causing major property damage. After crossing the island, the hurricane tracked over the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and intensified to a Category 5 storm early on September 9.

Ivan’s strength fluctuated as the hurricane’s eye tracked just offshore of southwest Jamaica on September 11 with wind speeds registering 150 mph­—a Category 4. Ivan regained its Category 5 strength later that day, inflicting considerable damage as it passed the Cayman Islands.

Ivan remained a Category 5 until weakening slightly on September 12. The storm regained its Category 5 intensity once more on September 13 as it passed the western tip of Cuba. Ivan then spent the next three days moving northwestward over the Gulf of Mexico and weakening as it headed toward the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Round Two: Ivan Targets the Gulf Coast a Second Time

After Ivan made landfall in coastal Alabama, it turned, moving slowly northeastward across the Southeast, spawning over 100 tornadoes and dumping heavy rains on the area. Ivan then became a remnant low pressure system and it drifted east of the Delmarva Peninsula on September 18.

Despite losing its tropical characteristics, the storm wasn’t done yet.

The remnants of Ivan moved southwestward then westward, crossing Florida in a loop that led the storm back over the Gulf of Mexico on September 21. Ivan then regained its strength over the warm waters of the Gulf, reaching tropical storm intensity yet again.

Ivan weakened into a tropical depression before making its second landfall over the extreme southwestern tip of Louisiana on the 23rd. The storm dissipated over eastern Texas later that same day.

Map of the path of Hurricane Ivan in 2004

Ivan Leaves Vast and Long-Lasting Impacts

The tornados, storm surge, floods, mudslides, and winds that Ivan generated caused extensive damage across 17 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. In western North Carolina, Buncombe County—where NCEI headquarters is located— alone reported nearly $200 million in damages.

To this day, Ivan remains among the top 10 most costly tropical cyclones to impact the United States since 1980. And, due to the number of lives lost and the sheer devastation of this storm, the World Meteorological Organization retired the name “Ivan” in the spring of 2005.