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Florida Hurricanes in 1998

The year 1998 saw some action in Florida. Lots of wind and rain. Key West in the Florida Keys got smacked by one hurricane; the Florida Panhandle by another. In between was a tropical storm that crossed South Florida. It seems like 1998 was the "gearing up" year, that would give us a taste of what would come several years later.

To give us a run-down on all the storms that brushed Florida -- where they started, what paths did they take and so on -- I'm pleased to present the following article by Bruce Supranowicz. There's a lot of fascinating information here for weather-watchers!

The three storms in this article are: Earl, Georges and Mitch.

Hurricane Earl

Earl was the first storm to affect Florida in 1998. It originated over the southwest Gulf of Mexico on August 31 as a tropical depression. Just hours later, it strengthened into a tropical storm as it moved slowly northward.

The next day, Earl veered towards the northeast and achieved hurricane status on September 2 when it was about 175 miles south-southeast of New Orleans. By that time, the hurricane was moving in a general east-northeasterly direction, towards the Florida panhandle. Earl peaked at 100 MPH while well south of the coast of Mississippi but started to weaken slowly thereafter as it started to move faster towards the panhandle.

Hurricane Earl's center came ashore just west of Panama City early on September 3, with 80-MPH sustained winds and a storm surge to its east, along with heavy rain. Some power outages caused by falling trees occurred. Earl started to weaken and became a tropical storm after moving inland. It maintained tropical storm status however, as it moved over the southeastern U.S before exiting the U.S. just north of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Hurricane Georges - A Cape Verde Storm

Georges was a classic Cape Verde storm. It originated on September 15 as a tropical depression, about 350 miles south of the southernmost Cape Verde islands in the far eastern tropical Atlantic.

Guided by a strong ridge to the north, this system moved steadily west-northwestward for many days as it intensified. By September 17, Georges had become a hurricane and by September 19, a major hurricane. By that time, it was about 500 miles east of the Lesser Antillies, still moving towards the west-northwest.

Georges peaked at 155 MPH, just short of category 5 status, on September 20 as it approached the northern Leeward Islands. Georges started to weaken slowly thereafter and hit the northern Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands as a category 3 hurricane as it approached Puerto Rico. The hurricane’s center moved ashore over the southwestern part of Puerto Rico as a category 2 hurricane and moved towards the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Georges moved over those two countries, but the high mountains there disrupted the storm, and by the time it exited Haiti, it was a minimal 75-MPH hurricane. At that time, it was about to enter eastern Cuba, and it was uncertain whether Georges would remain over inland Cuba, move along the southern coast of Cuba or along the northern coast of Cuba, all of which could alter the future intensity and final U.S. landfall.

Hurricane Georges came ashore over eastern Cuba and after several hours of uncertainty, emerged over the northeast coast of Cuba, which increased the threat to Florida. For a day or so, as it rode along the northern coast of Cuba on a west-northwesterly heading, Georges remained a minimal hurricane due to its proximity to Cuba. By early September 24, Georges had begun to pull away from the north Cuban coast and started to intensify. It headed towards the lower Florida Keys, directly towards Key West, and hit that city on September 25 with winds of 105 MPH.

The Florida Keys were hard-hit, especially the lower Keys, while the upper Keys also received heavy rain and strong winds. The South Florida mainland received gusty winds and occasional squalls, but the brunt of the damage was in the lower Keys. After moving away from the Florida Keys, Georges eventually hit the Mississippi coast as a category 2 hurricane on September 28, before weakening and moving generally eastward.

Mitch -- Which Way Would He Go?

Mitch first appeared as a tropical depression which developed in the southwestern Caribbean Sea, off the northwest coast of Columbia, on October 22. It drifted towards the north and intensified steadily.

By October 24, it had reached hurricane status and appeared to be aiming at Cuba. Mitch turned towards the west however, and continued to get stronger. By October 26, it had become a category 5 hurricane and continued to drift very slowly westward in the northwestern Caribbean Sea.

Hurricane Mitch reached an incredible 180 MPH in sustained winds late that day but due to upwelling of cooler water beneath the surface, started to weaken. Mitch was still a borderline category 4/5 hurricane when it turned towards the southwest, then veered more towards the south. This put Honduras in the greatest danger and Mitch, still weakening and moving very slowly, came ashore on the northern Honduras coast late on October 28 as a category 2 hurricane.

Although the mountains of Central America continued to weaken Mitch, it dumped extensive amounts of rain in that area, mostly in Honduras, which resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. The hurricane weakened to a tropical storm as it turned towards the west while still over Honduras, and moved into southern Guatamala. By that time, Mitch had weakened further into a tropical depression, and it appeared as it would dissipate entirely or move into the eastern Pacific on the west side of Central America and possible regenerate there.

But Mitch, with ideas of its own, instead veered towards the northwest, then the north-northwest, towards the Bay of Campeche, adjacent to the southwest Gulf of Mexico. Mitch barely clung to depression status for a day or so. It held together somehow despite its long trek over land, and emerged into the southern Bay of Campeche on November 3. At that time, Mitch sprung another surprise and turned towards the northeast. The warm water in the Bay of Campeche revived it some, and Mitch regained tropical storm status as it reached the northwest part of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Although Mitch weakened into a tropical depression again as it crossed land, it wasn’t far from the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and moved back over the open water of the southern Gulf of Mexico on November 4, still moving towards the northeast. Mitch strengthened back into a tropical storm as it accelerated in forward speed and veered slightly towards the east-northeast.

On November 5, Mitch, with 60-MPH winds, crossed the southwest Florida coast between Naples and Fort Myers. The tropical storm crossed the state while maintaining its intensity, possibly due to the moisture-laden areas of the Everglades, and exited the state near West Palm Beach about nine or ten hours later. Mitch brought rain squalls to much of South Florida and, after leaving the state, continued out into the open Atlantic, a threat only to shipping.

Wow -- that's some write-up! Thanks a bunch, Bruce, and you can check out more of his "storm stories" on the Articles page.

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