Wilma: The Most In­tense At­lantic Hur­ri­cane on Record

The Star (St. Lucia) - - HURRICANE SUPPLEMENT - By Nick Wilt­gen ---

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.

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