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With tropics reawakening, what we can learn from Hurricanes Sandy, Hazel, and other destructive October storms

Of the five costliest October U.S. hurricanes, three had impacts on Philadelphia.

Destroyed homes in Toms River, Ocean County, in the aftermath of Sandy.
Destroyed homes in Toms River, Ocean County, in the aftermath of Sandy.Read moreWayne Parry / AP

With a potentially explosive hurricane eyeing the densely developed Florida Panhandle and its mystically beautiful beaches, the folks at the National Hurricane Center were in a high state of anxiety because no one else seemed to care about the spinning behemoth in the Gulf.

This was the first week in October 25 years ago, and no major hurricane had made landfall on the Florida Panhandle in October in more than 100 years. A certain inattentiveness perhaps might be understandable, especially with Floridians and the rest of the nation riveted on the outcome of a sensational murder trial.

Never mind that more than a fifth of all named storms in the Atlantic Basin have formed in October. That included two — Sandy, in 2012, and Hazel, in 1954 — that became two of the most-destructive and disruptive events of any kind in the Philadelphia region’s weather history.

But on Oct. 3, 1995, a major hurricane could not compete for the public’s attention with a verdict in the trial of former football star O.J. Simpson.

The following day, Hurricane Opal attacked the Panhandle with 115 mph winds, killing nine people.

Opal not only emphatically signaled the end of a 25-year “lull” in hurricane activity and the beginning of an active period that has continued in this record season, which appears to be reviving. It also was a dramatic reminder that the hurricane season doesn’t end with September.

Of the October hurricanes to affect the United States, 22 would qualify as billion-dollar storms based on today’s rates of inflation and levels of building and wealth, according to the ICAT catastrophe-insurance firm.

» READ MORE: How Hurricane Sandy became steroids for Jersey Shore development

Three of the five costliest October storms have had impacts on the Philadelphia region: Sandy, Hazel, and a nameless predecessor in 1944. Sea-surface temperatures are still warm in October, supplying storm fuel, plus with temperature contrasts sharpening in the cool seasons, storms can move quickly and are more likely to retain strength as they speed northward.

Catastrophic October storms have affected the Caribbean and Central America. Mitch, in 1998, was blamed for killing 20,000.

And while the United States never has experienced a death toll that high in any disaster, it has endured deadly and destructive late-season storms originating in the tropics.

» READ MORE: Sally, yet another tropical storm, forms near Florida; another one ready to pop in record season

With landfall dates, damage estimates, and estimated U.S. fatalities, here is a look at the three that ultimately affected the Philadelphia region, and the two others that constitute the top five October storms in the ICAT cost rankings.

Sandy, Oct. 29, 2012: $80.1 billion in damage, 117 fatalities

Technically Sandy wasn’t a “hurricane” when it made landfall near Brigantine with sustained winds of 75 mph, but leave that distinction to the halls of geekdom.

It devastated Long Beach Island. It generated prodigious storm surges along the New Jersey coast and a record storm tide in New York City.

On the mainland it was a horrendous wind storm, knocking out power to 2.5 million electricity customers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

More than 70 deaths occurred in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, making it the deadliest cyclone of tropical origin in those regions since Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Hazel, Oct. 18, 1954: $36.5 billion in damage, 95 U.S. fatalities (100 in Canada)

The eye of Hurricane Hazel tracked just to the west of Philadelphia, thus the region was caught in the dangerous right quadrant as Hazel’s remnants sped all the way to Toronto.

The 94 mph gust clocked at Philadelphia International Airport remains the highest ever measured officially in the city.

“My streets in Brewerytown were so narrow that the wind was whipping through and you could see the cars shaking,” said Jim Eberwine, former National Weather Service marine forecaster who grew up in Philadelphia.

The storm was blamed for 15 deaths in the region.

Nameless; Oct. 19, 1944: $78.8 billion in damage, 11 fatalities

After killing more than 50 people in the Caribbean and Florida, the storm tracked past the Jersey coast, flooding Shore streets; setting a daily rain record at Atlantic City, with more than 4 inches; and kicking up a 53 mph gust.

It threw back rains to Philadelphia, where winds blew out windows.

In any other season it would have been huge news, but it had been upstaged a month earlier by the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, blamed for killing 100 people and disrupting wartime shipping. That one set off cosmic flooding at the Shore.

Wilma, Oct. 24, 2005: $33.4 billion in damage, 5 fatalities

Like the anonymous October 1944 storm, in any other season Wilma would have been a major national story.

For a tropical storm in the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, it set a record for lowest barometric pressure, a true indicator of its power.

It made landfall on the Florida Gulf Coast and ripped through South Florida. A gust of 112 mph was recorded at Lake Okeechobee.

» READ MORE: Gulf Coast residents mark 15th anniversary of Katrina

Wilma, however, was overshadowed by the immensely tragic Hurricane Katrina that had hit New Orleans in August.

Opal, Oct. 4, 1995: $16.5 billion in damage, 9 fatalities

The hurricane warnings weren’t issued until late on the night of Oct. 3, as a team of hurricane scientists observed later, thus “people had very little time to rush their preparations to completion."

Dennis Feltgen remembers it well. At the time he was a meteorologist for a Gulf Coast TV station and the newsroom was abuzz — not about Opal, but O.J., who had just been acquitted. A “hurricane watch” was up, and the weather segment was to get all of a minute.

“Let’s just say a lot of words were exchanged," he said, “and the weather ended up with two minutes.”