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Strongest Atlantic Hurricane: Wilma Brought Havoc to Mexico, Florida

By By Mark Leberfinger, Staff Writer
October 25, 2013, 6:24:25 AM EDT

Hurricane Wilma was a most unusual tropical system in a most unusual Atlantic hurricane season in 2005.

The storm, in many ways, was overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina, which pulverized New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.

The storm had the all-time lowest central pressure of any Atlantic hurricane on record at 882 millibars (26.05 inches), and dumped more than 5 feet of rain (1576.1 mm) on parts of the Yucatan Peninsula.


Twenty-two people died as a direct result of the storm, including 12 in Haiti and five in Florida.

Wilma was one of 28 storms that developed during the 2005 season, the busiest on record. It was the first time forecasters ran out of names from the regular naming chart of tropical systems and had to turn to the Greek alphabet to name storms.

The storms went from Tropical Storm Arlene in June to Tropical Storm Zeta in late December 2005.

"It was a very unusual season with a combination of the number of storms and several Category 5 storms with Wilma, Katrina and Rita," Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said.

"We haven't had a Category 5 storm since Ike in 2006. It shows you how rare these features are."


Wilma formed as a tropical depression on Oct. 14, 2005, near Grand Cayman, but just four days later, the storm took a dramatic turn for the worst.

Between Oct. 18 and 19, 2005, Wilma grew from a 69 mph (60-knot) tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale at 173 mph (150 knots).

"Wilma passed over the Loop Current, an area of the northwest Caribbean. The water temperature was very warm and the depth of the warm water was several feet deep. Wilma stayed over that current for a couple days and rapidly intensified," Kottlowski said.

There was neither dry air nor shear to hinder development.

The northeastern Yucatan was devastated. The Meteorological Service of Mexico reported that 64.3 inches of rain (1633.98 mm) fell in 24 hours at Islas Mujeres. By comparison, only 3 to 7 inches of rain fell in southern Florida.

The Islas Mujeres rainfall is the largest 24-hour rainfall ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

After Wilma rapidly intensified, the storm slowed in forward speed, allowing rain bands to set up over land for an extended period of time, Kottlowski said.

"This is a danger of hurricanes. These kind of intense systems tend to produce a phenomenal amount of rainfall," he said.


The hurricane not only pounded the Yucatan Peninsula but also caused havoc in southern Florida, causing an estimated $29.3 billion in damage.

At the time, it was the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, after Katrina and Andrew. It is now the fourth costliest U.S. hurricane behind Katrina, Sandy and Ike.

Wilma took a hard right-hand turn from the Yucatan and made a beeline for south Florida. The hurricane weakened but re-intensified into a Category 3 hurricane at 120 mph before it made landfall near Cape Romano, Fla., on Oct. 24, 2005.

Up to 98 percent of south Florida customers lost electricity. There was widespread property and agricultural damage.

"The wind field stayed intact," Kottlowski said. "It was over a larger area than we anticipated, and it was over a highly populated area."

People were caught off-guard on Florida's southeast coast, including some of AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bob Larson's family.

"They and that whole area weren't expecting that much. They didn't think a storm from the west could do that," Larson said. "The winds are counterclockwise in a hurricane. The storm came from the west, the winds came from the west. It knocked down trees and power lines.

"They were unprepared. They could have stocked up on canned goods, flashlights, generators and other supplies. I should have warned them, but I thought they knew. We knew it was going to be bad."

After the blast through southern Florida, Wilma provided moisture that added strength to a late October nor'easter that dumped as much as 20 inches of snow from New England south to West Virginia and produced 74 mph winds and 38-foot waves.

Wilma confirmed to forecasters that when a storm tracks over very warm water, there will be rapid intensification -- a phenomenon still not well understood, Kottlowski said.

It helped set in motion several research projects to better forecast rapid intensification, including a software package still used to determine the chance of a storm to rapidly intensify.


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