Looking Back At Hurricane Mitch
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Hurricaneville continues its look back at past hurricanes, and in particular those from the 1996 Atlantic Hurricane Season. There were 13 named storms in all, and seven of them became hurricanes. Of those seven, six became major storms of Category Three strength or better on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. The strongest storm of the 1996 season was Hurricane Edouard a storm that formed right off the African Coast, and traversed the Atlantic for about two weeks.

Edouard became a Category Four Hurricane with winds sustained at 145 mph, but didn't really affect any land areas other than extreme Southeastern Massachusetts, where the storm grazed areas such as Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod with tropical storm force winds. However, at about the time that Edouard was departing out to its watery grave in the cooler waters of the North Atlantic, a new hurricane had formed, and her name was Hortense.

Although Hurricane Hortense became the second most powerful storm of 1996, it is remembered more as a rainmaker, particularly by those who lived in Puerto Rico at the time. The storm brought torrential rains that caused devastating and sometimes deadly flash floods and mudslides. Rainfall amounts were between 15 and 20 inches in portions of Puerto Rico while ten inches fell on the island of Guadeloupe. Along with facts and analysis on the storm, I share some of my personal recollections of tracking Hurricane Hortense.



Facts About Hurricane Hortense

Hurricane Hortense first came to life on September 3rd, 1996 in the Central Atlantic around 41 degrees West Longitude. For the next several days what was to become Hortense traversed the Atlantic as a depression. Then, on September 8th, a day after it had intensified into the eighth named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Hortense crossed the Lesser Antilles in the vicinity of Guadeloupe.

As the storm moved through, winds were sustained at 60 mph. Following its departure from the Leeward Islands, the storm's center stayed to the south of the Virgin Islands and much of Puerto Rico. Strengthening into a hurricane on September 9th, Hortense moved over the Southwestern end of Puerto Rico and Eastern tip of the Dominican Republic. Rain was the main story here since the hurricane was only minimal in strength. As it moved over this area of the U.S. commonwealth, heavy rains lashed the island producing flash flooding and mudslides.

That would be all that most would remember about Hurricane Hortense, but there was much more to this storm than just the torrential rains and the problems it caused in Puerto Rico. On September 10th, the storm moved into the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Steered by the forces of the Bermuda High and a trough hovering over the Eastern United States, Hortense began to head northward.

Located a few hundred miles to the North-Northeast of Nassau in the Bahamas, Hortense had gradually strengthened to a Category Four Hurricane with sustained winds peaking at 140 mph while its minimum central pressure had bottomed out at 935 millibars, or 27.61 inches of Hg (Mercury). Unlike Fran and Bertha though, Hortense stayed away from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, but it did brush the coast of Nova Scotia as a weakening hurricane that headed out to sea. The storm lasted for a total of thirteen days as the final advisory on the system was issued by the National Hurricane Center on September 16th.

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Rain From Mitch

There are some interesting recollections that I have of this storm. Back in September, 1996, I was just ending my stint on the unemployment line after working in the MIS Department for a manufacturing company. I also resumed my studies at college in earnest. One of the courses I decided to take up that fall semester was an introductory course in Meteorology. One of the nicest features of this class that I always looked forward to was the weather map discussions that would take place in the first ten to fifteen minutes of the period.

Obviously, with the onset of an active hurricane cycle in the Atlantic, and the busy season that it was in 1996, there were a lot of fascinating discussions in class about what was going on in the tropics. While taking up the Meteorology course, I learned that there was a Meteorology Club for mostly those majoring in the field at Rutgers, but it was open to anyone interested in weather, or taking a Meteorology class. So, I decided to join that. The first meeting of the club was on a Tuesday in September, when, of course, Hortense was ravaging Puerto Rico with its torrential downpours. I can still envision the radar imagery from the Weather Channel that evening in the Meteorology Department's computer lab.

Other notable events in 1996 came from a variety of areas. In October, the New York Yankees won its first World Series Championship since 1978 when it overcame a 2-0 series deficit to defeat the defending World Champion, Atlanta Braves, four games to two. There were the Atlanta Olympics where Michael Johnson shattered the World Record in the 200 meter dash while gymnast Kerri Strug left her mark on the Olympics with a dismount off the vault that injured her ankle, but didn't stop her from finishing the routine. During the Olympics there was the infamous Centennial Park bombing by a man that was later identified as Eric Rudolph.

Earlier that summer, TWA flight 800 became a fireball and plunged into the Atlantic off of Long Island killing everyone on board. President Bill Clinton, a man who appeared to have his presidency in jeopardy only two years earlier, became a centrist and ran a smart campaign to defeat Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Microsoft's Windows 95 was the rage in computer operating systems back then while the Macarena was the song and dance that captivated much of the country. The Kentucky Wildcats once again reached the summit of college basketball after enduring scandal in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they had to hold off a Syracuse team that had a remarkable tournament run.

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Hortense's Impact

As a result of the devastation the storm wrought on Puerto Rico, Hortense joined Fran as the only two storms from that 1996 season that had their names retired. It is a fitting example of why people should underestimate a minimal hurricane or tropical storm. There are effects other than wind, waves, and surge that accompany a landfalling tropical system. Heavy rains can cause tremendous flooding and in some mountainous locations, horrendous mudslides. Other examples of tropical systems producing heavy rainfall and severe flooding were Hurricane Floyd (1999) and Tropical Storm Allison (2001).

As a matter of fact, Allison remains the costliest tropical storm on record with approximately $4.5 billion in damage. Hortense left 21 people dead, and caused approximately $130 million in damage to Puerto Rico. According to the NHC web site, FEMA indicated that there were approximately 11,463 homes damage by the storm. In addition to the eighteen people that died in Puerto Rico and three in the Dominican Republic, there were 21 missing in the country on the eastern portion of Hispaniola. Storm surge levels were as high as nine feet along the coast of the Dominican Republic. The town of Samana reported nearly eighty percent of the agriculture was damaged.


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