November 14, 2008

2008 Hurricane Season One For The Record Books

Experts say the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season may be best remembered as one of the worst in Cuba's history.

Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma caused an estimated $10 billion damage in Cuba, where they damaged nearly half a million homes and flattened sugar cane and tobacco fields.

As hurricane season nears its end on November 30, 16 cyclones have formed -- eight tropical storms and eight hurricanes -- making it the busiest Atlantic season since the record-breaker of 2005, which produced 28.

However, chances for another storm are ebbing. Three years ago, Tropical Storm Zeta formed on December 30 and lasted into January.

AccuWeather forecaster Joe Bastardi said the hurricane season is over for the United States, "but you might get something developing in the middle of nowhere."

Meteorologists say the average hurricane season produces about 10 storms, of which six become hurricanes. But 2008 will go down in the record books as another in a string of exceptionally busy seasons.

Researchers believe that in 1995 the Atlantic basin entered a new cycle of prolific hurricane production that could last anywhere from 25 to 40 years.

The 2008 season brought a rapid succession of brutal storms for the impoverished and nearly treeless Haiti, including Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike as well as several deadly floods. Gonaives, the seaside city where Tropical Storm Jeanne killed 3,000 in 2004, was buried in a sea of mud.

After crushing Haiti, Gustav cranked up to Category 4 over Cuba's west end and took dead aim at New Orleans.

Still reeling from memories of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion damage across the U.S. Gulf coast, most of the city was quickly abandoned.

But the rebuilt levees but did not break when a weakened Gustav hit shore far enough west of the city to spare the floodwalls a direct hit.

Across the U.S. South, however, Gustav and Ike disrupted oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering widespread shortages and long lines at gas pumps.

On the barrier island of Galveston, Ike destroyed tens of thousands of homes on September 13, killing over 30 in Texas. Dozens of people are still missing from communities along the Texas coast, especially the remote Bolivar Peninsula.

The official hurricane death toll in Cuba was seven, all from Ike, thanks to the government's efficient evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from danger zones. But the three powerful cyclones ripped the island from end to end.

The strongest wind ever recorded in Cuba, Gustav registered a gust of 212 mph in Paso Real de San Diego.

This season topped 2005 in one aspect, it was the first time a major hurricane had formed in each of five months -- Bertha in July, Gustav in August, Ike in September, Omar in October and Paloma in November.

The previous mark was four, according to tropical storm expert Jeff Masters, founder of the Weather Underground website.

Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center, said having major hurricanes five months in a row is a considerable highlight.

"When put in the context that we only average six hurricanes a year," he said. "To get five majors anytime, in any season, is not normal."

If no more tropical storms occur, 2008 may be remembered as a year when storm prognosticators almost got it right, after some shaky forecasts in the past.

Pioneering forecaster Bill Gray and his Colorado State University team predicted 15 At season's start, as did the U.K. Met Office. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expected 12 to 16. London-based Tropical Storm Risk said 14.8.


Image Caption: Hurricane Gustav at Cuban landfall with winds of 150 miles per hour on August 30, 2008. (NASA)