You need to prepare for hurricanes in Niceville – that is just a fact of life – seeing how close we are to the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes have been a destructive force in our area, even destroying one iteration of Niceville High School when it landed as a category one storm on July 31, 1936. The school’s destruction meant the student body had to meet at a dance hall in the city for the school year, according to local historian Elisa Mitchener.
Hurricanes are less likely to affect northwest Florida and Niceville than you might guess. Since 1851, when the United States Federal Government began tracking tropical storms and hurricanes – only 17 such storms have made landfall within 30 miles of Niceville. Furthermore, only four storms have passed directly over the city in the last 170 years.
In total – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tracked a total of 273 hurricanes since the mid-1800s. So about 1.5% of all (recorded) tropical storms, depressions, and hurricanes have passed right over the city of Niceville. About one in 20 have come close enough for residents to feel any effects from the storm.
In terms of pure destructive force – the unnamed hurricane of 1917 was the worst hurricane to pass over the city of Niceville. The storm, which began to the east of Barbados, smashed into Jamaica and Cuba before intensifying and assaulting the area where the Brooks Bridge now stands in Fort Walton Beach and laying waste to the Boggy Bayou area. The storm hit the area on September 29 and continued well into Georgia before finally fizzling out.
In terms of memorable property destruction, the July 1936 hurricane, also unnamed, probably had the longest-lasting impact on the city. The storm hit the area near the beginning of the school year for 1936-37 and leveled the newly-built Niceville High School. At that point, the school system was already in debt for the school, according to Mitchener, and the destruction of the building forced the county’s superintendent to request New Deal aid from their congressional delegation.
The last storm to hit the area and affect the residents of Niceville was Tropical Storm Alberto in 2018. The storm passed to the east – through the middle of Walton County.
Historically, Niceville has been hit the most most by tropical storm-force winds in September (based on the 16 storms we have data for that passed within 30 miles of the 32578 zip code). Seven of the sixteen storms that have hit the area since 1882 came ashore in September. August was the second-most storm-filled month, with three storms lashing out against the Okaloosa County shoreline in Northwest Florida.
Just because those are the most common months for a storm to hit the Niceville and Eglin Air Force Base area doesn’t mean that storms cannot happen in the other months. Our region has seen tropical storms and hurricanes visit Niceville as early as May 25 (Alberto in 2018) and as late as November 11 (Ida, 2009).
Historically, the storms which hit Niceville have varied wildly in strength. A linear regression analysis (basically when you look at the dates of the hurricanes and their intensity) shows some relationship with stronger storms later in the hurricane season in our area. That makes sense, as we have a lot more storms in the back half of the hurricane season around here anyway – and the Gulf of Mexico, which is where all of our storms spend time before they wash ashore, tends to be warmer in the back half of the hurricane season (warmer temps of water in the Gulf of Mexico lead to stronger storms). That correlate is = to .3455 for all my stats lovers out there.
Long story short (historically, at least), if a storm is going to hit Niceville – it will likely hit in September. The later in the season we go – the more likely a storm will be stronger.
This note isn’t based on meteorological data – more like good old-fashioned map-lookin’. Many of the storms that come to our area tend to become named storms in the Gulf of Mexico itself. 11 of the 17 storms which hit our area became officially named storms in the Gulf of Mexico itself. It should be noted, though, the hurricanes that hit the area typically form south of Cuba and move to the islands southwest before turning north and bringing rains, flooding, tornadoes, and the like to the Niceville area. Five of the seven storms to hit the area in our data set did just that. The other two, the unnamed 1936 and 1939 hurricanes, crossed Florida and then jogged into our area.