Mitch is responsible for over nine thousand deaths predominately from rain-induced flooding in
portions of Central America, mainly in Honduras and Nicaragua. This makes Mitch one of the deadliest Atlantic
tropical cyclones in history, ranking only below the 1780 "Great Hurricane" in the Lesser
Antilles, and comparable to the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and Hurricane Fifi of 1974, which primarily affected Honduras.
The 905 mb minimum central pressure and estimated maximum sustained wind speed of 155 knots over the
western Caribbean make Mitch the strongest October hurricane (records began in 1886).
Mitch moved across the Yucatan Peninsula and southern Florida as a
a. Synoptic History
The origins of Mitch can be traced back to a tropical wave
that moved across the southern portion of west Africa on 8/9 October. Rawinsonde data from Abidjan, Cote D' Ivorie,
ocated about 980 n mi southeast of Dakar, suggests that the wave had passed through the region around 8 October. The wave
crossed the west coast of Africa, generally south of 15 North, on 10 October. The wave progressed across the
tropical Atlantic for the next seven days with west-southwesterly upper-level winds preventing significant
After moving through the eastern Caribbean Sea on the 18th and 19th, satellite pictures showed
an organizing cloud pattern over the south-central Caribbean Sea on the 20th. Shower and thunderstorm
activity continued to become better organized in the southwest Caribbean Sea early on the 21st. Subsequently,
U.S. Air Force Reserve (USAFR) reconnaissance aircraft
to investigate the disturbance that afternoon and found winds of 39 knots at the 1500-foot flight level,
and a central pressure of 1001 mb. On this basis, the system became a tropical depression
at 0000 UTC 22 October, about 360 n mi south of Kingston, Jamaica - see Figs. 1a (48K GIF)
and 1b (27K GIF), and Table 1 for the
"best track". The depression moved slowly westward and strengthened to a tropical storm later
that day, about 225 n mi east-southeast of San Andres Island, while moving in a cyclonic loop. By the 23rd, the
intensification of Mitch was disrupted by westerly vertical wind shear associated with an upper-level low north-northwest
of the tropical cyclone. Later on the 23th, the upper low weakened, the shear diminished, and Mitch
began to strengthen while moving slowly northward.
Mitch became a hurricane at 0600 UTC 24 October while located about 255 n mi south-southwest of Kingston, Jamaica.
Later that day, as it turned toward the west, Mitch began a period of rapid
intensification. During a 24 hour period beginning on the afternoon of the 24th, its central pressure dropped 52
mb, to 924 mb. With a symmetric, well-established upper-tropospheric outflow pattern evident on satellite
imagery, the hurricane continued to strengthen. On the afternoon of the 26th, the central pressure reached a
minimum of 905 mb, while the cyclone was centered about 50 n mi southeast of Swan Island.
This pressure is the fourth lowest ever measured in an Atlantic hurricane, tied with Hurricane Camille in
1969. This is also the lowest pressure ever observed in an October hurricane in the Atlantic basin.
Prior to Mitch, the strongest measured October hurricane in the northwest Caribbean was Hurricane Hattie in
1961 with a central pressure of 924 mb.
At its peak on the 26th, Mitch's maximum sustained 1-minute surface winds were estimated to be
155 knots, a category five hurricane on the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale.
After passing over Swan Island on the 27 October, Mitch began to gradually weaken while
moving slowly westward. It then turned southwestward and southward toward the Bay Islands off the coast of
Honduras. The center passed very near the island of Guanaja as a category four hurricane. Mitch slowly
weakened as its circulation interacted with the land mass of Honduras.
From mid-day on the 27th, to early on the 29th,the central pressure rose 59 mb.
The center of the hurricane meandered near the north coast of Honduras from late
on the 27th through the 28th, before making landfall during the morning of the 29th
about 70 n mi east of la Ceiba with estimated surface winds of 70 knots and a minimum central
pressure of 987 mb.
After making landfall, Mitch moved slowly southward, then southwestward and westward, over
Honduras, weakening to a tropical storm by 0600 UTC 30 October, and to a tropical depression by 1800 UTC
The overall motion was slow, less than 4 knots, for a week. This resulted in a tremendous
amount of rainfall, estimated at up to 35 inches, primarily over Honduras and Nicaragua -- see Table 2. The
heavy rainfall resulted in flash floods and mudslides that killed thousands of people. It is noted that a large
east-west mountain range, with peaks approaching 10,000 feet, covers this part of Central America and this
terrain likely contributed to the large rainfall totals. Some heavy rains also occurred in other portions of Central
Although Mitch's surface circulation center dissipated near the Guatemala/Mexico border on 1
November, the remnant circulation aloft continued to produce locally heavy rainfall over portions of Central
America and eastern Mexico for the next couple of days.
By the afternoon of 2 November, meteorologists at the Tropical Prediction Center/National
Hurricane Center (NHC) Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch (TAFB), and the
Satellite Analysis Branch
(SAB) of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service began to follow a cloud-system
center, the remnants of Mitch, in satellite imagery over the Bay of Campeche. Shower and thunderstorm
activity began to increase later on the 2nd. On 3 November, a low-level circulation became evident in the
eastern Bay of Campeche. A
sent to investigate
the system later that afternoon found 45 knot winds at 1500 feet and a minimum
central pressure of 997 mb. Thus, advisories were re-initiated on Tropical Storm Mitch located about 130 n mi
southwest of Merida, Mexico. Mitch moved northeastward and weakened to a depression early on the 4th
after it made landfall over the northwestern Yucatan peninsula. The center re-emerged over the south-central Gulf of Mexico
by mid-morning on the 4th, and Mitch regained tropical storm strength. The storm began to accelerate northeastward
as it became involved with a frontal zone moving through the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Mitch made landfall on the
morning of 5 November in southwest Florida near Naples, with estimated maximum sustained winds of
55 knots. Mitch continued to move rapidly northeastward and by mid-afternoon of the
5th, moved offshore of southeastern Florida and became extratropical.
The extratropical cyclone accelerated northeastward across the North Atlantic Ocean from the 6th through
b. Meteorological Statistics
The best-track intensities in Table 1 were obtained from the data in
Figures 2 (27K GIF) and 3
(31K GIF) which depict the curves of minimum central sea-level pressure and maximum sustained one-minute
average "surface" (10 meters above ground level) wind speed, respectively, as a function of time. The data
these curves are based on, also plotted in the figures, include USAFR and
NOAA aircraft reconnaissance data,
Dvorak-based intensity estimates from TAFB,
SAB, and the
U.S. Air Force Weather Agency (AFGWC in figures).
Most of the aerial reconnaissance flights into Mitch were by the
USAFR "Hurricane Hunters".
flew 19 missions, and made 41 center fixes
while NOAA aircraft performed 2 missions
contributing 9 center fixes. The highest 700-mb flight-level wind report was 168 knots
at 1900 UTC 26 October by the USAFR. This wind speed was observed 14 n mi northeast of
the center near the time of a 905 mb GPS dropsonde-measured pressure. A dropsonde in the northeast
eyewall showed winds to near 160 knots at 900 mb, but lower speeds below
that altitude. The highest satellite-based intensity estimate, obtained by both objective and subjective
methods, was 155 knots on the 26th and the 27th.
Table 2 lists rainfall observations from Honduras, with a maximum of 35.89 inches from
Choluteca. Even higher values may have gone unobserved. Table 3 lists selected surface observations from
Florida, where the highest observed sustained wind speed was 52 knots, at an
elevation of 43.9 meters, from the Fowey Rock C-MAN station just offshore of Miami. Significant ship reports
are listed in Table 4.
Five tornadoes were spawned by Mitch in South Florida: two in the Florida Keys, one each in
Broward, Palm Beach, and Collier Counties. The most significant of these (F2 intensity) occurred in the upper
Florida Keys, Islamorada to North Key Largo.
c. Casualty and Damage Statistics
The estimated death toll from Mitch currently stands at 9,086. Fact Sheet #21 from the U.S.
Agency for International Development (Table 6), as of December 1998, compiled the following death totals:
Honduras, 5677; Nicaragua, 2,863; Guatemala, 258; El Salvador; 239; Mexico, 9 and 7 in Costa Rica. The
death toll also includes 31 fatalities associated with the schooner Fantome. In addition, another 9191 persons
were listed as missing. The exact death toll will probably never be known. However, this was one of the
deadliest Atlantic tropical cyclones in history, ranking below only the 1780 "Great Hurricane" in the lesser
Antilles, and comparable to the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and Hurricane Fifi of 1974, the latter also striking
Mitch also claimed two lives in Monroe County, Florida. Both deaths were drowning-related
incidents resulting from a fishing boat capsizing.
It has been estimated that there was a 50 percent loss to Honduras' agricultural crops.
At least 70,000 houses were damaged and more than 92 bridges were damaged or destroyed. There was severe
damage to the infrastructure of Honduras and entire communities were isolated from outside assistance. To a
lesser extent, damage was similar in Nicaragua, where a large mudslide inundated ten communities situated at
the base of La Casitas Volcano. Guatemala and El Salvador also suffered from flash floods which destroyed
thousands of homes, along with bridges and roads.
The Florida tornadoes injured 65 people and damaged or destroyed 645 homes.
Insured property damage supplied by the Florida insurance Council puts the insured damage
estimate for Florida at $20 million. These estimates exclude storm surge damage. To determine the total
estimated damage, a ratio of 2:1 is applied to the insured property damage; this is based on comparisons done
in historical hurricanes. Thus, the U.S. total estimated damage from Mitch is $40 million.
d. Forecast and Warning Critique
Table 5 lists the various watches and warnings issued.
Hurricane warnings were issued for
Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. A
tropical storm warning was issued for the Cayman Islands,
the Gulf of Mexico coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cuba, and South Florida and the Florida Keys.
As the effects of Mitch on Nicaragua were confined to rainfall flooding,
there were no hurricane warnings there.
The average official track forecast errors for Mitch were 39, 80, 125, 167, and 237 n mi for the
12-, 24-, 36-, 48-, and 72-hr forecast periods, respectively - see Table 7. The number of forecasts
ranged from 41 at the 12-hr period to 28 at the 72-hr period. The average track errors are quite similar to the
average official forecast for the previous ten years. The official forecasts are plotted in
Fig. 4(a) (35K GIF) and this
shows that there was a persistent northwest bias to these forecasts. The official track forecast was for a slow
mostly northwestward motion for the many days that the hurricane was in the northwestern Caribbean as
suggested models. Mitch actually moved westward and then southward and the forecast turn toward the
northwest did not take place until the hurricane had moved over Honduras and Nicaragua. Some of the most
reliable guidance models also had this track bias, as shown in Fig. 4(b)
(35K GIF) which shows the GFDL model track forecasts. In retrospect,
the slow southward, then southwestward, motion which began early on
the 27th, was likely due to a weak mid-level anticyclone over the western Gulf of Mexico. However, the absence
of rawinsonde data from Mexico and Central America likely hindered the track prediction models and
forecasters from resolving this feature during the event.
The average absolute official wind speed forecast errors ranged from 9 knots at 12-hr to 35
knots at 72-hr - see Table 8. These are somewhat larger than the previous ten-year averages. Also, there
were under-forecasts as large as 75 knots for the 72-hr forecast verifying at 1800 UTC on the 26th, which is the
time of the estimated peak surface wind of 155 knots. Overall, the official
intensity forecasts indicated a general strengthening trend between the 24th and the 26th.
The authors are appreciative to the National Weather Service Offices in
and Miami, Florida for their post-storm reports and related data.
Rainfall data from Honduras was provided by the Honduras Weather Service. The U.S. damage estimate data was
supplied by the Florida Insurance Council. Steve Baig produced the best track map insert. The authors wish to
thank Lixion Avila, Jack Beven,
Jerry Jarrell, Max Mayfield, Richard Pasch, and Ed Rappaport for
reviewing this document and making numerous suggestions which helped improve the report.