In this season of seasons, one hurricane would stand out from the rest. Not just the rest of the storms from 2005, but of all time. Hurricane Wilma became the strongest storm on record, had one of the largest, if not the largest pressure drop in an Atlantic Hurricane ever, and ended up being the most devastating storm to strike the Naples in 45 years, and the Florida Gold Coast in 55 years. Wilma also caused chaos in Mexico's Mayan Riviera with a long lasting assault that resulted in heavy damage to many parts of the Yucatan. The sixth major hurricane of 2005 pointed out more glaring problems that local, state, and federal governments are having with providing relief to hurricane prone areas. Wilma almost caused some major problems for the Northeast and New England by contributing to the development of a nor'easter, but it moved too rapidly out to sea to prevent another "Perfect Storm" scenario.
Forming in mid October, Wilma took on the characteristics of another powerful hurricane that formed in a similar location and time of year, Hurricane Mitch. However, when Wilma was all said and done, it surpassed not only Mitch, but also Hurricane Allen (1980), the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and Hurricane Gilbert (1988) as the strongest hurricane ever in the Atlantic. At peak intensity, Wilma had 175 mph winds, and a minimum central pressure of 882 mb, or 26.05 inches of Hg. Gilbert held the previous mark with 888 mb in September, 1988. Wilma was also the 21st named storm, 12th hurricane, and sixth major hurricane of 2005.
Dropping some 102 mb in 36 hours, or at a rate of 2.8 mb per hour, Wilma became the third Category Five Hurricane of the 2005 season, which was also another record. No previous season had ever had three Category Five Hurricanes in one year. There had been two storms of that strength in both 1960 and 1961. In just the last three years, there have been five Cat Five storms (Isabel, Ivan, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma). Prior to that, there hadn't been a storm of that intensity since Mitch in October, 1998. After causing some $1 billion dollars in damage to the resort locales of Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Wilma eventually turned toward Florida, and became the eighth hurricane and third major hurricane to strike the Sunshine State in just 14 months.
The storm was the first major hurricane to strike the Naples, Florida area since Hurricane Donna in September, 1960. It was also the most devastating storm to hit the Florida Gold Coast since Hurricane King in 1950. Wilma left an astonishing 6 million people in the dark all across South Florida. Some of which are still waiting for it to come back on at the time this report was written. This powerful hurricane left 48 people dead in Mexico, Florida (31 deaths), and the Caribbean. Deaths were reported as far away as Haiti. There was also plenty more damage for the overwhelmed insurance companies to tally up. Wilma was responsible for approximately $10 billion dollars in damage including $9 billion alone in Florida.
One of the most amazing things about this storm was the fact that it had such fluctuations in forward motion. As Wilma relentlessly pounded the Yucatan for over 24 hours with hurricane force winds, it moved at a snails pace of only 4 mph. Several days later, it crossed South Florida in just seven hours, and then moved as fast as 53 mph as it headed out into the open waters of the North Atlantic. Being such a tightly wound storm with such low pressure, Wilma had only a two mile wide eye at its peak strength. The eye was so small that Hurricane Hunter Aircraft, which fly at a rate of 3 miles per minute, spent less than a minute within the tiny area of calm in the then powerful storm. Wilma was a major hurricane of Category Three strength or higher on three separate occasions.
Starting out rather small, Wilma grew in size to stretch for hundreds of miles. With hurricane force winds fanning out some 85 miles and tropical storm force winds covering over 200 miles, Wilma spread clouds as far north as Georgia when it was still spinning near and over the Yucatan Peninsula. The storm would grow further as it underwent fluctuations in strength. By the time it made landfall in the Naples area of Florida, hurricane force winds extended some 90 miles from the center while tropical storm force winds extended another 230 miles.
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In the wake of Wilma's incessant hammering of the Yucatan during the weekend of October 21st, 2005, many vacationers that traveled down to Cancun and Cozumel with the thought that the brunt of this brutal hurricane season was over, were left stunned, stranded, and struggling to get assistance from the State Department. The storm, which had weakened to a strong Category Four Hurricane with 140 mph winds when it finally came ashore in Cozumel, a resort island off the coast of the Yucatan, lost some punch as it moved over the flat plateau surface of the Yucatan, but it brought hurricane force winds for over 24 hours to the region.
Like Katrina and Rita before it, Wilma once again showed how poorly organized, ill-equipped, and ill-prepared the federal government of the United States is to handle a natural disaster. Thousands, if not millions, across South Florida waited for days to get necessities such as food, water, and ice. Power and energy companies in Florida struggled against tremendous odds to get power restored. At the time of this report, millions still didn't have power in South Florida. Schools and businesses in the region had to be shut down for indefinite periods of time because the storm caused tremendous wind damage to many structures. Schools finally opened once again the week of November 7th, 2005.
Shortages of gas throughout South Florida raised the price of gas in that area to the highest in the country. Ironically, the rest of the country was finally feeling some relief from the price increases over the past few years, and in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Central and Western Gulf earlier in the season. At one point, the price of gas was averaging over $3.00 per gallon nationally. Wilma also affected other industries, particularly Florida's famous citrus industry, which took a beating with losses as high as $180 million dollars. Florida's sugar crop was also battered. Early estimates have Wilma causing more damage ($400 million) to the sugar industry than all the hurricanes that hit the Sunshine State during the 2004 season ($370 million).
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Followed up by Tropical Storm Alpha, which became the record breaking 22nd storm of the 2005 season, Wilma quickly absorbed the mild tropical system, and almost joined forces with an upper level low over the Northeastern United States to produce a "Perfect Storm" like scenario. However, the extraordinary rapid motion of Wilma made it impossible for that scenario to become reality. Nevertheless, the storm did provide energy to develop the first nor'easter of the year, and contributed to a vast pressure gradient in the area, which resulted in winds as high as 50 to 60 mph along the coast from Delaware to Maine.
In New Jersey, over an inch of rain fell in just a thirteen hour period in South Plainfield while other areas that had been already saturated by a previous round of stormy weather produced by the remnants of Tropical Storm Tammy, had slightly higher amounts. Barometric pressure in South Plainfield from the Nor'easter dropped to 29.22 inches, or about 990 mb. Considering not only the fact that the "Perfect Storm" scenario didn't come to pass, and Wilma, which was roaring parallel to the coast at 53 mph with 125 mph winds, the Northeast and New England were very fortunate.
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