Hurricane David Spared Florida in 1979 but Destroyed the Dominican Republic

A picture taken on September 5 shows cars under the rain in Point-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, as islanders brace themselves for the arrival of Hurricane Irma. The storm picked up strength and had become an ‘extremely dangerous’ Category 5 hurricane as it approached the Caribbean on September 5, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported. Hurricane Irma has been closing in on Florida the past few days. Evacuation has been strongly encouraged. HELENE VALENZUELA/AFP/Getty Images

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "A Killer Named David" on September 17, 1979. In light of the current barrage of tropical disasters, Newsweek is republishing the story.

Chunks of sidewalk were ripped up in downtown Santo Domingo. Fierce waves swept through hotels. Cars were crushed as if they were toys, while palm trees and power poles blew away like toothpicks. In the city of San Cristobal, more than a dozen people were killed when the concrete walls of a church toppled on them. And in the village of Ocoa, about 400 people huddled for safety in a church and school—but most of them died when the bloated Yacque River flooded the buildings.

In all, at least 600 people were killed when Hurricane David tore through the Dominican Republic last week. Another 150,000 were left homeless, and officials expected the disaster totals to climb even higher when receding flood waters yielded more bodies, and hunger and disease claimed victims of their own.

David was one of the most powerful—and most deadly—Atlantic storms of this century. It formed off the Cape Verde Islands three weeks ago, swept westward across the ocean and into the Caribbean, where it passed over the Leeward Islands, killed 22 people on the tiny island of Dominica and sixteen in Puerto Rico before thrusting the full force of its 150-mile-an-hour winds on the Dominican Republic. The storm then veered north, pummeled the Bahamas and danced up the Atlantic coast of the United States, striking hardest in Palm Beach, Florida, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

'I No Complaining'

After the devastation in the Caribbean, the people of southeastern Florida prepared for the first major hurricane in fourteen years. Most residents of the vulnerable Florida Keys were evacuated, and Miamians boarded up their property and headed for emergency shelters. But the storm skipped by, buffeting Palm Beach instead, and narrowly missing the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. "Some people complaining because they make all the preparations and no hurricane," said Miami cabdriver Raymond Senda. I seen four hurricanes around here. I no complaining."

The hurricane veered back out to sea, then struck at historic Savannah, hovering over the city for four hours, releasing torrents of rain and knocking out most of the city's power. "Some young people thought it was pretty bad, but they don't know how lucky they are," said Red Cross surveyor Irvin Draught. Up the coast, Charleston was also rather lucky. The hurricane caused extensive flooding and sired several tornadoes that ripped through the city. By then, the worst was over. David settled down to become a tropical storm that delivered heavy rains and high winds from Virginia to Massachusetts.


Like all hurricanes that strike North America, David was born in a low-pressure band near the equator, where the easterly trade winds of the Northern Hemisphere meet the westerlies of the Southern. In July, August and September each year, about 100 atmospheric disturbances form in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Typically, six of them grow into hurricanes and three hit somewhere in the U.S., where they kill an average of 50 to 100 people and cause property damage of around $450 million.

Each storm is monitored from beginning to end by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Florida. The center's forecasters, meteorologists, researchers and pilots use satellite photos and reconnaissance planes to track the storms and measure their intensity. In the case of Hurricane David, the center made use of new, electronically equipped P-3 research planes that flew into the storm and relayed data on temperature, wind velocity and direction. But despite the advanced technology, there is only so much that scientists can foretell about the exact path of hurricanes—and virtually nothing they can do to prevent them.