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Science & Technology

Matthew Set To End U.S. Hurricane Drought After 10 Years


Hurricane Matthew is making its way northward. It is now a Category 2 storm. The center of the storm has remained just offshore. But the eye wall has brushed the coast, bringing wind gusts over 100 miles per hour and damaging storm surges.


We're hearing about docks that have been destroyed and fallen trees on homes. Officials say the destruction will continue. Despite evacuation orders for more than 2 million people across several states, some are opting to stay home.

MCEVERS: In Savannah, Ga., Sarah Mello and Michael Arcangelo were supposed to get married tomorrow. Their wedding venue backed out. So instead, they decided to do it today at the house his family rented with a friend officiating. They'll spend their wedding night in Savannah, riding out the storm.

SARAH MELLO: It's going to be be memorable. That's for sure.

MICHAEL ARCANGELO: I mean, we picked this date a year and a half ago. The one date we've had on the calendar for a year and a half, Matthew comes into town.


ARCANGELO: Uninvited guest.

CORNISH: In fact, it's been 10 years since a major hurricane hit the U.S. - that means no Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes. Matthew is losing strength and may not break that hurricane drought. But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, that may only be a technicality.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Some things to know about this so-called hurricane drought. There actually have been plenty of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean over the past decade and quite a few quote, "major ones." They just didn't hit us. They hit other places or just churned up a lot of waves in the ocean. Atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel of Columbia University says it's all about luck, not climate change or some other weird phenomenon.

ADAM SOBEL: It's essentially been a fluke. There's no explanation for it that anybody has come up with other than random chance.

JOYCE: How much of a fluke was this 10-year hiatus?

SOBEL: That's something you would expect to occur roughly every 170-odd years. In other words, a 10-year drought is that rare of an event.

JOYCE: There have been hurricane droughts before, though not quite as long. Eventually, things got back to normal, which is a couple of smaller hurricanes making landfall every year and a major one every two years or so. Sobel and other scientists expect that will happen again sooner or later.

SOBEL: I think it's a mistake to attach too much significance to the 10-year drought. It's not something we ever expected should continue indefinitely.

JOYCE: And the whole idea of a drought is largely one of definition. Hurricanes Sandy and Irene did hit land during that drought. They weren't classified as major, but they did lots of damage. Also, the definition of major is based on wind speed. But slow-moving hurricanes carrying lots of water can do more damage than windy ones. When Matthew closed in on Florida, it was a Category 4, a major hurricane - powerful, but not unprecedented. It's the kind of hurricane we've seen before and scientists say we'll see them again. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.