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Hurricane Mitch was the thirteenth named storm, the ninth hurricane, and the third major hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season. Mitch was one of the deadliest and one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. Mitch, at its peak, had 180 mph maximum 1-minute sustained winds, with a pressure of 905 mb. At the time, Mitch was the strongest Atlantic hurricane observed during the month of October, although Hurricane Wilma of 2005 recently surpassed it when it reached 185 mph and 888 mb. At the time, Mitch was the fourth-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, but has since dropped to the seventh.

Mitch developed in the western Carribean Sea on October 22. Initially, it drifted erratically in the open waters of the Carribean Sea, it rapidly intensified to reach peak winds of 180 mph and a pressure of 905 mb. After it drifted to the southwest and weakened, Mitch struck Honduras as a minimal hurricane. Afterward, Mitch drifted through Central America, reformed in the Bay of Campeche, and then struck Florida as a 65 mph tropical storm. Because of its slow foward speed from October 29 through November 3, Mitch dropped historical amounts of rainfall Honduras and Nicaragua, with an unofficial report being as high as 75 inches. Because of the catastrophic flooding that it caused, Mitch caused 11,000-18,000 direct deaths (technically, it killed 11,000 and 8,000 were missing after the end of 1998). This makes Mitch the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, second only to the Great Hurricane of 1780. Mitch's flooding caused extreme damage, totaling to $5,000,000,000 (1998 USD).

Mitch at Category 5 intensity
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Formation October 22, 1998
Dissipation November 5, 1998
Highest winds 180 mph
Lowest pressure 905 mbar
Deaths 11,000-18,000 direct
Damages $5,000,000,000 (1998 USD)
Areas affected Central America (primarily Honduras and Nicaragua), Yucatan Peninsula, Florida

Meteorological History

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A tropical wave moved off the African coast on October 10. It moved westward across the shear-ridden Atlantic Ocean, and the wave remained disorganized until reaching the Carribean Sea on October 18. When the wave entered the western Carribean Sea, convection steadily increased, and on October 22, the wave developed into Tropical Depression Thirteen while located 415 miles south of Kingston, Jamaica. The depression drifted westward under weak steering currents, and on October 23, the depression strengthened into Tropical Storm Mitch, while located 260 miles east-southeast of San Andrés Island. Initially, intensification of Mitch was hindered by an upper-level low creating strong vertical shearing over Mitch. As Mitch executed a small loop to the north, shear relaxed, allowing Mitch to strengthen. On October 24, Mitch became a hurricane while located 295 miles south of Jamaica. With warm water temperatures, as well as well-defined outflow, Mitch underwent rapid intensification. During a 24-hour period from October 24 to October 25, Mitch's central pressure dropped 52 mb. On October 26, Mitch attained peak intensity as a Category 5 hurricane with 180 mph winds and an extremely low minimum central pressure of 905 mb, one of the lowest pressures ever recorded in an Atlantic hurricane.

A ridge of high pressure north of Mitch forced it westward, which resulted in land interaction with Honduras. Because of this, Mitch weakened slightly, and after passing over the Swan Islands on October 27, Mitch steadily weakened. The ridge of high pressure built even further after this, forcing the hurricane to drift southward along the coast of Honduras. Mitch made landfall 80 miles east of La Ceiba in the country of Honduras on October 29 as a Category 1 hurricane with 80 mph winds. Mitch continued to weaken overland after it made landfall, drifting westward through Central America. On November 1, Mitch's low-level circulation center dissipated near the Guatemala/Mexico border. The remnant low-pressure area that was once Mitch drifted northward into the Bay of Campeche, and it re-organized on November 3, becoming a tropical storm again, while located about 150 miles southwest of Mérida, Yucatán. Mitch moved to the northeast, and made landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula near Campeche on November 4. It weakened to a tropical depression overland, but it quickly re-strengthened into a tropical storm again over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. As Mitch accelerated to the northeast due to the influence of a cold front, it gradually intensified, and it made landfall near Naples, Florida on November 5 as a 65 mph tropical storm.

Later that day, Mitch became an extratropical cyclone, but it continued to persist for several days until it became unidentifiable north of Great Britain on November 9.

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Mitch as a disorganized tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico.

Preparations

Initially, because of its stalling, Mitch's future was very uncertain, with the National Hurricane Center advising citizens throughout the general area to closely monitor the hurricane. Just 2 days before its landfall, the possibility remained for Mitch to spare Honduras and hit Guatemala or Belize. Due to the uncertainty, government officials issued Hurricane Warnings from the Honduras/Nicaragua border all the way northward to Belize from the 2-3 days before Mitch's landfall. Because of the threat of Mitch, the Honduras government evacuated some of the 45,000 people on the Bay Islands and prepared all air and naval resources. The government of Belize issued a red alert, asking citizens on offshore islands to leave for the mainland. Because Mitch threatened to strike Belize as a Category 4 hurricane, much of the city was evacuated, because of the fear of a repeat of the devastating Hurricane Hattie 37 years earlier.

Guatemala also issued a red alert, recommending boats to stay in port, telling people to prepare or seek shelter, and also warning over rivers being potentially overflown by rainfall from the hurricane. By the time Mitch did make its first landfall, numerous people were evacuated along the western Carribean coastline, including 100,000 people in Honduras, 10,000 people in Guatemala, and 20,000 in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

Impact

Mitch is the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, behind only the Great Hurricane of 1780, displacing the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 as the second-deadliest hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin. Nearly 11,000 people were confirmed dead thanks to Mitch, and almost as many people as died were reporting missing, unfortunately. Mitch caused its deaths mostly from flooding and mudsldes in Central America, where the slow-moving storm dropped nearly 3 feet of rain along Central America. The flooding and mudslides damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes, with total damage amounting to over $5,000,000,000 (1998 USD), with most of that damage occuring in Honduras and Nicaragua. Prior to the hurricane's arrival, the deadliest hurricane in Central America's history was 1974's Hurricane Fifi, which killed an estimated 8,000-10,000 people.

Honduras

Prior to its Honduran landfall, Mitch produced waves as high as 22 feet to the coastline of Honduras. Upon making landfall, Mitch's intensity greatly diminished, but it still produced a storm surge and waves as high as 12 feet. While Mitch was drifting over Honduras, it dumped extremely heavy rainfall, peaking at nearly 36 inches in the city of Choluteca, with over 18 inches of rain falling in that city in one day. The rainfall in Choluteca was equivalent to the average rainfall total the area would receive in 212 days. Also, the Choluteca River at this point had flooded to six times in normal width. The widespread, extreme, and deadly flooding was partially caused by Honduras' slash and burn agriculture, thus the forests, like in the country of Haiti, which is particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones, could not absorb water and excessive runoff. In addition, there were estimates of rainfall as great as 75 inches occuring in some mountainous regions of Honduras.

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Damage in Tegucigalpa from Hurricane Mitch.

The rainfall collected in rivers, causing extensive river flooding across Honduras. The deepest average depth of water was 12.5 meters on the Ulúa River near Chinda, and the average width of water was 359 meters on Río Lean near Arizona. Mitch's extreme and deadly rainfall led to mudslides across Honduras. Mitch caused such widespread and massive damage in Honduras that the president of Honduras Carlos Roberto Flores stated that Mitch destroyed 50 years of progress in the country. Mitch destroyed about 70% of the crops in the country, causing around $900,000,000 (1998 USD) in losses. Also, an estimated 70-80% of the transportation infrastructure of Honduras was wiped out, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads, with damage so great that existing maps were considered obsolete. Also, about 25 small villages were reported to have been entirely destroyed by the hurricane's lanslides. Damage to the transportation network and communication network totalled to $529,000,000 (1998 USD).

Across the country of Honduras, Mitch destroyed 33,000 homes, and it damaged 50,000 other homes. In addition, numerous trees were downed by the hurricane, leaving the mountainsides bare, and thus more prone to future mudslides and landslides. Heavy rainfall from Mitch caused severe crop losses in the country, affecting more than 300 sq. miles, or 29% of the country's arable land. Mitch's flooding led to severe losses in food crops, including 58% of the corn output, 24% of the sorghum, 14% of the rice, as well as 6% of the bean crop. Also, several other important export crops faced similar losses from Mitch, including 85% of the banana crop, 60% of the sugar cane crop, 29% of the melon crop, 28% of the African palms, and finally 18% of the coffee crops. Crop damage alone in Honduras totaled to more than $1.7 billion (1998 USD). Also, large amounts of animal losses occured from Mitch as well, including the deaths of 50,000 bovines and the losses of 60% of the fowl population.

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Mudslide in San Juancito.

Also, shrimp production, which had also become an important export in Honduras, faced nearly complete destruction from Hurricane Mitch. Total animal losses amounted to $300,000,000 (1998 USD). Extreme flooding and mudslides from Mitch killed over 6,500 people, and left several thousand missing in Honduras alone. Many of the unidentified people were buried in mass graves, resulting in great uncertainty of the final death toll in Honduras. Over 20% of the country's population, possibly as many as 1.5 million people, were left homeless. The severe crop shortages left many villages on the brink of starvation, while the lack of sanitation led to outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. On the offshore island of Guanaja, Mitch spent three days stalled near the island. Strong winds from Mitch destoyed one third of the island's homes, and left most citizens without power for months. Also, the island's two fish packing plants were damaged by the hurricane, and two main resorts were closed.

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Overview of the damage in Tegucigalpa.

Guanaja received little help from the national government, being a small islands (9 miles long) which has traditionally had an independent and self-reliant streak. Instead, international aid arrived from former Guanaja residents, even though citizens from mainland Honduras came to the island to acquire supplies.

Nicaragua

Although Mitch never officially made landfall in Nicaragua, because it was so large, it produced torrential rainfall, with estimates of over 50 inches in some locations. In some areas, as much as 25 inches of rain fell on some coastal areas. The flank of the Casita Volcano failed and turned into a lahar from excessive rainfall brought by Hurricane Mitch. The resulting mudslide ultimately covered an area 10 miles long and 5 miles wide. 2,000,000 people were directly affected by Mitch. Mitch's rainfall damaged 17,600 houses and destroyed 23,900 houses in the country, which displaced 368,300 people. Also, 340 schools and 90 health centers were severely damaged or destroyed by the hurricane. Also, sewage systems as well as the electricity subsector were severely damaged. This, combined with property damage, brought the damage to $300,000,000 (1998 USD) in the country of Nicaragua.

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Flooding in Lake Managua after Hurricane Mitch.

Also, transportation across the country was greatly affected by Mitch. The rainfall left 70% of the roads across Nicaragua unusable and destroyed, and it also greatly damaged 71 bridges. Over 1,700 miles of highways or access roads needed replacement subsequent to the hurricane, especially in the northern part of Nicaragua and along portions of the Pan-American Highway. Total transportation damage amounted to $300,000,000 (1998 USD) in the country. Also, agricultural losses were also significant, including the deaths of 50,000 animals, mostly bovines. Crops as well as fisheries were also greatly affected by Hurricane Mitch. This, combined with agricultural losses, brought total damage to $185,000,000 (1998 USD). The situation was complicated even further by a total of 75,000 live land mines -- that were left over from the Contra insurgency of the 1980s -- that were calculated to have been uprooted as well as relocated by Mitch's floodwaters.

In all, Mitch killed at least 3,800 people in the country of Nicaragaua, of which 2,000 of those fatalities occured in the towns of El Provenir and Rolando Rodriguez from the landslide at the Casitas Volcano. The landslide buried at least four villages completely in several feet of mud. Throughout Nicaragua, Mitch left between 500,000 and 800,000 people homeless. Total damage in Nicaragua is estimated at $1,000,000,000 (1998 USD) from Mitch.

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Casita Volcano after deadly mudslide from Mitch.

Carribean Sea

Mitch was also responsible for the loss of the Fantome windjammer sailing ship owned by Windjammer Barefoot Cruises; all 31 of the crew perished. The story was recorded in the book The Ship and The Storm by Jim Carrier. The ship, which was sailing in the center of the hurricane, experienced up to 50 foot waves and over 100 mph winds, causing the Fantome to sink off the coast of Honduras.

Cuba

On the southern coast of Cuba, Mitch caused swells of up to 13 feet, and wind gusts peaked at 42 mph. This caused numerous tourists and workers on the Isle of Youth as well as Cayo Largo del Sur to retreat to a safer location.

Jamaica

In Jamaica, officials declared Hurricane Warnings 12 hours prior to Mitch's closest approach to the island. Mitch produced moderate rainfall and gusty winds for days despite never coming that close to Jamaica. High waves hit the west coast of Jamaica, with an unofficial report of waves being as high as 7 feet from the distant hurricane. Also, rainfall from Mitch's outer rainbands, sometimes torrential rainfall, flooded many roads on the island, and also left them covered with debris. One house in Spanish Town collapsed from flooding from Mitch, leaving four people homeless. Also, Mitch flooded many other homes and businesses, forcing the evacuation of many people. A river in the northeastern part of Jamaica overflowed its banks, while heavy rainfall across the mountainous regions of the island caused numerous mudslides. In all, Mitch killed three people in Jamaica.

Cayman Islands

In the Cayman Islands, Mitch produced high waves, gusty winds, and occasionally heavy rainfall. Damage in the Cayman Islands was relatively minor, amounting to blown out windows and beach erosion. High waves damaged or destroyed many of the docks on the southern portion of the islands, and they also sank one dive ship near Grand Cayman. In addition, numerous ingoing and outgoing flights were cancelled because of Mitch.

Rest of Latin America and Central America

Panama

Because Mitch was so large, it dropped heavy rainfall as far south as Panama, particularly in the Darién and Chiriquí provinces. The resulting flooding washed away a few bridges, and it also damaged numerous homes and schools, leaving thousands of people homeless across Panama. Mitch killed three people in total across the country of Panama.

Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, Mitch dumped heavy rainfall, causing flash flooding and mudslides across the country, mostly in the northeastern part of it. Mitch impacted 2,135 homes to some degree, of which 242 houses were destroyed. This left 4,000 people homeless across Costa Rica, unfortunately. Throughout the country, heavy rainfall as well as mudslides affected 126 bridges and 800 miles of roads, mostly in the Inter-American Highway, which was also affected by Hurricane Cesar two years earlier. Mitch also affected 115 square miles of crop lands, causing damage to both export and domestic crops. In all, the hurricane caused $92,000,000 (1998 USD) and seven deaths across Costa Rica.

El Salvador

While drifting through El Salvador, Mitch dropped extreme amounts of precipitation, resulting in flash flooding and mudslides across the country. Also, multiple rivers, including the Río Grande de San Miguel and the Lempa River overflowed their banks, which contributed to the overall damage in the country of El Salvador. The flooding damaged around 10,000 homes, leaving around 59,000 people homeless, and also forced 500,000 people to evacuate. Crop damage across El Salvador was severe, with serious flooding occuring on 386 square miles of pasture or crop land. The flooding destroyed 37% of the bean production, 19% of the corn production, and 20% of the sugar cane production. Livestock in the country also suffered greatly from Hurricane Mitch, including the deaths of 10,000 cattle. Total agricultural and livestock damage amounted to $154,000,000 (1998 USD). In addition, the flooding brought by the hurricane destroyed two bridges and damaged 1,200 miles of unpaved roads. In all, Mitch caused nearly $400,000,000 (1998 USD) in damage and 240 deaths across El Salvador throughout its trek.

Guatemala

In Guatemala, Mitch's torrential rainfall caused flooding and mudslides, similar to other locations affected by the hurricane. The flooding destroyed 6,000 homes, damaging 20,000 others, displacing over 73,000 people and forcing the evacuations of over 100,000 people. In addition, the flooding destroyed 27 schools and damaged 286 others, 175 severely. The flooding caused major damage to crops, while landsildes destroyed crop land across the country of Guatemala. The most severely affected crops for domestic consumption were tomatoes, bananas, corn, other vegetables, and finally beans, with damage totaling to $48,000,000 (1998 USD). Expoert crops such as bananas or coffee were greatly damaged by Mitch, with damage totaling to $325,000,000 (1998 USD). Damage to plantations and soil totaled to $121,000,000 (1998 USD). The severe flooding also severely damaged the transportation infrastructure, including the loss of 37 bridges.

Across the country, flooding damaged or destroyed 840 miles of roads, of which nearly 400 miles were sections of major highways. In all, the hurricane caused $748,000,000 (1998 USD) in damage, as well as 268 deaths in Guatemala. In addition, Hurricane Mitch killed 11 people indirectly when a plane crashed during the storm.

Belize

In Belize, Mitch's effects were much less than originally feared, but it still managed to dump heavy rainfall on the country. Numerous rivers overflowed their banks, although the rainfall was beneficial to trees in the mountainous areas of the country. The flooding caused extensive crop damage as well as destroyed many roads in Belize. Throughout Belize, Mitch killed 11 people.

Mexico

Mitch produced heavy rainfall and gusty winds in the Yucatan Peninsula, with Cancún on the Quintana Roo coast being the worst hit by Mitch. Nine people were killed from flooding, although damage was relatively minimal. The maximum 24-hour rainfall total from Mitch in Mexico was 13.4 inches in Campeche, and the highest rainfall total for the storm in Mexico was 16.85 inches Ciudad del Carmen.

Florida

As Mitch struck Florida as a tropical storm, it produced a 4-foot storm surge in the lower Florida Keys before making landfall on Florida's west coast. Key West International Airport recorded peak wind gusts of 55 mph, and sustained winds of 40 mph. This was the only official report of tropical storm-force winds in the state as Mitch made landfall. In addition, Mitch produced moderate rainfall, peaking at 7 inches in Jupiter, although some estimates indicate localized rainfall totals reached 10 inches. Mitch spawned 5 tornadoes in Florida, of which the strongest was an F2. In the Florida Keys, multiple buildings that had been damaged by Hurricane Georges were leveled by Mitch. Tornadoes spawned from Mitch damaged or destroyed 645 homes throughout Florida, as well as injured 65 people. Gusty winds left 100,000 people without power after the storm. In all, total damage to Florida from Mitch $40,000,000 (1998 USD). Mitch killed two people when two boats capsized and the two people drowned.

Retirement

Because it was a catastrophic storm, the name Mitch was retired in the Spring of 1999 by the World Meteorological Organization. It was replaced with Matthew for the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season. It wasn't retired there after being used, and thus it is on the list of names to be used for the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.

See Also

1998 Atlantic hurricane season

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Mitch

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