Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Hurricane Mitch pounded portions of Central America over a period of several days in late October and early November, 1998, the powerful storm produced massive flooding that killed an estimated eleven thousand people and devastated the economies of Honduras and Nicaragua.

Summary of Event

Hurricane Mitch, the ninth hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season, was one of the most powerful storms of the twentieth century. Mitch will be chiefly remembered not for its winds, however, but for the torrential rainfall, massive flooding, and deadly landslides it produced over a large portion of Central America. Disasters;hurricanes Hurricane Mitch Floods;Central America [kw]Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America (Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998) [kw]Mitch Floods Central America, Hurricane (Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998) [kw]Central America, Hurricane Mitch Floods (Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998) Disasters;hurricanes Hurricane Mitch Floods;Central America [g]Central America;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] [g]Honduras;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] [g]Nicaragua;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] [g]Guatemala;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] [g]El Salvador;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] [g]Costa Rica;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] [c]Disasters;Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998: Hurricane Mitch Floods Central America[10210] Flores, Carlos Roberto Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;postpresidency diplomacy Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;postpresidency diplomacy

Mitch first appeared as a tropical disturbance over the south-central Caribbean Sea on October 20, 1998. The disturbance drifted slowly westward and strengthened into a tropical storm on October 22. Mitch became a hurricane on October 24, and, over the next few days, it intensified rapidly while moving slowly westward through the southwestern Caribbean Sea. Mitch reached its peak strength on the afternoon of October 26, with sustained winds estimated at 180 miles per hour (290 kilometers per hour)—a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Wind gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour) produced huge waves that sank the Fantome, a 282-foot schooner, resulting in the loss of its entire crew of thirty-one. Over the next few days the storm gradually weakened as it drifted slowly southward toward the Central American coast. The center of Mitch passed inland over the northeastern coast of Honduras as a minimal hurricane on the morning of October 29, 1998.

As Mitch remained nearly stationary for several days off the Honduran coast and then drifted slowly inland over Central America, historic amounts of precipitation were generated as the storm’s extensive moisture field was lifted by the region’s mountainous terrain. Nine days and nights of often torrential rainfall devastated large areas. Total storm precipitation was nearly 36 inches (91 centimeters) in Choluteca, in southwestern Honduras, where 18 inches (46 centimeters) fell in one day. In mountainous areas, however, it is estimated that the storm may have produced up to 75 inches (190 centimeters) of rain. The result was massive flooding over extensive areas as even small streams were turned into raging torrents that carried away everything in their paths.

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In addition, landslides and mudflows swept entire villages down steep hillsides. The region’s susceptibility to landsliding was increased by the existence of weak, deeply weathered tropical soils. An additional factor enhancing slope instability was a rapidly expanding population that had pushed agricultural activities into marginal land on steep hillsides. The result was large-scale deforestation and soil compaction, which greatly reduced the ability of the soils to absorb water. Bruce Molnia, Molnia, Bruce a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who studied the effects of the storm, estimated that more than one million landslides formed.

The massive floods and landslides resulted in nearly eleven thousand human deaths, with almost as many missing, more than two million people left homeless, and some ten billion dollars in destruction. The storm’s death toll was the largest ever up to that time in Central America and the second greatest for any Atlantic hurricane, exceeded only by the Great Hurricane of 1780, which claimed an estimated twenty-two thousand casualties. The greatest single tragedy associated with Hurricane Mitch was a huge landslide produced by the partial collapse of the Casita volcano in northwestern Nicaragua. It carved a path ten miles long and up to five miles wide, sweeping away or burying several towns and killing two thousand people.

Hurricane Mitch on October 27, 1998. As it moved inland over the northeastern coast of Honduras, Mitch remained nearly stationary for several days until it drifted slowly inland over Central America. The hurricane killed more than eleven thousand people

(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The storm dealt a crippling economic blow to several countries in an already impoverished region. Honduras was the hardest hit, with approximately twenty-five villages destroyed, sixty-eight hundred deaths, and nearly all roads and bridges washed out. In addition, thirty-three thousand houses were destroyed and fifty thousand were damaged, leaving more than 20 percent of the country’s population homeless. Agricultural losses were especially severe in a country with an economy that relies largely on the sale of agricultural products. Some 70 percent of the crops were destroyed, and the crucial coffee and banana plantations, in particular, were devastated. Much fertile land was washed away or buried under sand, stones, and other debris. Honduran president Carlos Roberto Flores stated that Mitch destroyed fifty years of progress in his country. In all, destruction in Honduras totaled $5 billion—this in a nation with a national budget in 1998 of only $1.1 billion.

Nicaragua was the second-hardest-hit country, with thirty-eight hundred known victims (two thousand from the Casita volcano landslide) and as many as seven thousand people missing. About eighteen thousand houses were destroyed and twenty-four thousand were damaged, leaving more than half a million people homeless. Most of the nation’s roads were unusable, and 70 percent of its crops were destroyed. The cost of the destruction was placed at $1 billion. Severe flooding and landslides also caused numerous fatalities and widespread destruction in several other Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica; southern Mexico sustained some damages as well.

Devastation from Hurricane Mitch was so complete that the affected region was temporarily cut off from the rest of the world, and the magnitude of the disaster was initially not widely known. Eventually, however, news of the devastation reached the international community, and many nations and organizations provided aid. Mexico sent army troops and helicopters, Cuba sent doctors and nurses, and the United States flew food, clothing, and medical supplies to remote areas that were otherwise unreachable because of the loss of roads and bridges. Private citizens, church groups, and relief agencies provided money and supplies. The United Nations pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, and former U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter toured the region and called for the restructuring and scaling back of the international debts of Honduras and Nicaragua. In all, international aid to affected areas totaled some $6.3 billion.

After devastating Central America, the weakened remnants of Mitch drifted northeastward, entering the Bay of Campeche in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico on November 2. By November 3, the system had regenerated into a tropical storm that crossed the northern Yucatán Peninsula, causing flooding that killed nine people. Weakening into a tropical depression, the storm emerged into the south-central Gulf of Mexico, where it once again regained tropical storm strength as it accelerated northeastward. Mitch crossed the Florida Peninsula as a strong tropical storm, with maximum winds of 65 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour). The storm produced heavy rainfalls, several tornadoes, and strong winds that damaged or destroyed more than six hundred houses and caused $40 million in destruction along with two deaths. Mitch finally lost its tropical characteristics as it traveled rapidly northeastward off the east coast of Florida; it ended its existence as an extratropical storm north of Great Britain on November 9, 1998.

Significance

Central America did not recover quickly from the effects of Hurricane Mitch; efforts to rebuild extended into the twenty-first century, with full recovery expected to take decades. Many people whose homes were destroyed continued to live in temporary housing or with relatives for years after the event. Tens of thousands of others lost their means of livelihood when their businesses were washed away or their farmland was destroyed. Countless roads and bridges waited years for repair or replacement. Many of the thousands of victims counted among the missing fled the region and took up residence in other countries, including the United States. Although progress toward healing the devastation was slow, construction projects were undertaken, and entire new communities were built where old ones had been washed away. In many cases, modern, flood-resistant buildings replaced older ones, and some villages were relocated to less flood-prone sites.

In recognition of the magnitude of the storm’s destruction, the World Meteorological Organization retired the name Mitch—it will never again be used for an Atlantic hurricane. Disasters;hurricanes Hurricane Mitch Floods;Central America

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carrier, Jim. The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantome. Camden, Maine: International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2001. Presents an account of the schooner Fantome’s ill-fated encounter with Hurricane Mitch. Describes the storm’s development and movements in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cockburn, Alexander, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Ken Silverstein. “The Politics of Natural Disaster: Who Made Mitch So Bad?” International Journal of Health Services 29, no. 2 (1999): 459-462. Discusses land-use factors that contributed to the flooding and mudslides associated with Hurricane Mitch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emanuel, Kerry A. Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. A leading authority presents information on all aspects of hurricanes, combining descriptive narrative with scientific explanations. Includes maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, A. R. “After the Deluge: Central America’s Storm of the Century.” National Geographic, November, 1999, 108-129. Well-illustrated account of the magnitude of the Hurricane Mitch disaster and of the efforts of the local inhabitants to recover. Includes an informative map of the storm track.

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