Hurricane Mitch

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Hurricane Mitch
Category 5 hurricane ( SSHS)
Hurricane Mitch at peak intensity

Hurricane Mitch at peak intensity
Formed October 22, 1998
Dissipated November 5, 1998
180 mph (290 km/h) (1-minute sustained)
Lowest pressure 905  mbar ( hPa)
Damage $5+ billion (1998 USD) $6–7 billion (2005 USD)
Fatalities 11,000–18,000 direct
(deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1780 hurricane)
Central America (particularly Honduras and Nicaragua), Yucatán Peninsula, South Florida
Part of the
1998 Atlantic hurricane season

Hurricane Mitch was one of the deadliest and most powerful hurricanes observed on record, with maximum sustained winds of 180  mph (290  km/h). The storm was the thirteenth tropical storm, ninth hurricane, and third major hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season. At the time, Mitch was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever observed in the month of October, though it has since been surpassed by Hurricane Wilma of the 2005 season. The hurricane also tied for the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, but it has since dropped to seventh.

Mitch formed in the western Caribbean Sea on October 22, and after drifting through extremely favorable conditions, it rapidly strengthened to peak at Category 5 status, the highest possible rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. After drifting southwestward and weakening, the hurricane hit Honduras as a minimal hurricane. It drifted through Central America, reformed in the Bay of Campeche, and ultimately struck Florida as a strong tropical storm.

Due to its slow motion from October 29 to November 3, Hurricane Mitch dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras and Nicaragua, with unofficial reports of up to 75 inches (1900 mm). Deaths due to catastrophic flooding made it the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history; nearly 11,000 people were killed with over 8,000 left missing by the end of 1998. The flooding caused extreme damage, estimated at over $5 billion (1998 USD, $6 billion 2005 USD).

Storm history

Storm path
Storm path

The origin of Hurricane Mitch can be traced to a tropical wave that moved off the coast of Africa on October 10. It moved westward across the shear-ridden Atlantic Ocean, and remained disorganized until entering the Caribbean Sea on October 18. Upon entering the western Caribbean Sea, convection steadily increased, and on October 22, the wave organized into Tropical Depression Thirteen while 415 miles (670 km) south of Kingston, Jamaica. Under weak steering currents, it drifted westward and intensified into a tropical storm on October 23 while 260 miles (420 km) east-southeast of San Andrés Island.

Initially, intensification was limited due to an upper-level low causing vertical wind shear over Tropical Storm Mitch. As the storm executed a small loop to the north, the shear weakened, allowing the system to strengthen. Mitch attained hurricane status on October 24 while 295 miles (475 km) south of Jamaica, and with warm water temperatures and well-defined outflow, the hurricane rapidly strengthened. During a 24-hour period from October 24 to the 25th, the central pressure dropped 52 mbar, and on October 26, Mitch reached peak intensity with 180 mph (290 km/h) winds and a pressure of 905 mbar, one of the lowest pressures ever recorded in an Atlantic hurricane.

Most intense Atlantic hurricanes
Intensity is measured solely by central pressure
Rank Hurricane Season Min. pressure
1 Wilma 2005 882 mbar ( hPa)
2 Gilbert 1988 888 mbar (hPa)
3 "Labor Day" 1935 892 mbar (hPa)
4 Rita 2005 895 mbar (hPa)
5 Allen 1980 899 mbar (hPa)
6 Katrina 2005 902 mbar (hPa)
7 Camille 1969 905 mbar (hPa)
Mitch 1998 905 mbar (hPa)
9 Ivan 2004 910 mbar (hPa)
10 Janet 1955 914 mbar (hPa)
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce
Mitch near peak intensity
Mitch near peak intensity

A ridge of high pressure forced the hurricane westward, resulting in land interaction with Honduras. This weakened Mitch slightly, and after passing over the Swan Islands on October 27, the hurricane steadily weakened. The ridge of high pressure built further, forcing the hurricane to drift southward along the Honduran coastline. Mitch made landfall 80 miles (130 km) east of La Ceiba in Honduras on October 29 as a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale with 80 mph (130 km/h) winds. It continued to weaken over land, drifting westward through Central America, and its low-level circulation dissipated on November 1 near the Guatemala-Mexico border.

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

The remnant area of low pressure drifted northward into the Bay of Campeche, and reorganized on November 3 into a tropical storm while 150 miles (240 km) southwest of Mérida, Yucatán. Mitch moved to the northeast, making landfall on the Yucatán Peninsula near Campeche on November 4. It weakened to a tropical depression over land, but restrengthened to a tropical storm over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. As Mitch accelerated to the northeast in association with a cold front, it gradually intensified, and made landfall near Naples, Florida on November 5 as a tropical storm with 65 mph (100 km/h) winds. Mitch became extratropical later that day, but it continued to persist for several days before losing its identity north of Great Britain on November 9.


While stalling over the western Caribbean Sea, Mitch's future was very uncertain, with the National Hurricane Centre advising citizens throughout the area to closely monitor the hurricane. Just 2 days before landfall, there remained a possibility for the hurricane to spare Honduras and hit Guatemala or Belize. Because of the uncertainty, government officials issued hurricane warnings from the Honduras/Nicaragua border to Belize from 2-3 days before landfall.

Due to the threat, the government of Honduras evacuated some of the 45,000 citizens on the Bay Islands and prepared all air and naval resources. The government of Belize issued a red alert and asked for citizens on offshore islands to leave for the mainland. Because the hurricane threatened to strike near Belize City as a Category 4 hurricane, much of the city was evacuated in fear of a repeat of Hurricane Hattie 37 years earlier. Guatemala issued a red alert as well, recommending boats to stay in port, telling people to prepare or seek shelter, and warning of potential overflown rivers. By the time Mitch made landfall, numerous people were evacuated along the western Caribbean coastline, including 100,000 in Honduras, 10,000 in Guatemala, and 20,000 in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.


Storm deaths by region
Region Direct deaths
Panama 3
Costa Rica 7
Jamaica 3
Nicaragua 3,800
Honduras 7,000
Guatemala 268
El Salvador 240
Belize 11
Mexico 9
United States 2
Offshore 31
Total ~11,000

Hurricane Mitch was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since the Great Hurricane of 1780, displacing the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 as the second-deadliest on record. Nearly eleven thousand people were confirmed dead, and almost as many reported missing. Deaths were mostly from flooding and mudslides in Central America, where the slow-moving hurricane and then tropical storm dropped nearly 3 feet (900  mm) of rain. The flooding and mudslides damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes, with total damage amounting to over $5 billion (1998 USD, $6 billion 2005 USD), most of which was in Honduras and Nicaragua. Prior to Mitch, the deadliest hurricane in Central America was Hurricane Fifi in 1974, which killed an estimated 8,000–10,000.


Damage in Tegucigalpa
Damage in Tegucigalpa

Prior to hitting Honduras, Hurricane Mitch sent waves of up to 22 feet (6.7 m) in height to the coast. Upon making landfall, it diminished in intensity, but still caused a strong storm surge and waves of 12 feet (3.7 m) in height. While the storm was drifting over the country, it dropped extreme rainfall peaking at nearly 36 inches (91 cm) in Choluteca, where over 18 inches (46 cm) of rain fell in one day. The rainfall in Choluteca was equivalent to the average rainfall total in 212 days. The Choluteca River at this point flooded to six times its normal width. The widespread flooding was partially caused by Honduras' slash and burn agriculture, so the forests could not absorb any moisture. In addition, there were estimates of as high as 75 inches (190 cm) in mountainous regions. The rainfall collected in rivers, causing extensive river flooding across the country. The deepest average depth was 12.5 meters on the Ulúa River near Chinda, while the average widest length was 359 meters on the Río Lean near Arizona. The rainfall also caused widespread mudslides across the mountainous country.

Mudslide in San Juancito
Mudslide in San Juancito

Mitch caused such massive and widespread damage that Honduran President Carlos Roberto Flores claimed it destroyed fifty years of progress in the country. Mitch destroyed about 70% of the crops, totalling to about $900 million (1998 USD, $1 billion 2005 USD) in losses. An estimated 70-80% of the transportation infrastructure of the entire country was wiped out, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads; the damage was so great that existing maps were rendered obsolete. About 25 small villages were reported to have been entirely destroyed by the landslides caused by the storm. Damages to the transportation and communication network totaled to $529 million (1998 USD, $671 million 2005 USD). Across the country, the storm destroyed 33,000 houses and damaged 50,000 others. In addition, it downed numerous trees, leaving mountainsides bare and more vulnerable to mudslides.

Overview of Tegucigalpa
Overview of Tegucigalpa

Mitch's rainfall resulted in severe crop losses in the country, affecting more than 300 sq. miles (800 km²) or 29% of the country's arable land. The flooding led to severe losses in food crops, including 58% of the corn output, 24% of sorghum, 14% of rice, and 6% of the bean crop. Several important export crops faced similar losses, including 85% of banana, 60% of sugar cane, 29% of melons, 28% of African palms, and 18% of coffee. Crop damage alone totaled to more than $1.7 billion (1998 USD, $1.97 billion 2005 USD). Large amounts of animal losses occurred as well, including the death of 50,000 bovines and the losses of 60% of the fowl population. Shrimp production, which had become an important export, faced nearly complete destruction. Total animal losses amounted to $300 million (1998 USD, $348 million 2005 USD).

The extreme flooding and mudslides killed over 6,500, with several thousand missing. Many of the unidentified were buried in mass graves, resulting in great uncertainty over the final death toll. 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 lack of sanitation led to outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever, and cholera.

On the offshore island of Guanaja, the hurricane spent three days stalling near the island. Strong winds destroyed one third of the island's houses and left most citizens without power for months. The island's two fish packing plants were damaged while two main resorts were closed. Guanaja, whose people rely on each other and the ocean, received little help from the Honduran government including some plastic tarps and soldiers. The government, which usually ignores the 9 mile long (14 km) island, faced larger problems on the mainland. Instead, international aid arrived from former Guanaja citizens.


Flooding in Lake Managua after the hurricane
Flooding in Lake Managua after the hurricane

Though Mitch never entered Nicaragua, its large circulation caused extensive rainfall, with estimates of over 50 inches (127 cm). In some places, as much as 25 inches (64 cm) of rain fell on coastal areas. The crater lake in the Casita volcano overflowed from excessive rain. This caused its walls to collapse, resulting in a mudslide that ultimately covered an area 10 miles (16 km) long and 5 miles (8 km) wide.

Two million people in Nicaragua were directly affected by the hurricane. Across the country, Mitch's heavy rains damaged 17,600 houses and destroyed 23,900, displacing 368,300 of the population. 340 schools and 90 health centers were severely damaged or destroyed. Sewage systems and the electricity subsector were severely damaged, and, combined with property, damage totaled to $300 million (1998 USD, $348 million 2005 USD).

Casita volcano after deadly mudslide
Casita volcano after deadly mudslide

Transportation was greatly affected by the hurricane, as well. The rainfall left 70% of the roads unusable and destroyed or greatly damaged 71 bridges. Over 1,700 miles (2700 km) of highways or access roads needed replacement subsequent to the storm, especially in the northern part of the country and along portions of the Pan-American Highway. Total transportation damage amounted to $300 million (1998 USD, $348 million 2005 USD). Agricultural losses were significant, including the deaths of 50,000 animals, mostly bovines. Crops and fisheries were affected greatly as well, and, combined with agricultural losses, damage totaled to $185 million (1998 USD, $214 million 2005 USD).

The situation was further compounded by a total of 75,000 live land mines — left over from the Contra insurgency of the 1980s — that were calculated to have been uprooted and relocated by the floodwaters.

In all, Hurricane Mitch caused at least 3,800 fatalities in Nicaragua, of which more than 2,000 were killed from the mudslide at the Casitas volcano. The mudslide buried at least four villages completely in several feet of mud. Throughout the entire country, the hurricane left between 500,000 and 800,000 homeless. In all, damage in Nicaragua is estimated at around $1 billion (1998 USD, $1.16 billion 2005 USD).

Caribbean 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 ( ISBN 0-07-135526-X). The ship, which was sailing in the centre of the hurricane, experienced up to 50 foot (15 m) waves and over 100 mph (160 km/h) winds, causing the Fantome to sink off the coast of Honduras.

On the south coast of Cuba, the hurricane caused waves of up to 13 feet (4 m) high and winds gusts peaking at 42 mph (67 km/h), causing numerous tourists and workers on the Isle of Youth and Cayo Largo del Sur to leave for safer grounds.

In Jamaica, where officials declared hurricane warnings 12 hours prior to its closest approach, Mitch caused moderate rainfall and gusty winds for days. Strong waves hit western Jamaica, with wave heights unofficially estimated at nearly 7 feet (2 m) in height. The rainfall in outer rainbands, at times severe, flooded many roads across the island and left them covered with debris. One house in Spanish Town collapsed from the flooding, leaving four homeless. Many other homes and buildings were flooded, forcing many to evacuate. A river in northeastern Jamaica overflowed its banks, while heavy rainfall across the mountainous parts of the country caused numerous mudslides. In all, Mitch killed three people on Jamaica.

On the Cayman Islands, the hurricane caused strong waves, gusty winds, and heavy rainfall at times. Damage was relatively minimal, amounting to blown out windows and beach erosion. Strong waves damaged or destroyed many docks on the south shore of the islands, and also sank one dive ship near Grand Cayman. In addition, numerous incoming and outgoing flights were cancelled.

Rest of Latin and Central America

Deadliest Atlantic hurricanes
Rank Hurricane Season Fatalities
1 "Great Hurricane" 1780 22,000
2 Mitch 1998 11,000 – 18,000
3 "Galveston" 1900 8,000 – 12,000
4 Fifi 1974 8,000 – 10,000
5 "Dominican Republic" 1930 2,000 – 8,000
Main article: List of deadliest Atlantic hurricanes

Due to Mitch's large circulation, it dropped heavy precipitation as far south as Panama, especially in the Darién and Chiriquí provinces. The flooding washed away a few roads and bridges, and damaged numerous houses and schools, leaving thousands homeless. The hurricane left three casualties in Panama.

In Costa Rica, Mitch dropped heavy rains, causing flash flooding and mudslides across the country, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. The storm impacted 2,135 homes to some degree, of which 242 were destroyed, leaving 4,000 homeless. Throughout the country, the rainfall and mudslides affected 126 bridges and 800 miles (1300 km) or roads, mostly on the Inter-American Highway which was affected by Hurricane Cesar, two years prior. Mitch affected 115 sq. miles (300 km²) of crop lands, causing damage to both export and domestic crops. In all, Hurricane Mitch caused $92 million in damage (1998 USD, $107 million 2005 USD) and seven deaths.

While drifting through El Salvador, the hurricane dropped immense amounts of precipitation, resulting in flash flooding and mudslides through the country. Multiple rivers, including the Río Grande de San Miguel and the Lempa River overflowed, contributing to overall damage. The flooding damaged more than 10,000 houses, leaving around 59,000 homeless and forcing 500,000 to evacuate. Crop damage was severe, with serious flooding occurring on 386 sq. miles (1000 km²) of pasture or crop land. The flooding destroyed 37% of the bean production, 19% of the corn production, and 20% losses in sugar canes. There were heavy losses in livestock as well, including the deaths of 10,000 cattle. Total agricultural and livestock damaged amounted to $154 million (1998 USD, $176 million 2005 USD). In addition, the flooding destroyed two bridges and damaged 1,200 miles (2000 km) of unpaved roads. In all, Mitch caused nearly $400 million in damage (1998 USD, $464 million 2005 USD) and 240 deaths.

Similar to the rest of Central America, Mitch's heavy rains caused mudslides and severe flooding over Guatemala. The flooding destroyed 6,000 houses and damaged 20,000 others, displacing over 730,000 and forcing over 100,000 to evacuate. In addition, the flooding destroyed 27 schools and damaged 286 others, 175 severely. Flooding caused major damage to crops, while landslides destroyed crop land across the country. The most severely affected crops for domestic consumption were tomatoes, bananas, corn, other vegetables, and beans, with damaged totaling to $48 million (1998 USD, $52 million 2005 USD). Export crops such as bananas or coffee were greatly damaged as well, with damage amounting to $325 million (1998 USD, $375 million 2005 USD). Damage to plantations and soil totaled to $121 million (1998 USD, $140 million 2005 USD). The flooding also caused severe damage to the transportation infrastructure, including the loss of 37 bridges. Across the country, flooding damaged or destroyed 840 miles (1350 km) or roads, of which nearly 400 miles (640 km) were sections of major highways. In all, Hurricane Mitch caused $748 million (1998 USD, $867 million 2005 USD) and 268 deaths in Guatemala. In addition, Mitch caused 11 indirect deaths when a plane crashed during the storm.

In Belize, the hurricane was less severe than initially predicted, though Mitch still caused heavy rainfall across the country. Numerous rivers exceeded their crests, though the rainfall was benefical to trees in mountainous areas. The flooding caused extensive crop damage and destroyed many roads. Throughout the country, eleven people died because of the hurricane.

Rainfall totals in Mexico and Florida
Rainfall totals in Mexico and Florida

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


Then a tropical storm, Mitch caused a storm surge of up to four feet in the lower Florida Keys before making landfall on the Florida west coast. Key West International Airport reported peak wind gusts of 55 mph (89 km/h) )and sustained winds of 40 mph (64 km/h), the only report of tropical storm force in the state. In addition, Mitch caused moderate rainfall, peaking at seven inches (18 cm) in Jupiter, though some estimates indicate localized totals of up to 10 inches (25 cm). The storm spawned five tornadoes over the state, 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 from the storm damaged or destroyed 645 houses across the state, as well as injuring 65 people. Gusty winds left 100,000 without power during the storm's passage. In all, Mitch caused $40 million in damage (1998 USD, $46 million 2005 USD) in Florida and two deaths from drowning when two boats capsized.


Cleanup in Tegucigalpa
Cleanup in Tegucigalpa

After the disaster caused by Hurricane Mitch, countries around the world donated significant aid, including $6.3 billion (1998 USD, $7.3 billion 2005 USD). Throughout Central America, which was recovering from an economic crisis that occurred in 1996, many wished to continue the growth of the infrastructure and economy. In addition, after witnessing the vulnerability to hurricanes, the affected governments endeavored to prevent such a disaster from occurring again.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, but many took this as an opportunity to rebuild stronger houses. With a new, structually improved foundation, homes were redesigned to be able to withstand another hurricane. However, lack of arable crop land took away the jobs from many, decreasing an already low income even lower.

Following the passage of Mitch, disease outbreaks occurred throughout Central America, including cholera, leptospirosis, and dengue fever. Over 2,328 cases of cholera were reported, killing 34 people. Guatemala was most affected by the virus, where most of the deaths occurred from contaminated food. 450 cases of leptospirosis were reported in Nicaragua, killing seven people. There were over 1,357 cases of dengue reported, though no deaths were reported from the disease.

The run-off from Mitch on November 1
The run-off from Mitch on November 1

While stalling over the western Caribbean Sea, Mitch's strong winds produced strong waves, damaging local coral reefs. Later, the storm's immense rainfall led to runoff polluted with debris and fresh water. This resulted in diseases occurring within the coral. However, the hurricane's upwelling cooled the warm water temperatures, preventing significant bleaching and destruction of the coral reef.

Honduras, the country most affected by the hurricane, received significant aid for the millions impacted by the hurricane. Mexico quickly gave help, sending 700 tons of food, 11 tons of medicine, four rescue planes, rescue personnel, and trained search dogs. Cuba also volunteered, sending a contingent of physicians to the country. The U.S. administration offered at first troops stationed in Honduras, and then withdrew them a few days after the storm. They also at first offered only $2 million (1998 USD, $2.3 million 2005 USD) in aid, which came as a shock to residents, and president Carlos Roberto Flores alike. The U.S. later increased their offer to $70 million (1998 USD, $81 million 2005 USD). The Honduran government distributed food, water, and medical services to the hurricane victims, including the more than 4 million without water. In addition, the country initially experienced a sharp increase in the unemployment rate, largely due to the destruction of crop lands. However, rebuilding provided jobs in the following years. In Costa Rica, reconstruction after the hurricane increased the number of jobs by 5.9%, lowering the unemployment rate slightly.


Because of the hurricane's destruction in Central America and elsewhere in North America, the World Meteorological Organization retired the name Mitch in the spring of 1999; it will never again be used for an Atlantic hurricane. The name was replaced with Matthew in the 2004 season.

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