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John Britton


Geography 206

Dr. Brent Doberstein

28 February 2008

                                Hurricane Mitch

     Nineteen ninety eight was an extremely active year for tropical cyclones in
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the Atlantic basin. Hurricane Mitch highlights this group, being the biggest and by

far deadliest of the season. That October, powerful Hurricane Mitch moved

throughout Central America up to Florida, leaving in it‟s wake death and

destruction through extreme precipitation and many detrimental human factors.

Mitch was at it‟s peak a tremendous category 5 hurricane, slowing as it hit land.

Over 10,000 deaths and billions in damage were caused by Mitch, through it‟s

extreme amounts of rainfall, and human susceptibility towards flooding,

landslides, disease and famine.

Physical Description

     Hurricane Mitch highlights this group, being the biggest and by far deadliest

of the season. What started out as a wave moving across the southern portion of

West Africa in early October would eventually pan out into a category 5

hurricane. That wave moved, “Over the next 7 days, west-southwesterly upper-

level winds prevents significant development as the wave progressed across the

tropical Atlantic” (Pasch et al., 2001). Shower and thunderstorm activity was

present as it continued over the southwest Caribbean Sea on October 21 st. It was

then upgraded to a tropical disturbance on the 22nd of October, and two days later

it was Hurricane Mitch on October the 24th in the Atlantic Ocean. On October 26th,

Mitch reached category 5 intensity, and maintained that strength for an incredible

33 hours. “Of the five most intense Atlantic Hurricane on record, Mitch stands

alone as having been a Category 5 monster the longest,” (Bentley &

Horstymeyer, 1999).

     It would be soon that it‟s intensity diminished “Mitch began to gradually
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weaken while moving slowly westward. It then turned southwestward and

southward toward the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras.” (Pasch et al.,

2001) Eventually it would hit land, “Mitch slowly weakened as it‟s circulation

interacted with the landmass of Honduras.” (Pasch et al., 2001) The land mass

would then cause Mitch to move slowly southward, turning southwestward and

then westward over Honduras. It was then weakened to a tropical storm on

October 30th, and a tropical depression later in the day on October 31st. “The

overall motion was slow, less than 4 kt a week, for a week. This resulted in a

tremendous amount of rainfall, as high as 900 mm or more, primarily over

Honduras and Nicaragua.” (Pasch et al., 2001) The remnants of Mitch were

tracked over the Bay of Campeche. Shower and thunderstorms increased, and

on November 3rd, 45 kt winds were found, indicating the redevelopment of a

tropical storm. “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 kt.” (Pasch et al., 2001) See

figure 1 below for a map of Mitch‟s path.

Figure 1

                                QuickTime™ an d a
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Disaster Damages

     As Mitch hit the Bay Islands of Honduras early on October 29th, it was

bringing with it a world of destruction for Central America. It stalled over

Nicaragua and Honduras, killing over 10,000 people, affecting 6.7 million and

causing as much as US $8.5 billion in damages. “Mitch was one of the deadliest

Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, ranking second to the „Great Hurricane‟ in

the Lesser Antilles” (Pielke et al, 101) Table 1 below illustrates the life lost in

Central American and Caribbean Hurricanes.
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                              Source: Pielke et al, 102

     Mitch moved through the mountains of Honduras, unloading massive

amounts of rainfall there. “The water then cascaded down the steep slopes and

was funneled into the narrow valleys, creating unprecedented flooding.” (Bentley

& Horstmeyer, 1999) This would sweep away many houses, buildings and

people. “In several locations banana plantation workers waited for two weeks on

rooftops for the water to recede,” (Bentley & Horstmeyer, 1999). Others would

not prove to be so lucky, like the town of Posoltega in Nicaragua, “Mitch was the

apocalypse... a terrible, towering wall of mud that just fell out of the clouds. The

town was buried alive.” (Padgett & Managua, 1998) As the news of this disaster

reached the world, $100 million in aid poured in, “But, Central America‟s

development, which lagged far behind the rest of the world before the hurricane,

has been set back decades.” (Padgett & Managua, 1998)

     In Honduras alone, 35,000 homes were demolished, with another 50,000

damaged. One can‟t put a price tag on how many lives are changed and ruined.

“There was an estimated 60% loss to crops... and more then 92 bridges

damaged or destroyed.” (Cockburn et al., 1999) Honduras‟s entire infrastructure

was damaged, entire communities isolated from outside assistance. Florida and

the United States were hit nothing like Central America, but did have ample

damage. “The Florida tornadoes damaged or destroyed 645 homes. The total
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estimated U.S. damage from Mitch is $40 million.” (Pasch et al., 2001) For the

U.S. it is a relatively small number, but still a sufficient amount of damage.

Root Causes of Hurricane Mitch

     The root cause of Mitch can be traced back to a tropical wave that moved

across the southern portion of Africa on the 8th and 9th of October. “The wave

progressed across the tropical Atlantic for the next seven days with west-

southwesterly upper level winds preventing significant development” (Guiney &

Lawrence, 1998). Mitch moved across the Atlantic for the next 10 days gaining

strength. “Of particular interest is the tropical region from the Caribbean Sea

eastward to near the coast of Africa. Here, sea surface temperatures were as

much as 1oC above normal. The warmer than normal waters may have been a

contributing factor to above normal Tropical Cyclone activity.” (Copley, 1998) Not

only would this Hurricane pick up speed, but it would also cause more


     This added evaporation of water would eventually lead to more

precipitation, as what goes up eventually must come down. “Table 2 lists the

rainfall observations from Honduras, with a maximum of 35.89 inches (911 mm)

from Choluteca. Even higher values may have gone unobserved.” (Guiney &

Lawrence, 1998). Storm surges were also evident, but not a huge factor, only

affecting the coast of Florida minimally. The high rainfall was a root cause from

Mitch, that would eventually lead to many secondary causes, like flooding,

landslides and diseases.

Table 2 - Hurricane Mitch selected Honduras rainfall totals, 25-31 October 1998.
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Secondary Causes

     As the record rainfalls fell in Honduras, it brought along with it many

different challenges for the country. Honduras is a very economically poor

country, which meant that many of it‟s residents were in areas extremely

susceptible to flooding, “the damages were borne primarily by the poorest

sectors of the population, many of whom lived in areas that were most exposed

to floods and landslides in fragile housing that offered little protection” (NACLA,

1999). Much of the countries infrastructure was destroyed, “Lack of potable

water, damaged sanitation facilities, and increased mosquito populations from

standing water added greatly to the death toll. The country was unorganized”

(Nicholls, 2000) The lack of organization and initial mobilized support surely was
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a factor in the death of thousands of humans throughout Central America.

     Humans had a very large part in much of the destruction, with deforestation

causing concern for many, "The crucial thing is removing vegetation - if you take

that out of the system, you've lost the natural bonding and the area will be prone

to gully erosion and mass movement... A lot of land has been cleared for grazing

and building, and slopes are steep, making the area typical for landsliding”

(Copley, 1998) Entire communities were crushed by these landslides. Farmers

crops were completely washed away, and the ones that stayed weren‟t much

use, “After Mitch, much of the stored harvest that had not disappeared in the

raging torrents was wet and moldy. At least 60 percent of the first harvest was

lost. The second planting never had a chance, as the freshly plowed topsoil

readily eroded in the unrelenting rain and runoff,” (Bentley & Horstmeyer, 1999).

Farming employs over 60% of the Honduran working population, and most of the

countries GDP.

     Of the approximately 10,000 people dead, many of them were populations

more susceptible to disaster, “Many, if not most of Mitch's victims were

youngsters--including not only those who drowned but also those whose

malnourished bodies were no match for the deadly septic infections set free in

the waters... those whom the floodwaters did not kill face the problems of

isolation, starvation, disease and neglect--the normal stuff of tragedy in Central

America, made hundreds of times worse by Mitch's murderous rains.” (Padgett &

Managua, 1998)

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     October 1998 will never be forgotten for Central America. Honduras and

Nicaragua are still today feeling the effects from hurricane Mitch. Their

infrastructure and progress was damaged brutally by the storm. No amount of

money, aid, and supplies will be able to fill the void of the thousands of people

lost, “One Honduran put it, „As you can see, the tragedy is bigger than anyone

can imagine. No Honduran ever expected this to happen and now we are in

God's hands,‟” (Bentley & Horstmeyer, 1999).

                                   Works Cited
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Bentley, Mace, and Steve Horstmeyer. "Monstrous Mitch."
     Weatherwise 52(1999): 14-18.

Cockburn, Alexander, Jeffrey St. Clair , and Ken Silverstein. "The Politics of
"Natural" Disaster: Who Made Mitch so Bad?." International Journal of Health
Services 29(1999): 459-462.

Copley, Jon. "Why a weakening hurricane wrought so much havoc." This week
    (1998): 55.

Guiney, John and Miles Lawrence. "Preliminary Report - Hurricane Mitch."
National Hurricane Center 28 JAN 1999 28 FEB 2008 .

Padgettt, Tim, and Tim Managua. "Muderous Mitch." Time 20(1998):

Nicholls, Neville. "Atmospheric and Climatic Hazards: Improved Monitoring and
     Prediction for Disaster Mitigation." Natural Hazards 23(2001): 137-155.

Pasch, Richard J., Lixion Avila, and John Guiney. "Atlantic Hurricane Season of
    1998." Monthly Weather Review 129(2001): 3085-3123.