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 1: A Tropical Wave is Detected

On September 9, 1989, satellite imagery detected a strong tropical wave with plenty of spin and heavy thunderstorm activity moving off the coast of Africa, just south of the Cape Verdes Islands. The satellite analyst at the National Hurricane Center duly noted the tropical wave, the 35th such wave to move off Africa that year, in his tropical weather discussion. No one could suspect that the routine-looking tropical wave would eventually grow to become Hurricane Hugo--the costliest Atlantic hurricane of all time.

Day 2: A New Tropical Depression

On September 10, 1989, the strong tropical wave that had moved off the coast of Africa the previous day acquired an organized circulation at the surface and began building a concentrated area of heavy thunderstorms near its center. A new tropical depression, the 12th of the season, was born. Moving westward at 20 mph, the depression brought strong, gusty winds and heavy rain showers to the Cape Verdes Islands as it passed to the south. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center predicted that the steadily organizing tropical depression would strengthen into a tropical storm within the next day or two. The next name on the list of Atlantic tropical storm names for 1989: Hugo.

10 September, 1989

Figure 1. AVHRR visible satellite image of Tropical Depression Twelve taken on September 10, 1989. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

Day 3: The Depression Becomes More Organized

On September 11, 1989, Tropical Depression Twelve continued to grow more organized, building a large region of heavy thunderstorms near its center. Two hooking spiral bands formed, prompting the National Hurricane Center to upgrade the depression to a tropical storm in their 11 am advisory. The new storm's name: Hugo. Tropical Storm Hugo continued to trek westward across the open Atlantic at 20 mph, still four days from the Lesser Antilles Islands.

That day at NOAA's Miami-based Office of Aircraft Operations--the hurricane hunting division of NOAA--we joked about the fearsome new storm with the same name as the director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Marine Laboratory (AOML), Hugo Bezdek. AOML housed the offices of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, whose scientists would decide whether or not our hurricane hunting group would intercept the new storm once it got close enough to the Lesser Antilles Islands. Even if Hugo was a dud, we figured we'd be flying the storm for sure, since it shared the same first name as the big boss of the hurricane research scientists.

After work that evening, I celebrated my 29th birthday by biking through the sun-dappled shaded streets of Coconut Grove. As I stopped to watch a perfect tropical fuchsia-red sunset, my thoughts roamed out over the eastern horizon. What kind of birthday present had the weather gods delivered me today? I was first on the list of flight meteorologists that would deploy to meet Hugo, should we fly the storm.

Figure 2. AVHRR visible satellite image of Tropical Storm Hugo taken on September 11, 1989. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

The Hurricane Hugo Retrospective:

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