Pinhole eye hurricanes are major natural disasters, often obtaining status as billion-dollar weather catastrophes due to their intensity. The years 2018 and 2019 each saw 14 different weather disasters reaching losses in the billions, with an estimated 91 billion in 2018 and 45 billion in 2019. The number of billion-dollar weather disasters set a new record in 2020, which included seven tropical cyclones. Because hurricanes cause so much damage, it’s important to understand why they are so dangerous.
The unique atmospheric conditions leading to a hurricane, or tropical cyclone, cause distinct sections to appear in the storm. While the sections sit next to one another and sometimes overlap, the weather patterns within each area can differ drastically.
The center of a hurricane is called the eye. The eye is the calmest area, featuring clear skies, low wind speeds and low pressure when over land. On average, hurricane eyes stretch between 20 to 40 miles across. It’s uncommon for tropical cyclones with large eyes to become very intense, as they’re an indicator of a weak or weakening storm. In contrast, smaller eyes have a higher tendency to become dangerous.
The entire hurricane rotates around the eye, which is usually in the geometric center. While there may be some low or mid-level clouds, the eye generally contains very little wind and rain. So, why is the eye of a hurricane calm? As air spirals in a counterclockwise pattern toward the center, it eventually leaves the top in the opposite direction. This movement causes the air left inside the eye to sink and remain calm.
Over the ocean, the eye can be the worst part of a hurricane. Despite the relative calm of the sky, you can encounter powerful waves as high as 130 feet within the hurricane eye. It’s crucial to recognize this phenomenon to avoid being caught off guard by the opposite side of the eyewall. When inside the center, the incredibly violent winds may stop suddenly, but they’ll inevitably return.
Also known as a wall cloud, the eyewall of a hurricane is a dense wall of thunderstorms that swirl around the eye. This ring of towering vertical clouds contains the strongest winds and heaviest rains, creating turbulence essential for building and strengthening tropical cyclones. They form an unbroken band of incredibly fierce downpours with powerful winds.
As the structure of the eyewall changes, the eye can grow or shrink in diameter. These fluctuations cause the wind speed to shift, indicating changes in the storm’s intensity. For example, an open eye — or an eyewall that does not completely encircle the eye — could either mean a weak but strengthening hurricane or a weakening, moisture-deprived one.
Spiral rainbands are clouds or heavy showers that move around the eyewall. They follow an inward spiral from the outermost edges toward the cyclone’s center and range in width up to tens of miles. Rainbands can extend 50 to 300 miles long, maintaining a slow, counterclockwise movement. Higher-level clouds sometimes make it challenging to monitor the rainbands, obscuring their behavior and measurements on satellite imagery.
Generally, the hurricane’s right side is the worst part. Wind speeds add to the general atmospheric flow, increasing the storm surge and causing more intense winds on the right side.
While the typical tropical cyclone has an eye stretching 20 to 40 miles across, pinhole eye hurricanes have eyes less than 10 miles in diameter. A pinhole eye generally means stronger winds and rapid intensification, making these hurricanes both compact and powerful.
Just as a figure skater speeds up when they pull their arms and legs closer to their body, a hurricane with a smaller eye is likely to spin faster and quickly strengthen. This physics is known as the conservation of angular momentum and is what makes pinhole eye hurricanes so dangerous. Storms with smaller eyes are prone to large intensity fluctuations, leading to stronger winds and more significant destruction.
Some of the most destructive tropical cyclones are pinhole eye hurricanes. In 2008, an academic study revealed nearly 60% of pinhole eye hurricanes were Category 3 or stronger. This research, done by Colorado State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), helped signify a potential connection between pinhole eyes and intense winds.
Since this report, there have been other accounts of storms with pinhole eyes reaching major hurricane status. Pinhole eye hurricanes are most common in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, so it’s no surprise that most of the storms on our list developed in this area.
Hurricane Delta began as a tropical wave in October 2020. It quickly grew from a tropical storm to a major Category 3 hurricane in just 24 hours. After hitting Mexico, Hurricane Delta moved into the Gulf and rapidly strengthened to Category 4 intensity with 140 mph winds and an eye diameter of six miles.
Delta caused significant damage to many businesses and homes already undergoing recovery. There is a greater risk for this type of situation during your region’s hurricane season, though it can occur at any point in the year.
Hurricane Wilma appeared on satellite with a pinhole eye in 2005. The storm reached maximum winds of 173 mph as it spiraled through the northwest Caribbean, causing nearly two billion in losses when it hit Cancún and Cozumel.
At the time, Hurricane Wilma set records for lowest air pressure, smallest eye and fastest intensification. It was the strongest hurricane to occur in the Atlantic from an air pressure standpoint. And with an eye diameter of two miles, Major Hurricane Wilma still holds the record for smallest eye in recorded history.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria met the criteria for a pinhole eye storm. It strengthened rapidly over just 48 hours, hitting Dominica as a major Category 5 hurricane with 155 mph winds. The pinhole eye hurricane then moved toward other parts of the Caribbean as a Category 4 storm. Major Hurricane Maria brought widespread destruction to Puerto Rico, leaving the island in an electricity blackout for almost 11 months.
Hurricane Andrew is the oldest recorded pinhole eye storm on our list and it held the record as the United State’s most expensive natural disaster from 1992 to 2005. It was classified as a pinhole eye storm that inflicted economic devastation across the Bahamas, southern Florida and south-central Louisiana.
Radar scans during the storm revealed an unbroken eyewall made of intense 165 mph winds. Most interestingly, from the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew emerged extremely damaged areas alongside strips of relatively untouched land. The tropical cyclone ultimately caused around $26 billion in damages to the United States.
Just a day after strengthening to a hurricane, Opal underwent rapid intensification into a major Category 4 storm. Its eye measured six miles in diameter, and winds reached up to 150 mph, categorizing Opal as a pinpoint eye hurricane. Upon landfall in Florida, Hurricane Opal had weakened to a Category 3 intensity. Despite its rapid weakening, Opal still managed to cause an estimated $2.1 billion in property damage during 1995.
Hurricane Charley hit Florida’s southwest coast as a Category 4 storm in 2004. Its winds reached near 150 mph, and its eye stretched only three miles in diameter. Major Hurricane Charley caused nearly $17 billion in damages and left many communities isolated for several days. Businesses and homes were completely demolished in the wake of this pinhole eye hurricane.
In 2005, Hurricane Dennis rapidly strengthened to Category 4 intensity as it spiraled through the Gulf of Mexico. The storm hit Florida’s coast near Navarre Beach as a major Category 3 hurricane with winds of 120 mph. The heavy rains and high winds severely damaged most of the cotton crop through Florida and Alabama. Major flash flooding also caused problems for many businesses, homes, roadways and plant life in this area.
At Unlimited Restoration, we help property managers prevent and recover from unplanned interruptions caused by hurricanes. Pinhole eye hurricanes can lead to bigger, more complicated and more disastrous scenarios for your commercial business. Our 24/7 emergency disaster response ensures you get in touch with a professional quickly, so you can get back in business as soon as possible.
Contact us today to mitigate your business’s risk and establish a plan for immediate hurricane restoration.