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 10: Hugo Approaches the U.S. Virgin Islands


As Hurricane Hugo approached the U.S. Virgin Islands in the early morning hours of September 18, 1989, the storm slowed down to 10 mph. The slower speed allowed Hugo to punish the island of St. Croix with the worst beating of any location along the hurricane's destructive path. At 2am local time on September 18, 1989, Hurricane Hugo's eyewall struck St. Croix, bringing incredibly ferocious Category 4 winds, sustained at 140 mph. The hurricane's gusts were remarkably violent, and many residents witnessed tornado-like vorticies barreling across the island as the hurricane raged about them. A storm surge of 2 - 3 feet, topped by battering waves 20 - 23 feet high, assaulted the coast, adding to the destruction. Wunderground member Mike Steers wrote me to describe his experience on St. Croix: "Hugo was incredible. Many vortexes came in that night. The roar and intensity of the winds that night were incredible. When the eyewall came over, we were forced to take refuge in the bathroom as the rest of the house came apart. The pressure was so low outside the house that all of the water was sucked out of the toilet and an air draft was created through the toilet. Just when I thought it was as bad as it would get, the intensity of it all dialed up even higher. Dozens and dozens of times, my ears would violently pop due to rapid pressure changes. The next morning, of course, the devastation was unbelievable. In my front yard was a 18-foot boat with an outboard on it, that had been picked up from a marina two miles away. I had lost my house, and job, the Seaplane company I was a pilot for. After a couple months, I had to leave everything behind. In some respects, after 20 years, there an many aspects of the society that have yet to recover". Two people were killed on St. Croix, 80 injured, and 90% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed. Damage estimates for St. Croix were astronomical, over $1 billion, and the island's entire infrastructure was virtually wiped out. Six weeks after the hurricane, only 25% of the public roads had been cleared, and only 25% of the island had power.

18 September, 1989

Figure 1.GOES visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 18, 1989. Note the lack of cloud cover on the hurricane's southwest side, indicating that strong upper-level winds from the southwest were likely creating wind shear, weakening the storm. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

As Hugo departed St. Croix, strong upper-level winds from the southwest created wind shear that weakened the storm to a Category 3 hurricane with 130 mph winds. The upper level winds also caused Hugo to accelerate to 15 mph and turn more northwest. The eye passed over Puerto Rico's Vieques Island at 8am and over Fajardo on the extreme northeastern tip of Puerto Rico at 9am. On Culebra Island, an island twelve miles east of Fajardo, a gust to 170 mph was recorded by the ship Night Cap in the main harbor. The south-facing harbor received sustained southerly winds in excess of 120 mph for several hours as Hugo roared by to the south. The resulting wave "set-up" created a storm surge in excess of 13 feet in the supposedly hurricane-proof harbor. A large portion of the Caribbean's charter boat fleet, some 200 boats, was sheltering in Culebra's harbor, and 136 of these boats were badly damaged or sunk. Over 80% of the wooden structures on both Culebra and Vieques were destroyed.

Hugo Damage

Figure 2. Damage on St. Croix (two top photos), Culebra Island (bottom right), and Puerto Rico's Roosevelt Roads Navy Base (bottom left), after Hurricane Hugo. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

Along the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, waves up to ten feet high riding on top of a 3 - 4 foot storm surge caused severe coastal flooding of low-lying areas. Hugo's winds tore into Puerto Rico's El Yunque rainforest, downing thousands of trees. The agricultural sector was devastated, with nearly all of the island's banana and coffee crops wiped out. Twelve deaths in Puerto Rico were attributed to Hugo, six of which occurred in the southern city of Guayama where some residents were electrocuted by downed power lines. Nearly 28,000 people were left homeless by the storm, and damage to the island exceeded $1 billion.

Storm chaser Michael Laca was at Luquillo Beach on the northeast shore of Puerto Rico, and has posted a remarkable 28-minute video on YouTube of Hurricane Hugo footage.

The Hurricane Hugo Retrospective:


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