Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest storms on record, struck the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu on March 13, 2015, killing 11 on the main island of Efate, and demolishing 90% of the dwellings. Wind speeds were clocked at 300 km/h (185 mph), making it a Category 5 storm.
Waves up to 8m (26 ft) surged inland, flooding huge areas of the islands and washing out crops and roads. Many thousands are reported homeless. Food and water are in short supply. Vanuatu is a vast archipelago of 80 islands lying 1,200 miles northwest of Australia, with a population of 250,000. The storm knocked out communications with Vanuatu’s outer islands, so the total number of killed, injured, or missing, and the full extent of the storm damage is not known at this time.
Tropical cyclones are called hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the North Pacific. They are powerful storms packing high winds and heavy rain rotating around a central eye.
Can a Category 5 storm as powerful as Pam strike the US mainland? The answer is yes. In the past 80 years, 3 destructive Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the continental US. The first, before hurricanes were given names, smashed into the Florida Keys in 1935. Hurricane Camille leveled parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia in 1969. And Hurricane Andrew did great damage in Florida in 1992. All 3 had wind speeds at landfall exceeding 270km/h (160 mph), plus high seas, storm surge, and heavy rain.
Hurricane Katrina which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing 1,500, was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall. But the associated heavy rain and storm surge breached New Orleans’ levees causing the worst flood in the city’s history. Superstorm Sandy was only a Category 1 storm with a wind speed of 80 mph (130km/h) when it made landfall in New Jersey and New York in 2012. But the storm was so massive, it pushed an unusually strong storm surge far inland, causing $50 billion in damage. In terms of wind speed and destructive power, Cyclone Pam was more than twice as strong as Superstorm Sandy.
With the world’s oceans rising and getting warmer because of climate change, it seems certain that a storm as strong as Pam will develop in the Atlantic and strike somewhere on the East Coast or Gulf Coast of the US. We don’t know when or where, but all coastal cities should be prepared.