Case study - Hurricane Mitch

Hurricane Mitch strikes Honduras in 1998

A common case study for a tropical storm is Hurricane Mitch. A more recent example is Hurricane Sandy.

Case studies are used to gain an in-depth understanding of:

  • the underlying causes.
  • the impact on the landscape and population.
  • management - methods of prediction and planning.

The underlying causes

Hurricane Mitch formed over the Caribbean Sea and hit Central America in October 1998, reaching wind speeds of 180mph.

There was a very hot summer that year which allowed sea temperatures in the Caribbean to reach 27°C. This meant that a lot of water evaporated and the water vapour caused the air above the sea to become humid and damp.

The air above the sea's surface began to rise as it was very hot, which created an area of low pressure. Air was sucked in over the sea to replace the rising air and a tropical depression developed which is the first stage in hurricane formation.

Winds became stronger and stronger as air rose more rapidly and so the movement of air to replace it became faster too. As a result air started to spiral as well as to increase in speed. Mitch became a tropical storm and then a hurricane on 23 October 1998.

The hurricane moved westwards and hit Honduras on 29 October 1998 causing vast destruction. Hurricane Mitch lost energy and sped over land as there was no more moist air to continue to fuel the upwards rising of air.

Impact on landscape and population

Homes destroyed by Hurricane Mitch
Homes destroyed by Hurricane Mitch

Landscape

  • In Honduras, coastal buildings were destroyed.
  • Trees were flattened by the strong winds.
  • Power lines were also knocked over.
  • The huge volume of rain that fell in a short time washed soil into rivers and blocked them.
  • There was widespread flooding as a result.
  • Bridges and roads were also destroyed by the floodwater.
  • In Nicaragua, rain caused a huge mudslide down the side of Casita volcano, completely burying four villages.

People

  • Approximately 9000 people lost their lives.
  • Many people were made homeless as their houses were destroyed.
  • Valuable farmland was destroyed.
  • Polluted drinking water caused outbreaks of disease, eg cholera.
  • Economic development was badly affected.
  • The cost of making repairs increased national debt.

Methods of prediction and planning

Advanced weather equipment allows experts to gather detailed information and give warning to allow people to evacuate an area. Satellites send photos to computers which highlight the location of storms. Detailed weather information helps experts to try and predict where the storm will hit.

Hurricane Mitch changed direction frequently and suddenly, so it was hard to predict where it would make landfall. Storm warnings were given to all countries in Central America so many people fled inland. The Honduran Air Force airlifted people from along the coast and offshore islands, which ultimately saved lives.