Remembering Hurricane Hugo

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
In this series, Dr. Jeff Masters tells the story of 1989's Hurricane Hugo--the most destructive Atlantic hurricane ever recorded up until that time.

Day 4: Hugo Intensifies to a Strong Tropical Storm


On September 12, 1989, Tropical Storm Hugo, still far out at sea in the middle Atlantic, continued to grow more organized. Heavy thunderstorms thickened near the storm's center and in four prominent spiral bands. Updrafts from the intense thunderstorms near the storm's core began reaching the base of the stratosphere, creating high cirrus clouds that an upper-level anticyclone over the storm carried away. By nightfall, Hugo had intensified to a strong tropical storm with 65 mph winds. Now three days from the Lesser Antilles Islands, the storm continued to churn westward across the open Atlantic at 20 mph.

At NOAA's Miami-based Office of Aircraft Operations--the hurricane hunting division of NOAA--my boss, Jim McFadden, called me into his office. My fellow flight meteorologist, Jack Parrish, was also there. "We've got a planned two-plane deployment to Barbados on the 14th", Jim told us. "Frankly, if this storm wasn't named after the director of AOML, we wouldn't be going. It doesn't look too impressive right now." (AOML was NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Marine Laboratory, which supervised research flights by NOAA's hurricane hunter aircraft, and Hugo Bezdek was the director). We discussed the possible missions, and agreed that regardless of Hugo's strength, we should be flying it, since we had used up very few of our allotted flight hours for the year. Jack and I would be in charge of coordinating the missions on the two aircraft. It would be my first hurricane flight of what had been a very slow season so far. I was excited to be going to Barbados, an island I had never been to. The as-yet unimpressive Tropical Storm Hugo did not give me any concerns about a possible rough ride.

12 September, 1989

Figure 1. AVHRR visible satellite image of Tropical Storm Hugo taken on September 12, 1989. Well-developed low-level spiral bands are apparent, and high cirrus clouds denoting upper-level outflow are visible on three sides. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

Day 5: Tropical Storm Hugo Continues its Westward March


On September 13, 1989, Tropical Storm Hugo continued its westward march at 20 mph towards the Lesser Antilles Islands. Shortly after midnight on the 13th, satellite analysts at the National Hurricane Center noted a Central Dense Overcast (CDO) of thick cirrus clouds was forming over the center. The CDO was evidence that Hugo was beginning to build an eyewall. The thunderstorms in the eyewall were now powerful enough to lift large amounts of moisture 45,000 feet high, where the stable air of the stratosphere lay. Unable to penetrate into the stratosphere, the air lifted by Hugo's thunderstorms was forced to spread outward into a thick, circular layer of cirrus clouds--the CDO--that hid the storm's core. The mystery of what was happening beneath the Central Dense Overcast became apparent a few hours later, when a murky eye appeared. At 8 am EDT on the 13th, the National Hurricane Center upgraded Hugo to hurricane status.

At NOAA's Office of Aircraft Operations--the hurricane hunting division of NOAA--we busily prepared for tomorrow's deployment to Barbados of both of our P-3 Orion hurricane hunting aircraft. There were dropsondes and Air-Expendable Bathythermographs to load, computer checks to make, and calibration data to load. We chatted excitedly about the new hurricane that looked like an excellent case study for the hurricane scientists. But there was also an undercurrent of uneasiness to our cheerful preparations. We knew that a Cape Verdes-type hurricane like Hugo that was still 2 - 3 days from the Lesser Antilles would probably kill a lot of people--perhaps even close to home, here in Florida.

In a letter I wrote that night to my soon-to-be-fiancee, Diane, in Michigan, I said: "Well, that dark enveloping death feeling is back again, much stronger than before. I know Hugo the hurricane will kill people and I feel it coming close to here".

12 September, 1989

Figure 2. GOES visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 13, 1989. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

The Hurricane Hugo Retrospective:


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