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Preliminary Report
Hurricane Earl
31 August - 3 September 1998

Max Mayfield
National Hurricane Center
17 November 1998

Tropical Storm Alex
Hurricane Bonnie
Tropical Storm Charley
Hurricane Danielle
Hurricane Earl
Tropical Storm Frances
Hurricane Georges
Tropical Storm Hermine
Hurricane Ivan
Hurricane Jeanne
Hurricane Karl
Hurricane Lisa
Hurricane Mitch
Hurricane Nicole

[1998 Atlantic Hurricane Season]

Earl made landfall on the Florida panhandle as a category 1 hurricane on the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale (SSHS), resulting in significant storm surge flooding in the "Big Bend" area of Florida.

a. Synoptic History

Hurricane Earl formed from a strong tropical wave that emerged from the west coast of Africa on 17 August. Persistent convection accompanied the wave as it moved westward across the tropical Atlantic. A weak surface cyclonic circulation was suggested in animation of satellite imagery, as well as in limited aircraft reconnaissance and island reports as the system passed through the Lesser Antilles on 23 August. Tropical cyclone development appears to have been inhibited while the system moved through the Caribbean by unfavorable winds aloft. These unfavorable conditions were a result of the upper-level outflow from large and powerful Hurricane Bonnie located over the southwest North Atlantic and moving toward the North Carolina coast. Nevertheless, the tropical wave continued to be easily tracked in satellite imagery as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico where cloudiness and thunderstorms increased. The post-analysis "best track" in Figure 1 (39K GIF) shows that the system became a tropical depression over the southwest Gulf of Mexico midway between Merida and Tampico, Mexico at 1200 UTC 31 August. Best track position, central pressure and maximum one-minute sustained wind speed are listed for every six hours in Table 1.

The tropical depression became Tropical Storm Earl while centered about 500 n mi south-southwest of New Orleans, Louisiana near 1800 UTC 31 August based on aircraft reconnaissance data. The center remained difficult to locate by satellite, and, in fact, multiple centers were reported by aircraft reconnaissance for the next couple of days. Occasionally, a new center would appear to form which made tracking extremely difficult. Although the best track shown in Figure 1 (39K GIF) indicates a general motion toward the north and then northeast near 10 knots while Earl was over the Gulf of Mexico, a certain amount of "smoothing" was necessary to account for the multiple centers and any possible center reformations.

Based on aircraft reconnaissance data, Earl is estimated to have reached hurricane status at 1200 UTC 2 September while centered about 125 n mi south-southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. The system never exhibited a classical hurricane appearance. Instead, satellite imagery showed the deepest convection confined primarily to the eastern quadrants of the circulation and aircraft reconnaissance data indicated a very asymmetric wind field with the strongest winds located well east and southeast of the center.

After briefly reaching category 2 status on the SSHS, Earl made landfall near Panama City, Florida as a category 1 hurricane near 0600 UTC 3 September. The strongest winds remained well to the east and southeast of the center which resulted in the highest storm surge values in the Big Bend area of Florida, well away from the center. The tropical cyclone weakened to below hurricane strength soon after making landfall, and became extratropical at 1800 UTC 3 September while moving northeastward through Georgia. The deepest convection became well removed from the center by this time and the strongest winds were located over the Atlantic waters off the U.S. southeast coast. The extratropical cyclone moved off the mid Atlantic coast near 1800 UTC 4 September, crossed over Newfoundland on 6 September and was tracked across the North Atlantic until being absorbed by a larger extratropical cyclone (formerly Hurricane Danielle) on 8 September.

b. Meteorological Statistics

Figures 2 (13K GIF) and 3 (14K GIF) show the curves of minimum central sea-level pressure and maximum one-minute surface wind speed, respectively, as a function of time. The observations on which the curves are based are also plotted and consist of aircraft reconnaissance data and Dvorak-technique estimates using satellite imagery, as well as synoptic "fixes" from surface data after landfall.

The operational aircraft reconnaissance flights into Earl were provided by the U.S. Air Force Reserves. The minimum central pressure reported by aircraft was 985 mb at 0045 UTC 3 September. This minimum pressure was measured by dropsonde and was the lowest pressure reported during Earl's existence. The maximum winds of 104 knots from a flight level of 850 mb (near 5,000 feet) were measured at 1638 UTC 2 September. These peak winds were in a limited area about 80 n mi east of the center. The Hurricane Hunters never reported an eyewall. Reconnaissance data and land-based radar presentations suggest the hurricane weakened before moving onshore.

Satellite estimates underestimated the intensity of Earl, likely due to the fact that Earl never exhibited a classical tropical cyclone pattern. For example, the maximum winds estimated from the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch (TAFB), the tropical branch of the Air Force Weather Agency (AFGWC in figures) and the Synoptic Analysis Branch (SAB) were 55 knots, 55 knots and 45 knots, respectively.

The WSR-88D (Weather Surveillance Radar - 1988 Doppler) at Slidell, Louisiana, Mobile, Alabama, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and Tallahassee, Florida were helpful in locating the center and areas of strongest winds aloft as the cyclone moved near shore.

As is often the case in landfalling hurricanes, there were no reports from land stations of sustained hurricane force winds in Earl. Table 2 lists selected U.S. surface observations. The NOAA C-MAN station at Cape San Blas (near Apalachicola, Florida) reported 10-minute sustained winds of 48 knots between 0400 and 0500 UTC and gusts to 61 knots at 0436 UTC 3 September. The strongest winds at the time of landfall likely remained over water near the Big Bend area of Florida.

Several wind reports from north Florida were relayed to the NHC through amateur radio volunteers. The highest measured wind gust was 79 knots at an elevation of 33 feet from a Davis wind instrument located in the middle of St. George Island at 29.40N 84.53W at 0102 UTC 3 September. Although these measurements are very much desired to supplement the more official observations, they will not be listed in Table 2 unless their accuracy can be verified.

Storm surge was estimated to be near 8 feet in Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor Counties and approximately 6 to 7 feet in Dixie County. These values tapered off to between 2 to 3 feet in Lee County.

Rainfall totals of three to six inches were common near the path of Earl, although much higher amounts were recorded in a few areas. A storm total of 16.38 inches near Panama City, Florida, was the highest reported.

Several tornadoes were reported in central and north Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

A rather extensive sampling of the Gulf of Mexico with GPS dropwindsondes by the NOAA jet, centered around 0000 UTC 2 September, showed a mid-level trough extending into the central Gulf which provided the steering currents that moved Earl northeastward into the Florida panhandle.

c. Casualty and Damage Statistics

Hurricane Earl was directly responsible for three deaths. Two deaths occurred as a result of a boat being capsized off Panama City. One death occurred as a result of a tornado near St. Helena, South Carolina.

The Property Claim Services Division of the American Insurance Services Group estimates that Earl caused insured property damage of $ 15 million in Florida, $ 1 million in Georgia, and $ 2 million in South Carolina. These estimates do not include storm surge damage. In addition, the National Flood Insurance Program reported $21.5 million of insured (storm surge related) losses in Florida. A conservative ratio between total damage and insured property damage, compared to past landfalling hurricanes, is two to one. Therefore, the total U.S. damage estimate is $ 79 million.

d. Forecast and Warning Critique

Several forecast difficulties were encountered during the life of Earl. As already stated, the center was very difficult to locate by satellite and aircraft reconnaissance continued to report multiple centers. Various computer models showed more than the usual scatter in track forecasts. For example, the 72 hour model forecasts initiated about a day and a half before landfall predicted that the center would be located anywhere from the northwest Gulf of Mexico (Navy NOGAPS), to northern Arkansas (BAMD), to northern Mississippi (GFDL), to over the Atlantic southeast of Cape Cod (LBAR). In addition, 36 hours before landfall, most computer models incorrectly showed a landfall somewhere in Louisiana. The BAMD, BAMM and the GFDI (interpolated version of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model) provided the best guidance in terms of the lowest average track forecast errors at 48 hours.

During Earl's life as a tropical storm or hurricane, the average official track forecast errors were 84 n mi at 12 hours (10 cases), 156 n mi at 24 hours (8 cases), 261 n mi at 36 hours (8 cases) and 296 n mi at 48 hours (4 cases). These errors are considerably larger than the previous ten-year averages of the official track errors.

The NHC intensity forecasts showed a negative bias (i.e., intensity was underestimated), but most NHC intensity forecast errors were 15 knots or less prior to landfall. Initial intensity forecasts correctly indicated that Earl would strengthen into a hurricane.

Table 3 lists the various watches and warnings that were issued. Since the NHC forecasts are based, in part, on the computer guidance, hurricane warnings were not issued with as much lead time as the NHC desires. Fortunately, appropriate preparations appear to have been completed anyway.


Some of the information in this report was provided by NWS offices in the Southern Region and is greatly appreciated.

Table 1. Best track, Hurricane Earl, 31 August - 3 September, 1998.
Position Pressure
Wind Speed
Lat. (°N)Lon. (°W)
31/120021.693.5100530tropical depression
180022.493.8100235tropical storm
120031.384.099045tropical storm
1800     absorbed by a larger extratropical low
03/000029.486.898580minimum pressure
03/060030.185.798770 landfall near Panama City, Florida

Table 2. Hurricane Earl selected surface observations, September 1998.
Maximum surface wind speed
(kts) a
gust (kts)
(storm total)
New Orleans
International Arpt
1003.702/22512531 02/1658  0.24
New Orleans
Lakefront Arpt
1003.402/22582932 02/1658  0.31
Slidell  212702/2112   2.51
California Bay      5.3  
Lake Pontchartrain
Industrial Canal
Lake Borgne
Bayou Bienvenue
Pascagoula Trent
Lott Arpt
1002.402/22322129 02/2014  1.08
Gulfport  232902/1846    
Bay St Louis        4.24
Mobile Regional Arpt1002.703/0011232802/1913   2.45
Mobile Brookley Field1002.403/0028243102/2120   1.32
Evergreen1002.003/075518182403/0223   0.07
Mobile State
Little Dauphin Island Bay       2.6 
Bayou La Batre       2.7 
Fairhope Agricultural Stn   26 02/2200  2.17
Grand Bay
Agricultural Stn
   32 03/2033  2.24
Seemes Agricultural Stn   16 01/1913  1.69
Tillmans Corner        6.90
Dothan Airport994.203/0919223103/0528   5.36
Regional Arpt
998.303/0100324903/0047   3.06
Pensacola Naval
Air Station
997.602/23563243 02/1800  2.81
Crestview995.603/06013547 03/0424  6.03
Destin994.203/061030304103/0222   2.50
Hurlburt Field
994.903/0527314403/0426   5.45
Eglin AFB997.603/0655 3803/0354   6.31
Whiting Field (Milton)1000.003/06002337 03/0300  2.22
Panama City-Bay City International Arpt987.103/072536 4603/0612  12.46
Panama City
(5 mi northeast)
Municipal Arpt
990.503/10043242 03/1002  5.96
Tallahassee Regional Arpt989.503/10052940 03/0959  5.41
Perry-Foley Arpt996.603/1026243203/0432   4.40
Cross City Arpt999.003/0700192602/2232   4.27
Shell Point   5103/0310    
FSU Dept. of Meteorology   42 03/1020  5.25
Turkey Point DARDC  3857 03/1000   
Brooksville (BKV)1003.703/0306324103/1136   3.00
New Port Richey (RRF)1004.403/0246294003/1103   3.07
Clearwater Tide Gauge  26 03/0750    
St Petersburg/
Clearwater (PIE)
1005.103/07312239 03/1550  1.62
St Petersburg (PIE)
Uncommissioned ASOS
1004.103/024833 3903/0323   
St Petersburg (SPG)  3441 03/0322   
St Petersburg Pier  213303/0700    
Tampa Airport (TPA)1004.103/0252323903/1108   0.87
MacDill AFB (MCF)1008.503/0239243403/1330   1.41
Old Port Tampa  233803/1330    
Sunshine Skyway  334203/1730    
Winter Haven (GIF)1006.403/0519283403/1303   0.46
Lakeland (LAL)1006.903/1050102803/0500    
Sarasota/Bradenton Arpt (SRQ)1004.403/025232 4103/1205   
Lido Key Tide Gauge  26 03/0750    
Punta Gorda (PGD)1007.503/0509232903/1316   0.06
Fort Myers (FMY)1007.503/0507232903/1246   0.40
Regional Southwest Arpt (RSW)1007.103/04552329 03/1238  0.02
Inverness        1.40
Ruskin (TBW)        0.73
Escambia County      2-3e  
Santa Rosa County      3e  
Okaloosa County      4e  
Franklin County      8e  
Wakulla County      8e  
Jefferson County      8e  
Taylor County      8e  
Dixie County      6-7e  
Levy County       5-7e 
Citrus County       4-5e 
Hernando County       3-4.5e 
Pasco County       3-4.5e 
Pinellas County       3-4.5e 
Hillsborough County       3-4.5e 
Manatee County       3-4.5e 
Sarasota County       2-3e 
Charlotte County       2-3e 
Lee County       2-3e 
C-MAN Stations
Grand Isle (GDIL1)1002.402/1600314002/1100 4.1  
Dauphin Island (DPIA1)1001.102/22003847 02/1900   
Cape San Blas (CSBF1)991.003/050048f 6103/0500   
Cedar Key
1001.903/07003747 03/0900   
Venice (VENF1)1007.003/0800303603/0500    
Keaton Beach
998.303/110041f 5503/1200   
NOAA Buoys
42001998.902/100037f52 01/1000   
420071000.502/22003037 02/1700   
420031002.203/100035f45 02/1700   

a Standard NWS ASOS and C-MAN averaging period is 2 min; buoys are 8 min.

b Date/time is for sustained wind when both sustained and gust are listed.

c Storm surge is water height above normal astronomical tide level.

d Storm tide is water height above NGVD.

e Estimated.

f 10 min averaged wind

Table 3. Watch and warning summary, Hurricane Earl, September 1998.
01/2100hurricane warning issued Pascagoula, MS to Cameron, LA
hurricane watch issuedeast of Pascagoula, MS to Destin, FL
hurricane watch issuedwest of Cameron, LA to High Island, TX
02/0300tropical storm warning issued east of Pascagoula, MS to Destin, FL
02/0900hurricane watch and warning discontinued west of Morgan City, LA
hurricane warning extended eastwardPascagoula, MS to Destin, FL
tropical storm warning issuedeast of Destin, FL to Apalachicola, FL
tropical storm watch issuedwest of Morgan City, LA to Cameron, LA
02/1300hurricane warning extended eastward Destin, FL to mouth of the Suwannee River, FL
watches and warning discontinuedwest of Pascagoula, MS
tropical storm warning issued south of the mouth of the Suwannee River, FL to the Anclote Keys, FL
02/1700 hurricane watch and tropical storm warning west of Pascagoula, MS to Grand Isle, LA including New Orleans
03/0300watches and warnings discontinued west of the AL/FL state line
03/0900hurricane warning discontinued Panama City, FL westward
03/1500hurricane and tropical storm warnings discontinued remainder of Gulf coast

Jack Beven

Last updated April 29, 1999