Looking Back At Hurricane Mitch
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In October, 1998, one of the most powerful, deadly, and catastrophic hurricanes of our time struck the Central American countries of Nicaragua and Honduras. Hurricane Mitch, which was a Category Five Hurricane with 180 mph winds, and a ton of heavy rain that was aggravated by the orographic lifting that takes place in the inner mountain regions of Honduras and Nicaragua.

What resulted was several feet of rain that produced flooding, raging rivers, and mudslides. The devastation that followed was tremendous as 9,000 people died in Honduras while another 2,000 died in Nicaragua. In addition, the economies of both countries plunged further into chaos, which has been difficult to get out of ever since.

Late Season Powerhouse

The year 1998 was a resurgent year for Atlantic Hurricanes. The previous hurricane season in 1997 only brought 7 named storms, 3 hurricanes, and 1 major hurricane. In addition, there were no tropical storms or hurricanes for the entire month of August, which last occurred in 1961. What was responsible for this was a powerful episode of the weather phenomena known as El Nino, which occurs when sea surface temperatures in the pacific warm up and trade wind patterns change.

The overall climate pattern is called ENSO, or the El Nino Southern Oscillation. This particular episode of the El Nino was perhaps the most powerful on record. So, the upper level wind patterns in the Atlantic were very hostile toward hurricane development in the summer of 1997. However, by the spring of 1998, there were signs that the El Nino was fading, and that a La Nina pattern was taking its place.

During La Nina, just about the exact opposite of what happens in an El Nino occurs. Sea surface temperatures in the Pacific become cooler, and upper level winds in the Atlantic become more favorable toward hurricane development. Consequently, by the height of the 1998 Hurricane Season, things began to pick up with Hurricane Georges rolling through the Caribbean before lashing Cuba, the Florida Keys, and Mississippi.

And, it didn't stop there. In Late October, 1998, a tropical disturbance developed in the still warm waters of the Southwestern Caribbean. The disturbance would persist and strengthen, and ultimately become the monster known as Hurricane Mitch. Since there weren't really any upper level steering currents to take Mitch out to sea, or move it quickly inland, it festered, and exploded into one of the most powerful storms in recent years.

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Rain From Mitch

People tend to forget about the powerful winds and low pressure that Mitch attained while stagnating off the coast of Central America during the last week of October, 1998. They were forgotten because of the fact that the tremendous rains associated with the storm over a short period of time caused the most devastation.

Mitch had winds well over Category Five strength at 180 mph while having one of the lowest barometric pressures recorded in a hurricane. Another thing that was quite amazing about this storm's strength was that usually when a storm of this size and power is stationary for a period of time, upwelling takes place. Upwelling is the raising of cooler water from below the surface of the ocean by a hurricane's strong waves and surge.

This upwelling causes sea surface temperatures to cool, and that hurts a hurricane's ability to survive and stay healthy. Nevertheless, the storm maintained itself, and for a period of several days, Mitch basically stayed in the same position. During the course of those 48 to 72 hours, approximately 3 to 6 feet of rain fell within the mountainous terrain of Honduras and Nicaragua.

This heavy rainfall led to tremendous flooding, raging rivers, and mudslides that ultimately killed about 11,000 people in these two countries. The combination of the stationary movement of the storm along with the orographic lifting that occurred caused tremendous amounts of moisture to be squeezed out in the form of a catastrophic deluge for Honduras and Nicaragua.

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Mitch's Aftermath

In the wake of Mitch, there were tremendous mudslides and floods that drowned and buried people in mud. Villages were completely wiped out. Survivors were left stranded by surrounding flood waters, and had to be rescued by air. Precious agricultural crops were destroyed, and just about wiped out both economies in Honduras and Nicaragua. A government official in one of the countries said that the disaster caused by Hurricane Mitch put the region some fifty years back economically.

Now, with an already relatively poor economic, social, and political infrastructure, Honduras and Nicaragua were dealt a very severe blow by Mitch, and are still recovering from it today. In the United States, the costs for such a storm would have been billions more than even Hurricane Andrew, but with better roads, communication, businesses, and overall economic, social, and political structure, the rebuilding process would not be as painful, and somewhat easier to recover from.

Of course, that doesn't make people still affected from Hurricane Andrew feel better, but we must realize that despite how bad things get, we are more capable to recover. Countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, and their neighbors in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America do not have that kind of luxury.

Their economic structures are more primitive, land use is poor, emergency management practices are below par, and the communication and travel infrastructure is not as sophisticated. Hopefully, people will realize this, and develop programs more tailored for these countries.

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