Hurricane Frederic 1979

HURRICANE FREDERIC - September 12, 1979.

WINDS: 130-mph
PRESSURE: 946 Mb./27.94 inches.
STORM - SURGE: 9 - 15 feet above Mean Tide.

Main coastal highway - Gulf Shores, Alabama the morning after Hurricane Frederic. (Photo courtesy NOAA/1979).

 

The State of Alabama suffered its worst natural disaster in history, when Hurricane Frederic came ashore in September 1979. Alabama had not seen a storm of Frederic's intensity since 1916. Thousands suffered unprecedented damage. By 1979 Gulf Shores, Alabama, had developed into a popular resort area - with hundreds of motel rooms and thousands of luxury homes and condominiums. Much of this new development had never been tested in a severe hurricane. Until Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Frederic was the most costly hurricane in American history ($2.3 billion). Over the last 50 years (1950 - 2001) only two hurricanes have made landfall along the Gulf coast with stronger winds than Frederic: Hurricane Camille (1969), and Hurricane Carla (1961).

Hurricane Frederic originated from an area of disturbed weather in the far eastern Atlantic in late August 1979. By September 1st, Frederic was upgraded to a minimal hurricane about 650-miles east of the Lesser Antilles, while moving west at 20-mph. Over the next six days - Frederic traveled over the islands of the northern Caribbean weakening to a tropical depression by September 6. However, as the weak depression emerged off the western tip of Cuba, it rapidly intensified. By September 11, winds in Frederic were up to 85-mph, while the storm was moving northwest - toward the central Gulf coast.

By 5:00 am the following morning (September 12) warnings were issued from Panama City, Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana. Frederic now had winds of 130-mph, central pressure in the hurricane had fallen to 27.99 in (948 mb). By 5:00 pm that same day, Frederic was located 80-miles south of Mobile, Alabama, moving north at 15-mph. Like several other severe hurricanes Frederic would landfall in darkness - adding to evacuation and preparedness problems.

Hurricane Frederic was twice the size of Hurricane Camille in 1969, although far less intense. Hurricane force winds covered a vast area in Frederic. At 10:00 pm (CDT) on September 12, 1979, Hurricane Frederic made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Frederic hammered southern Alabama with the severest hurricane conditions in modern times.

Hurricane Frederic approaching the Alabama coast on September 12, 1979 with 130 mph winds. (Photo courtesy NOAA/1979).

 

METEOROLOGICAL CONDITIONS IN THE UNITED STATES

NOAA Hurricane Hunter Aircraft reported Frederic had sustained winds of about 130-mph, with gusts to 150-mph, just prior to landfall on the Alabama coast. Several extreme wind reports were received in southern Alabama and Mississippi. The National Weather Service office at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi recorded wind gusts to 127-mph. The Mobile County Civil Defense office recorded a peak gust of 101-mph. The most extreme winds recorded came from exposed Dauphin Island, off the Alabama coast. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab recorded gusts to 137-mph before equipment failure. The strongest gust measured in Frederic was recorded on the Dauphin Island Bridge - 145-mph. It is likely the peak wind gusts along the Alabama islands were 140 - 150-mph during Frederic.

The Office of Civil Defense in Pascagoula, Mississippi recorded a low pressure of 27.94 inches (946 mb). Although 27.94 inches is considered the official landfalling pressure in Frederic, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab reconstructed a microbarograph recording they made during the storm, and extrapolated that barometric pressure had fallen to 27.84 inches (943 mb). The National Weather Service Office in Mobile recorded a barometric pressure of 28.38 in (961 mb).

Tidal surges along the coast to the right of Frederic's eye ranged from 9 to 15-feet above mean sea level (msl). A higher water mark was measured at 15.79 feet above m.s.l., at the Gulf State Park Building, Gulf Shores, Alabama. On Gulf Shores, 80 % of the structures were completely destroyed, (400 buildings). This was somewhat of a shock to many residents - since many of these structures were built on pilings 8 or 9-feet above sea level. This had been part of a new construction standard. On Dauphin Island, storm surge heights of 8 to 13-feet were recorded, with the western end of Dauphin Island completely over-topped at the height of the storm surge. In Mobile Bay, high water marks of 8 to 10-feet above m.s.l., damaged areas along highway 90 and 98.

Although elevated to 9 feet above sea level - this U shaped condominium complex in Gulf Shores, Alabama, was leveled by Frederic's 15 foot storm surge. (Photo courtesy UACE/1979).

The morning after Frederic, Gulf Shores, Alabama (above) looked as if a great tidal wave had swept over the island. (Photo courtesy UACE/1979).

 

THE IMPACT

Frederic's surge over the Alabama barrier Islands was of epic proportions. Although storm surge damage was reported along 80 miles of coastline, Fort Morgan and Gulf Shores were by far hit the hardest. Gulf Shores found itself just to the east of the eyewall - the area of maximum ocean surges. The resulting property damage from Fort Morgan (from Navy Cove) to just east of Gulf Shores (near Shelby Lakes) was nearly complete. The morning after the hurricane, Gulf Shores looked as if a tidal wave had swept over the island.

Hurricane Frederic produced severe wind damage in many areas across southern Alabama. On the barrier islands, extensive structural failure occurred, with most buildings in the immediate landfall area - having 50% or greater roof damage. No buildings seemed immune, industrial buildings, residential homes, hospitals, even government buildings suffered heavy wind damage. Many small beach homes along the immediate shore blew away before they could be flooded by the devastating storm surge.

Even the historic Mobile City Hall suffered during Frederic's rampage through Alabama. (Photo courtesy Alabama National Guard /1979).

Port buildings like these at the Pascagoula, Mississippi City Docks suffered extensive wind damage. (Photo courtesy CNA/1979).

Pine trees snapped in half - littered the landscape across southern Alabama after Hurricane Frederic in September 1979. (Photo courtesy CNA/1979).

The two-lane Dauphin Island Causeway connecting Dauphin Island and the mainland was swept away in several areas. The tower on the bridge in the upper left of photo, recorded a 145 mph gust during Frederic. (Photo courtesy CNA/1979).

 

Unfortunately, five people were killed during Frederic. Considering the hurricanes intensity - this was remarkably low. Frederic produced the largest evacuation in the history of the Gulf coast up to that time - 500,000 people. Although Frederic was not nearly as intense as Camille, population and commercial development had doubled. Property damage was the largest for any natural disaster in American history up to that time- $2.3 Billion in 1979 dollars. The insurance industry paid out a record $752 million, until Hugo in 1989.

 

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