Fifteen years ago this month, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever form in the Atlantic grew out of a tiny tempest off the coast of Africa. Hurricane Gilbert, traversed the Atlantic as a Classic Cape Verde storm that rolled through the Caribbean, and became a Category Four Hurricane when it devastated the island of Jamaica. Gilbert was the first storm to pass over the island from end to end since Hurricane Charley in 1953. It continued to deepen, and became the most powerful storm ever in the Atlantic with 888 mb minimum central pressure prior to landfall in the Yucatan. Greg Machos of Hurricaneville decided to take a look back at this storm for its 15th anniversary.
Back in September, 1988, I had just graduated high school, and I was preparing to enter my first year of college at Drexel University in Philadelphia. I wasn't scheduled to go off to school until September 18th since classes started on Monday, the 20th. Ironically as I entered my dorm, Gilbert was making landfall south of Brownsville in Northern Mexico.
Gilbert was certainly a memorable storm for me. I tracked it from the time it was a Category One Hurricane with winds of 80 mph all the way until it made its way to the Gulf of Mexico where it was about to make its third landfall. I even had drawn up a map on my Commodore 64 computer that showed the storm's path and information as well as the classic hurricane symbol itself. Looking back, I realized that it was a rather primitive program that I wrote, but nevertheless, it did what I wanted it to do.
Now, to the facts on the storm. Gilbert was one of the strongest storms ever in the Atlantic Basin. It had winds and a storm track that rivaled Hurricane Allen back in 1980, and it ended up having the lowest central pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin at 888 mb. It still falls short of the strongest storm ever recorded on the planet, which was Typhoon Tip in October, 1979 with 870 mb.
Gilbert moved through the Leeward Islands into the Central Caribbean, where it continued to head westward. It then had its eye cross the entire length of the island of Jamaica as a Category Four Hurricane. After that, the storm continued to get stronger. On the evening of September 14th, Hurricane Hunter aircraft flew into the storm, and found that the hurricane had become truly historic with the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. Soon afterward, Gilbert roared through the Yucatan Peninsula with winds sustained at 185 mph, and gusts at or above 200 mph.
Moving over the plateau like surface of the Yucatan, Gilbert lost some of its punch as it went down to a Category Three Hurricane with 120 mph. However, many forecasters were optimistic that the storm would regain some of its strength since it re-entered the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Surprisingly, it didn't as it stayed at the 120 mph intensity until landfall over Northern Mexico. Gilbert had developed concentric eyes, which kept it from getting any stronger.
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No place was hit harder by Gilbert than the island of Jamaica. A former British colony, Jamaica is a tiny island south of Cuba and the Cayman Islands in the Western Caribbean. When Gilbert came to town, it had 140 mph winds, which made it a Category Four Hurricane. The hurricane strengthened even further as it passed through from one end of the island to the other. It was the first time since 1953 that a hurricane crossed the entire island of Jamaica. When it occurred in 1953, it was Hurricane Charlie that crossed the entire length of the island.
I could remember local news stations from New York City going down to Jamaica to cover the complete and utter devastation caused by the hurricane. Aid organizations came down to provide assistance to the approximately half million people that were affected by the storm. An estimated 100,000 homes were damaged by the storm as it tore off roofs and flooded out many places.
Many of Jamaica's industries such as farming and livestock were left in complete disarray while parts of its infrastructure such as hospitals suffered damage, which made it difficult for it to provide the proper care for the injured. In total, the Caribbean islands affected by the storm lost approximately 1.2 billion dollars from damage to livestock and tourism.
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After steamrolling through the tiny island of Jamaica and affecting the Cayman islands, Gilbert continued westward toward the Yucatan Peninsula and the resort areas of Cancun and Cozumel. The storm fed off of the warm waters of the Western Caribbean, and became even more of a monster. Hurricane Hunter aircraft, which had a crew of hurricane researchers led by Hugh Willoughby went into Hurricane Gilbert late in the afternoon on Tuesday, September 14th, 1988.
After several hours of crisscrossing the mighty storm, researchers found some things that were truly frightening. Not only had Gilbert strengthened, but it had grown to historic proportions with winds of 185 mph, gusts up to 218 mph, and a minimum central pressure that would eventually measure 888 mb, or 26.22 inches of Hg. The 888 mb pressure measured to be the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin, and the Western Hemisphere. Originally, the pressure was found to be 885 mb, or 26.13 inches of Hg, but after corrections were made, Gilbert's lowest pressure wound up at 888 mb.
The very next morning, September 15th, 1988, Gilbert crashed ashore in the Yucatan Peninsula with a ferocity never seen before as it produced a storm surge up to 25 feet in some places. Its track and intensity rivaled that of Hurricane Allen, which preceded Gilbert some eight years earlier in August, 1980. The storm would stay over land for about 24 hours, and weakened down to 120 mph winds as the friction caused by the plateau like surface of the Yucatan sucked some energy from Gilbert. Nevertheless, Gilbert still made its mark on Northern Mexico just to the south of Brownsville, Texas. It caused severe flooding in places such as Matamoros and other parts of Monterey province.
The storm left hundreds dead including 200 in Northern Mexico with its terrible floods. Gilbert spawned some 29 Tornadoes in Southern Texas as it moved inland over Mexico. Things could have been a lot worse though if was able to get stronger, but it didn't. Nevertheless, the storm still goes down as perhaps one of the most powerful storms on record. Its ability to maintain such intensity for a long period of time, made Gilbert a memorable storm to behold and follow as long as you didn't get in its way.
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