Hurricanes and tropical cyclones are fairly uncommon in the state of Arizona. This is primarily due to prevalent wind patterns causing most storms to veer away from the eastern Pacific coast of Mexico. Heat and drought have also played significant roles in stopping hurricanes from affecting the Copper State. Between them, these three meteorological factors have kept 94% of all Pacific hurricanes from reaching United States territory – carrying most storms that could strike Arizona away from the country altogether.
Has a hurricane ever reached Arizona?
There have been hurricanes strong enough to reach Arizona as a tropical storm. After originating in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the hurricanes make landfall in northwestern Mexico (usually in the states of Sonora or Baja California). Due to heat, drought and prevailing wind patterns, these hurricanes dissipate into tropical cyclones by the time they cross over into the United States. In most cases, only the remnant moisture from these tropical cyclones ever reaches the state of Arizona in the form of tropical storms or flash floods.
It’s worth noting that even when hurricanes dissipate, their resulting tropical storms, tropical depressions and flash flooding can be devastating to any city or community. It purely depends on the strength of the originating storm. In this post, we go over the four worst hurricanes to indirectly affect the Grand Canyon State.
The Worst Hurricanes in Arizona History
For the sake of reference, this list excludes unnamed storms and hurricanes that did not take place between 1900-2019. Without further ado, these are the four worst hurricanes in Arizona’s history, in chronological order:
Hurricane Norma (1970), Sept 4-5th Known among Arizona natives as the Labor Day Storm, Norma caused extensive flooding throughout the state, with up to 11.9 inches of rainfall in the Sierra Ancha Mountains (11.4 inches in the first twenty-four hours). According to reports, twenty-three people were killed during the 48 hour storm – including fourteen deaths from flash flooding in Tonto Creek.
Hurricane Joanne (1972), Oct 4-7th Hurricane Joanne is the first recorded hurricane to have arrived in the state of Arizona with its cyclonic wind circulation intact. During its three-day rainfall, Joanne caused considerable real estate flooding in Clifton, Safford and Duncan, and averaged as much as 5 inches of rain along the Mogollon Rim into Yuma.
Hurricane Octave (1983), Sept 28th-Oct 7th Octave is known to this day as one of Arizona’s longest periods of heavy rain on record. During its ten days of rainfall, Octave caused severe real estate flooding in Tucson and Clifton, with the worst of the storm occurring in the Mohave and Yavapai counties of Southeast Arizona. According to local reports, Octave claimed fourteen lives and over nine hundred injuries. The storm rendered at least ten thousand Arizonians temporarily homeless in the process, and proved a formidable crisis for every developer and realtor in Arizona at the time.
Hurricane Nora (1997), Sept 25-26th Nora is most famous for its 11.97 inches of rain in a single twenty-four hour period, breaking the previous record set by Hurricane Norma in 1970. Nora carried gusts of up to 54mph in its center and caused extensive flooding along western Arizona, with its record-breaking rainfall occurring in the Harquahala Mountains.
Other Notable Storms & Hurricanes in Arizona
There are other noteworthy hurricanes that have affected the Copper State throughout its history. Hurricane Heather produced fourteen inches of rainfall in southern Arizona while Hurricane Kathleen carried gusts of up to 76mph and sustained winds of 50mph. It’s also worth noting that not all hurricane activity comes from the Pacific. An example of this is Hurricane Dolly (July 2008), which was an Atlantic hurricane that brought considerable rainfall to eastern Arizona. Some Atlantic hurricanes have even affected weather patterns in states as far away as California.
By and large, several meteorological factors keep actual hurricanes away from the state – keeping disturbances limited to tropical storms, tropical depressions and prolonged heavy rains.