Hurricane Mitch fact sheet

Hurricane Mitch developed in the Caribbean Sea in October 1998 and became one of the strongest and deadliest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. Some of the details of the hurricane and its effects are summarised below.

The tropical cyclone

Most hurricanes which develop in the Atlantic Ocean originate from small disturbances in the weather over western Africa (known as tropical waves) which move westwards across the Atlantic Ocean. A tropical depression forms when the cloud mass associated with a tropical wave starts to grow and rotate in an anti-clockwise direction. Mitch followed this pattern - originating as a tropical wave and eventually forming into a tropical depression when in the southern Caribbean Sea just north of Colombia.

Here is the life cycle of Mitch.

  • 22 October: Tropical Depression 'Thirteen' forms (winds less than 39 m.p.h.), but by the end of the day is upgraded to Tropical Storm Mitch (winds greater than 39 m.p.h.) and starts moving northwards.
  • 24 October: Mitch is upgraded to a hurricane (winds greater than 74 m.p.h.).
  • 25 October: Hurricane Mitch turns towards the west.
  • 26 October: Winds near the centre of the hurricane peak at 180 m.p.h.
  • 27 October: Mitch starts to weaken, but turns southwards towards the northern coast of Honduras.
  • 29 October: Mitch is downgraded to a tropical storm and makes landfall over Honduras.
  • 31 October: Mitch is downgraded to a tropical depression whilst moving slowly south-westwards and still producing heavy rain.
  • 1 November: Mitch dissipates as a depression over Guatemala.
  • 3 November: The remnants of Mitch have moved northwards and reform as a tropical storm in the southern Gulf of Mexico.
  • 5 November: Mitch makes landfall on the Gulf coast of southern Florida.
  • 6 November: Mitch is declared 'extra-tropical' as it heads north-eastwards across the Atlantic.

After becoming an 'extra-tropical' storm, Mitch raced across the Atlantic and developed into a vigorous depression, bringing stormy conditions to the north and west of the UK.

Images

The records

Hurricane Mitch became the joint fourth strongest Atlantic hurricane on record. On 26 October 1998 a central pressure of 905 mb was measured along with wind speeds averaged over one minute of 155 knots (180 m.p.h.). Here are the previous records.

  • GILBERT (1988) 888 mb
  • UNNAMED (1935) 892 mb
  • ALLEN (1980) 899 mb
  • CAMILLE (1969) 905 mb

It must be noted that these records are for the Atlantic and Caribbean only. Many more hurricanes and typhoons of this strength have formed in the Pacific Ocean over the years.

Whilst Mitch was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record, the winds abated considerably as the storm moved inland. It was actually the huge amount of rainfall deposited by such a slow moving storm which caused most of the damage. Most rainfall recording instruments would have been destroyed during the storm. However, some records which survived indicated rainfall totals in Southern Honduras of 25" in 36 hours and 10" in 6 hours between 29 and 31 October*.

* source: Jon Hellin (Natural Resources Institute) and Corporacion Hondurena de Desarrollo Forestal.

The cost

The human cost of Hurricane Mitch was enormous. It will probably never be known exactly how many died. As of 19 November 1998* estimates were as follows.

  • Honduras: 7000 dead, 8300 missing
  • Nicaragua: 3000 dead, 2200 missing
  • Guatemala: 258 dead, 121 missing
  • El Salvador: 272 dead, 100 missing

* source: ReliefWeb

The economic cost of the hurricane is also huge and will probably be unquantifiable. However, with the change in landscape, destruction of homes, towns, villages and crops it is estimated that it could take decades for the economy to recover in the areas affected.

Further information

More information on Hurricane Mitch including satellite images and humanitarian aid efforts can be found on the following web sites.

Meteorological information

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA)
Goddard Space Flight Center (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, USA)

Rainfall Information: see Nature, Vol.399 (27 May 1999), p.316.

Humanitarian information

ReliefWeb

Additional notes

This fact sheet was compiled by Julian Heming with information obtained from the National Hurricane Center, Miami. Further enquiries through the Press Office, tel. +44 (0)1344 854629.

Last updated: 3 November 2011