Hurricane Alex was the first named storm, first hurricane, and the first major hurricane of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season. Alex formed on July 31 from a low-pressure area east of Florida. Alex moved slowly northwest, brushed the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and then moved quickly east-northeast and out to sea. Alex became a Category 3 hurricane north of 38°N latitude, reaching 120 mph winds there. This makes Alex the strongest Atlantic hurricane to reach major hurricane status north of 38°N. The only other storm on record in the Atlantic that attained major hurricane status further north than Alex was Hurricane Ellen of 1973, and Ellen was the weaker of the two. Alex became an extratropical cyclone on August 6.
Alex caused $7.5 million (2004 USD) in damage and caused 1 death.
|Formation||July 31, 2004|
|Dissipation||August 6, 2004|
|Highest winds||120 mph|
|Lowest pressure||957 mbar|
|Damages||$7.5 million (2004 USD)|
|Areas affected||East Coast of the United States, Atlantic Canada|
|Part of the||2004 Atlantic hurricane season|
Three distinct weather systems may have played a role in the genesis of Alex. On July 26, shower activity increased several hundred miles east of the northwestern Bahamas, the activity being associated with a weak surface trough, which likely originated from the mid latitudes. Disorganized showers persisted just to the east of the Bahamas, in the diffluent region east of an upper-level low for the next couple of days. When a tropical wave reached the vicinity of this activity on July 28, the coverage and organization of the convection began to increase. Surface analysis indicates that a broad surface low-pressure area developed early on July 30 in this region just northeast of the central Bahamas. The low moved to the northwest, and the circulation of the low became better defined over the next 36 hours. By 1800 UTC July 31, the low was organized enough to be classified as Tropical Depression One while located about 175 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida. Early on August 1, when the depression approached a weakness in the subtropical ridge, its foward motion slowed, and the depression remained nearly stationary for the next day or so while located about 115 miles east-southeast of Savannah, Georgia. Initially, the depression remained poorly organized, due to northeasterly wind shear aloft as well as subsidence. However, an upper-level trough was approaching from the west, and in advance of this trough, the northeasterly shear began to relax. During this time of relaxed vertical shearing, the depression was able to strengthen, and it became Tropical Storm Alex at 1800 UTC August 1.
Early on August 2, Alex began to move northeastward, taking a track that would slowly approach the Carolinas over the next 36 hours. As the upper-level southwesterlies approached, the northeasterly shear continued to decrease during the day on August 2. At this point, the deep convection, which had previously been limited to the southwest quadrant of the cyclone, was able to organize into bands east of the center. Alex continued to intensify, becoming a hurricane at around 0600 UTC August 3 while located about 65 miles south-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina. Due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream as well as light vertical shear, Alex continued to strengthen as it neared the Outer Banks of North Carolina. At 1200 UTC that same day, Alex became a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 mph, and by 1800 UTC that day, the pressure fell to 972 mb. Alex made its closest approach to land at around 1700 UTC when it was located about 9 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. At this point, Alex's western eyewall struck the Outer Banks, bringing hurricane conditions.
After passing the Outer Banks, Alex began to accelerate east-northeast as it became embedded within a deep layer west-southwesterly flow. Alex continued to intensify during this time, becoming a Category 3 hurricane at 0000 UTC August 5, packing winds of 120 mph and a pressure of 957 mb. At this time, Alex was located at 38.5°N (385 miles south-southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia), moving east-northeast at 20 to 25 knots, and over water temperatures just above 26°C (80°F) - factors typically unassociated with major hurricanes. The only other hurricane in the Atlantic to reach major hurricane status further north than Alex was Hurricane Ellen of 1973. While the shear over Alex was low, it is not known what caused this unexpected strengthening of the cyclone. Late on August 5, Alex moved north of the Gulf Stream and over sub-20°C waters and began to weaken rapidly. Moving 40 to 45 knots, Alex weakened to a tropical storm after 0600 UTC August 6. A few hours later, Alex became extratropical while located about 830 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland. Alex was absorbed into a larger extratropical cyclone by 0000 UTC August 7.
Hurricane Alex strengthening over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
Initially, it was forecast that Alex would remain weak, and the first advisory issued by the National Hurricane Center predicted the storm would make landfall as a weak tropical storm. When strengthening became evident, the NHC issued a Hurricane Warning from Cape Lookout, North Carolina to Oregon Inlet, North Carolina about 20 hours before hurricane-force winds were experienced. In addition, a Tropical Storm Warning existed for much of North Carolina as Alex paralleled the state. In spite of the Tropical Storm Warnings, 3,500 tourists remained in the Outer Banks, but they planned to leave if Alex came closer or became stronger. Despite the threat of Alex to the Outer Banks, no evacuation orders were issued. Officials recommended that residents take precautions for the storm. The National Weather Service in Morehead City issued a Flash Flood Watch a day before Alex struck the Outer Banks. Also, the NWS issued a Flash Flood Warning for Craven County and Carteret County the day that Alex made its closest approach. In preparation for the hurricane, the Cape Lookout National Seashore was closed and evacuated. The National Park Service also closed the Cape Point Campground.
While drifting in the Atlantic Ocean just east of Florida, Alex produced rip currents and high waves along the coast of North Carolina, resulting in nine lifeguard rescues because of the surf. Upon scraping the Outer Banks, Alex produced a storm surge of up to 6 feet on the Pamlico Sound side of Buxton and Ocracoke Village. The flooding on Ocracoke Island was the worst seen since Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Elsewhere along the Outer Banks, Alex produced a 2 to 4 foot storm surge. Rainfall directly along the coast reached over 5 inches, while Ocracoke Island received 7.55 inches of rain from the cyclone. At Hatteras Village, sustained winds reached 77 mph, with gusts as high as 105 mph. Beach erosion was minor across much of North Carolina, with the exception of Ocracoke Island, where significant beach erosion occured.
Cape Fear received minor beach erosion from Alex. The erosion, combined with the high waves, washed out a portion of a roadway. Also, the heavy rains in the Outer Banks disabled over 200 cars and flooded nearly 500. In addition, strong winds left around 10,000 buildings without electricity, and many places did not have power restored until 2 to 3 days after the storm. Wind and storm surge damaged over 100 buildings, and total damage amounted to $7.5 million (2004 USD). Two days after the storm passed, a man drowned off of Nags Head from strong rip currents and high waves; this was the only direct death caused by Alex, and the only death period.
Radar image of Hurricane Alex.
Alex produced heavy rainfall in Virginia, peaking at over 7 inches in the central portion of the state. The rainfall caused localized flooding, although no damage was reported in the state from Alex.
In Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Alex produced rip currents, which injured three people. Also, a few young children had to be rescued when they were trapped by a jetty.
At least five swimmers were hospitalized in New Jersey because of rip currents produced by Alex. No known impact besides this was felt in New Jersey from Hurricane Alex.
When Alex was an extratropical cyclone, it sank the Pink Lady, a rowboat that was carrying four British rowers attempting to break the record for the fastest crossing from St. John's, Newfoundland to Falmouth, Cornwall. These people were later rescued by a Danish cargo ship, and injuries were limited to a mild concussion as well as a case of hypothermia. The rowers were roughly two weeks and 370 miles from their destination when the accident happened. The group had been on track to break the 1896 record of 54 days by 10 days.
When Alex formed on August 1, it made 2004 the fifth-latest starting Atlantic hurricane season since 1954. The latest start of a hurricane season in the Atlantic since 1954 was 1977, when the first storm, Hurricane Anita developed on August 29. Alex is also only the second tropical cyclone on record in the Atlantic to attain major hurricane status north of 38°N, the other one being Hurricane Ellen of 1973; Alex was the stronger of the two.
Lack of Retirement
Because of the low damage, the name Alex was not retired in the Spring of 2005 by the World Meteorological Organization. It is on the list of names to be used for the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.