We continue our look back on the stormy year of 1985 with a story on Hurricane Elena, which started out modestly in the Gulf of Mexico, but with no help from steering currents, stalled off the Gulf Coast of Florida for several days during the busy Labor Day Weekend of that year, and grew into a Category Three Hurricane.
The storm peaked at that intensity as it then came ashore over Biloxi, Mississippi with 125 mph winds. Elena, which only lasted some eight days in duration, caused enough mayhem along the Gulf Coasts of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi that it produced the largest peacetime evacuation in the United States at that time.
What is perhaps the most memorable about this particular storm is the erratic motion it had. The breakdown in steering currents at that time over the Gulf of Mexico caused the storm to first head east toward the West Florida Gulf Coast, then it meandered back and forth between the Central and Eastern Gulf Coasts for up to six days. The storm finally made up its mind and came ashore near Biloxi.
Hurricane Elena was not exactly your classic Cape Verde storm, but it did form during the peak period of the 1985 Atlantic Hurricane Season. The storm, which lasted only eight days, spent most of that time making up its mind on where to make landfall. As a result, the modest storm grew into a powerful major hurricane. The storm emerged as a tropical depression in the early morning hours of August 28th, 1985. The storm quickly became a tropical storm, the fifth of the 1985 season, by the late evening on the 28th with its winds increasing to 45 knots, or over 50 mph.
By late in the afternoon on August 29th, Elena had become a hurricane, the fourth of that particular season. Within 24 hours, Elena strengthened even further to a Category Two Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale with its maximum sustained winds increasing to 90 knots, or 105 mph while its pressure had steadily dropped from 994 mb, or 29.35 inches of Hg to 974 mb, or 28.76 inches of Hg. At this point, the storm appeared to be headed for a Florida West Coast landfall. Forecasts indicated at that time that the storm would probably make landfall near Tampa, cross the Florida Peninsula, and move into the Atlantic, where it could move up the East Coast.
However, the storm didn't cooperate. At the time, the storm was at minimal hurricane strength of 75 mph, and 994 mb pressure, Elena was located at 25.0N and 85.0W. Over the next 24 hours, it would retrograde to the West, and end up at 27.9N and 87.3W. This was the first of several oscillations in the Gulf for Elena. Being that it was over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which can range in temperature from 85 to 90 degrees, the storm now had plenty of opportunity to strengthen even more. And, it did as the storm gradually grew in intensity from 90 knots to 110 knots, or 125 mph on the early morning of September 2nd, 1985.
Elena, now a major hurricane, had by that time moved back to the east, and was threatening the Florida Gulf Coast again. However, the storm again teased forecasters and residents alike, and headed back west, this time settling on making landfall in the area of Biloxi, Mississippi on the morning of September 2nd. The storm was responsible for the largest peacetime evacuation in United States History by forcing some one million people to leave their homes. However, the evacuations spawned by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 would break that mark as some 3 million people from Florida to North Carolina fled in advance of that powerful storm. Estimated damages from the storm, which had its name retired, were around $1.3 billion dollars.
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Due to the breakdown in steering currents over the Gulf of Mexico, Elena meandered around in the Gulf for several days, which caused forecasters and emergency management personnel a great deal of headaches while giving Gulf Coast residents a great deal of worry. The storm moved across the Gulf several times before making landfall in Biloxi, which forced some Gulf Coast residents to evacuate more than once. This was one of the most erratic storms that I could remember next to Hurricane Gordon in November, 1994, and Hurricane Felix in August, 1995. Nearly one million people in low lying areas from New Orleans, Louisiana to Tampa, Florida were forced to flee.
In the West Coast area of Florida alone, some 300,000 residents were ordered to leave. The storm literally held coastal residents along the Gulf Coast hostage. Although the storm did not get any closer than 80 miles of Tampa, the storm did bring 40 to 50 mph winds, a six to seven foot storm surge, and destruction to about 250 homes while damaging many thousands more. Total damage was estimated to be approximately $213 million dollars. Meanwhile, next door in Alabama, winds were clocked as high as 132 miles per hour on Dauphin Island as the eye of the hurricane passed to within 30 miles of Mobile.
During this time, the Space Shuttle was in orbit, and it took some breathtaking photographs of Elena in the Gulf of Mexico as the storm peaked in intensity. As the steering currents around Elena fell apart, a frontal trough pushed the storm toward the Florida Panhandle and West Coast of Florida. As it appeared to be headed toward Tampa, the steering currents once again collapsed, and the storm this time looped around, and then made a beeline for the Mississippi coast.
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After meandering in the Gulf of Mexico for almost a week, Elena finally made up its mind, and headed toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Such places as Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pass Christian, which felt the fury of storms such as Hurricane Camille, one of three Category Five Hurricanes to make landfall in the United States, were now in the crosshairs. Elena, with winds as high as 125 mph, finally came ashore in Biloxi on September 2nd, 1985.
The storm left only four people dead, which is quite astonishing considering all the trouble people had to go through because of the twists and turns Elena made in the Gulf. Those types of situations can compel people to stay rather than leave, especially if they had already evacuated once before. The storm generated a surge ranging between 6 to 8 feet, and produced rainfall amounts in Alabama that ranged from 2.35 inches in Mobile to about 3.00 inches on Dauphin Island.
Damage from the storms consisted of people having damaged or lost roofs, and wall damage. Mobile homes were completely destroyed, and several shopping malls were seriously damaged with either collapsed roofs, or walls. Biloxi recorded sustained winds of 92 mph with a gust of 115 mph on the morning that Elena made landfall. Gulfport reported sustained winds of 60 mph, and a wind gust of 105 mph. Pascagoula also had similar sustained winds and gusts as Biloxi while Pensacola, Florida had sustained winds of 50 mph with gusts over 90 mph.
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