Michelle was a late-season Category 4 hurricane. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Cuba since 1952, and it left a trail of death and destruction from Central America to the Bahamas.
a. Synoptic History
The origin of Michelle was a tropical wave that moved westward across the coast of Africa on 16 October. The wave showed few signs of development while it crossed the Atlantic to the Lesser Antilles by 23 October. Associated shower activity increased on 26 October when the wave reached the western Caribbean, and a broad low pressure area formed near the coast of Nicaragua the next day. A gradual increase in organization followed, and an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft found that the system had become a tropical depression near 1800 UTC 29 October over the coast of Nicaragua, between Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields.
The depression meandered over eastern Nicaragua for the next 36 hours. A slow north-northeastward motion that began early on the 31st brought the center back over the Caribbean waters later that day near Cabo Gracias a Dios on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. The system became Tropical Storm Michelle near 0000 UTC 1 November about 50 nautical miles north of Cabo Gracias. Michelle moved slowly north-northwestward on the 1st and steadily strengthened. It became a hurricane on the 2nd while it drifted slowly northward. Rapid intensification then occurred, with maximum sustained winds increasing from 81 mph at 1200 UTC on the 2nd to 130 mph at 1200 UTC on the 3rd. The central pressure fell from 988 mb at 0605 UTC on the 2nd to 937 mb at 1115 UTC on the 3rd -- a decrease of 51 mb in about 29 hours. Satellite imagery near the latter time shows a classically-organized hurricane with a well-defined eye embedded in a central dense overcast surrounded by outer banding.
Michelle turned slowly north-northeastward after 1200 UTC the 3rd while some fluctuations in intensity occurred. It reached a peak intensity of 138 mph from 0600-1800 UTC on the 4th while accelerating northeastward. This motion brought the center of Michelle to the southwestern offshore islands of Cuba near 1800 UTC that day as a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, and to the Cuban mainland near the Bay of Pigs about 5 hours later.
The eye of Michelle was disrupted by the passage over Cuba and increasing mid- to upper- level southwesterly flow. This led to the cyclone gradually losing tropical characteristics on 5 November while it accelerated northeastward through the Bahamas. The center moved off the coast of Cuba near 0600 UTC, passed over Andros Island near 1200 UTC, and over Eleuthera Island near 1800 UTC. Michelle became a vigorous extratropical cyclone around 0000 UTC on the 6th, and the center could be followed for another 18 hours before being absorbed into a strong frontal system.
b. Meteorological Statistics
The Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters made 40 center "fixes" on Michelle, while the NOAA aircraft made 11 fixes during the time the center was near Cuba. The maximum observed flight-level winds at 700 mb were 155 mph at 0258 UTC 4 November about 18 nautical miles south-southwest of the center. An eyewall dropsonde near 0408 UTC on the 4th reported 184 mph winds at the 841 mb pressure level. The maximum surface wind reported by land stations was 124 mph with a gust to 130 mph at Cayo Largo, Cuba at an unknown time on the 4th. A 130 mph gust was also measured at Jaguey Grande, Cuba on the 4th. Abaco Island in the Bahamas reported 72 mph sustained winds at 1500 UTC on the 5th, while Nassau reported a gust to 102 mph. Unofficial observations relayed by amateur radio from other parts of the Bahamas indicated sustained winds of 81-92 mph. Sustained winds of tropical-storm force were reported from portions of the Florida Keys and southeastern Florida. Bermuda also reported gusts to tropical storm-force winds, but these may have been more related to the frontal system that absorbed Michelle than to the storm itself.
The minimum pressure observed by reconnaissance aircraft was 933 mb at 1921 UTC and 2101 UTC 3 November. The latter observation was accompanied by the lowest observed 700 mb height of 2491 m and is thus chosen as the time of the overall minimum pressure in Michelle. The minimum pressure observed by land stations was 949.7 mb at Cayo Largo on the 4th. Nassau reported a 983.7 mb pressure at 1500 UTC on the 5th as the center passed to the south. Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua reported a 1004.1 mb pressure at 2100 UTC 30 October as Michelle meandered over eastern Nicaragua.
A notable aspect of Michelle was that the aircraft-reported winds and pressures appeared to be somewhat out of phase. Aircraft-reported winds at the time of the minimum pressure were roughly 12 mph lower than the previous mission six hours earlier during rapid intensification. The winds and pressure then both rose simultaneously over the next 9-12 hours as Michelle reached peak intensity. This relationship could be partly due to sampling issues, as no aircraft were in the storm during the last 6 h of the rapid intensification when Michelle showed its best organization in satellite imagery.
Aircraft 700 mb wind data after Michelle became extratropical on 6th indicated winds as high as 122 mph. This would normally support surface winds of 104-109 mph using reduction factors developed for eyewall conditions. However, no significant convection was associated with the storm at that time. Thus, the best track intensity is set to a more conservative 86 mph using reduction factors for non-convective situations.
Several ships encountered Michelle. While most of the encounters
were well away from the center, two ships met the core of Michelle. The
first was the Scan Partner, which reported Beaufort force 8/9 winds
(39-54 mph) and a 988 mb pressure at 0730 UTC 2 November. The ship was
near the center of Michelle just before the cyclone reached hurricane
strength. The second was from a ship with the call sign ELWU7 (name
unknown) which reported 69 mph winds and a 995.0 mb pressure at 1200 UTC
5 November. Additionally, a drifting buoy near Cat Island in the Bahamas
reported a 986.7 mb pressure at 1900 UTC on the 5th.
1. Storm Surge Data
The highest reported storm surge is 9-10 ft (3 m) at Cayo Largo which reportedly inundated the entire island. Above normal tides and battering waves 4-5 m high affected other portions of the coasts of western and central Cuba, causing extensive coastal flooding. In the Bahamas, storm surges of 5-8 ft were reported from New Providence Island, while storm surges of unknown magnitude affected Andros, Eleuthera, Cat Island, Exuma, and Abaco. Storm surges of 1-3 ft occurred along portions of the southeastern Florida coast and in the Florida Keys. These surges were part of a prolonged period of strong onshore winds and high tides that produced significant beach erosion along portions of the Florida east coast. Above normal tides and large battering waves also affected the southern and western shores of the Cayman Islands.
2. Rainfall DataThe initial slow movement of Michelle and the pre-Michelle disturbance caused widespread heavy rains over portions of Honduras, eastern Nicaragua, northern Costa Rica, and Jamaica. Ten-day storm totals on Jamaica were as high as 37.44 inches at Comfort Castle, and there are numerous other totals of over 15 inches. Additional heavy rains occurred over portions of Cuba, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands. Nassau reported 12.64 inches, while Punta del Este on the Island of Youth reported 11.83 inches. Outer rain bands also affected Florida, where rainfall totals were generally 1-3 inches.
3. TornadoesTwo tornadoes were reported in south Florida. An F1 tornado occurred near Belle Glade, while a waterspout moved onshore at Key Biscayne to become an F0 tornado.
c. Casualty and Damage Statistics
There were 17 deaths attributed to Michelle; 6 in Honduras,
5 in Cuba, 4 in Nicaragua and 2 in Jamaica.
Michelle was the strongest hurricane to hit Cuba since Hurricane Fox in October 1952. Preliminary reports from the government of Cuba indicate widespread damage over the central and western parts of the island, with the provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara, and Cienfuegos the hardest hit. Ten thousand homes were reported destroyed with another 100,000 others damaged. Additional damage occurred to as yet uncounted businesses and other structures. Severe damage was also reported to the sugar cane crop near the path of the storm. No monetary estimates of the damage are available at this time.
The heavy rains in Honduras and Nicaragua caused widespread flooding with more than 100,000 people forced from their homes. The hardest hit area was the province of Gracias a Dios in the northeastern part of Honduras, where press reports indicate as many as 100 villages were cut off at one time. The northeastern part of Nicaragua was also hit by severe floods in and near Puerto Cabezas. Flooding was also reported in portions of northern Costa Rica, which casued the evacuation of several thousand people. No monetary estimate of damages is available at this time.
The flash flooding and mudslides in Jamaica caused property damage there, although monetary estimates of the amount are not available at this time. The high surf and tides in the Cayman Islands caused about $28 Million in damage in the Cayman Islands, primarily along the west coast of Grand Cayman. The two tornadoes in south Florida were responsible for about $20,000 in damage.
Additionally, a NOAA P-3 aircraft returned from a mission into Michelle with damage to the tail section, wings, and propellers.
Sustained Winds For Hurricane Michelle
Pressure For Hurricane Michelle
for Hurricane Michelle