Wilma: The Most Intense Atlantic Hurricane on Record
When ranking hurricanes by strength, the obvious choice is to compare wind speeds. But since measurements of the most extreme winds are difficult to obtain, we instead compare hurricanes by their lowest central pressure, a measure that has a strong relationship to wind speed; generally, the lower the pressure in a hurricane, the stronger its winds.
One hurricane that will forever go down in history is Wilma. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season had already been devastating and mind-blowing enough when Wilma – the first “W” storm name ever used in the Atlantic basin – suddenly became the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record.
When Tropical Depression 24 formed on 15th October, expectations were high. “In fact, the GFDL [hurricane model] makes this cyclone a very intense hurricane over the northwestern Caribbean between Cuba and the Cayman Islands,” wrote Dr. Lixion Avila in the very first official National Hurricane Center technical discussion on the depression that would become Wilma.
It took several days for the system to become Hurricane Wilma over the northwest Caribbean, but not long after it did, an explosive and unprecedented period of strengthening occurred. The pressure plummeted from 980 millibars (28.94 inches) at 7 a.m. EDT on 18th October to the Atlantic basin record of 882 millibars (26.05 inches) just 24 hours later, a drop of 98 millibars. Much of that breathtaking pressure fall occurred in the second half of those 24 hours. Wilma broke the records for fastest six-hour, 12-hour and 24-hour pressure drops ever recorded in an Atlantic basin tropical cyclone.
This spectacular turn of events took Wilma from a tropical storm on the morning of the 18th to a 175-mph Category 5 hurricane the following morning. As this happened, the eye contracted to an unheard-of 2 miles in diameter, the smallest known eye of an Atlantic basin hurricane.
Wilma weakened slightly on its way to the Yucatan Peninsula, but as a Category 4 storm it caused severe damage to the resort areas in and around Cancún. The slowmoving storm also dropped more than 60 inches of rain on nearby Isla Mujeres.
Later in its life, Wilma raked eastward across South Florida, causing an estimated $21 billion in damage.