Hurricane Gilbert 1988

Preliminary Report
Hurricane Gilbert
08 - 20 September 1988


Tropical Storm Alberto (TS)
Tropical Storm Beryl (TS)
Tropical Storm Chris (TS)
Hurricane Debby (1)
Tropical Storm Ernesto (TS)
Hurricane Florence (1)
Hurricane Gilbert (5)
Hurricane Helene (4)
Tropical Storm Isaac (TS)
Hurricane Joan (4)
Tropical Storm Keith

a. Synoptic History

On 3 September a westward moving tropical wave showing no signs of organization emerged from the northwest African coast over the open waters of the North Atlantic. During the next several days a broad low pressure area associated with the tropical wave developed over the Atlantic midway between Africa and the Lesser Antilles with ship reports indicating the circulation extended nearly to the equator. An organized circulation center was not evident on satellite imagery until the system was approaching the Windward Islands on 8 September. On 9 September the low was classified by satellite as the 12th tropical depression of the 1988 season when it was located about 400 miles east of Barbados.

The depression moved on a west northwest course around 17 mph with satellite and reconnaissance reports indicating that it had attained tropical storm strength as it moved over the Lesser Antilles the afternoon of 9 September. Tropical Storm Gilbert rapidly strengthened on 10 September and was classified as a hurricane by that evening.

Gilbert continued to strengthen as it brushed the south coast of Hispaniola, then passed directly over the island of Jamaica as a category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale with sustained winds of 127 mph and minimum pressure of 960 mb. Following the passage of the center across Jamaica, Gilbert went through a remarkable intensification period with the pressure falling from 960 mb to 888 mb in 24 hours. The 888 mb pressure was observed by a NOAA plane near 19.5N and 83.3W at 2152 UTC on 13 September and is the lowest sea level pressure ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time the plane measured 184 mph sustained winds at 10,000 feet with a peak wind of 199 mph. During the period of rapid strengthening Gilbert continued on a west northwest course at 17 mph under the influence of a persistent high pressure to the north. The center passed a short distance southeast of Grand Cayman Island with a wind gust of 156 mph recorded there at 1900 UTC.

The center of Gilbert crossed over the northeast of the Yucatan Peninsula on 14 September as a category 5 hurricane, the first category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the western hemisphere since Camille in 1969. The hurricane lost strength quite rapidly as the eye moved across the Yucatan Peninsula with the minimum pressure rising to around 950 mb by the time the center emerged over the southwest Gulf of Mexico. Gilbert continued on the same west northwest course around 17 mph across the Gulf and reached the northeast Mexican coast just north of the town of La Pesca around 2200 UTC on 16 September as a category 3 hurricane.

The center of the weakening storm passed south of Monterrey, Mexico on 17 September then turned toward the north and moved across western Texas and into Oklahoma as a heavy rain storm on 18 September. It finally merged with a developing frontal low pressure system over Missouri on 19 September.

b. Meteorological Statistics

Weather observations in the three landfall areas were difficult to obtain. The only weather office to measure the maximum winds in Gilbert was Kingston, Jamaica which reported winds of 116 mph with gusts to 140 mph. An unofficial report of 121 mph with gusts to 147 mph was measured by a ham radio operator located 17 miles northeast of Kingston. There were no official reports of maximum winds near the center in the landfall areas of Mexico. Along the lower Texas coast winds in the Brownsville area gusted to 67 mph with gusts to 83 mph reported near Port Isabel by an observer with a truck mounted anemometer. A gust of 61 mph was observed by the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi.

Likewise no minimum pressure readings in the eye of Gilbert were reported as it moved ashore in Mexico. the weather office in Kingston had a minimum pressure of 965 in the eye. The pressure was estimated near 900 mb when the eye of Gilbert moved over Cozumel, Mexico.

1. Storm Surge Data

A 15 to 20 foot storm surge likely occured along the immediate coast near and just to the north of where the center moved inland over the northeast Yucatan peninsula. A surge of 8 to 13 feet struck the coast of eastern Mexico near and just to the north of landfall. There was a report of a 9 foot surge topped by 30 foot waves on the northeast coast of Jamaica. Tides of 3 to 5 feet above normal were reported along the Texas coast with a number of low-lying roads under water. There was considerable beach erosion on Padre Island. See Table 2 for details on meteorological statistics.

2. Rainfall Data

Torrential rains accompanied the hurricane with between 5 and 10 inches falling over the coastal sections and much greater amounts in the mountainous areas of Jamaica and Mexico. Massive flooding in the Monterrey, Mexico area caused many of the deaths attributes to Gilbert. Rains of 2 to 4 inches fell across south Texas with local amounts of more than 8 inches observed near Aransas Pass.

3. Tornadoes

At least 29 tornadoes were observed across south Texas with most of the damage occurring in the San Antonio area. This total included 10 in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 5 around Corpus Christi and at least a half dozen in the San Antonio area. The greatest destruction there occured at the Air Logistics Center on Kelly Air Force base where a number of large storage hangers were destroyed with damage estimated near $22 Million. A tornado in Del Rio destroyed 15 homes and damaged 50 others with damage estimated to be nearly $2 Million.

c. Casualty and Damage Statistics

There were 318 deaths attributed to Gilbert; 202 in Mexico, 45 in Jamaica, 30 in Haiti, 12 in Guaemala, 12 in Honduras, 5 in Dominican Republic, 5 in Venezuela, 3 in Texas, 2 in Costa Rica and 2 in Nicaragua.

The estimated damage throughout the area was probably near $5 Billion. Jamaica had nearly $2 Billion damage and in Mexico damage was estimated between $1 Billion and $2 Billion. Reports from the Mexican government indicate that more than sixty thousand homes were destroyed in that country. The most extensive damage over the United States was in San Antonio where damage caused by a number of tornadoes amounted to $30 Million. Elsewhere over south Texas damage was confined to beach erosion along Padre Island and in the Lower Rio Grande where high winds and a few tornadoes downed a number of trees, signs and power lines. Total damage in the United States was estimated to be between $40 Million and $50 Million.

Maximum Intensity For Hurricane Gilbert
08 - 20 September, 1988

Position Pressure
Wind Speed
Lat. (°N) Lon. (°W)
14/0000 19.7 83.8 888 185 Category 5 Hurricane

Landfall for Hurricane Gilbert
08 - 20 September, 1988
Wind Speed
Stage Landfall
12/1700 960 130 Category 3 Hurricane Kingston,
14/1500 900 160 Category 5 Hurricane Cozumel,
16/2200 955 125 Category 3 Hurricane La Pesca,