SR SSD 99-2
TOP WEATHER STORIES IN THE SOUTHERN REGION - 1998
Just as the Kingston Trio sang in the 1950s, "There's hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain." So went 1998, weatherwise. Jimmy Buffet also got it fairly right when he changed the lyrics of one of his popular songs to say, "...blame it on El Niño!" Heat, drought and fire in many southern states, followed by tornadoes, hurricanes and floods helped make 1998 a year that will go down in the annals of weather history as one of the most dramatic in recent times. Following is a summary of some of the major weather and climate events of 1998 in the South.
El Niño. Called by some the "climate event of the century," one of the strongest El Niños on record dominated the winter weather across the country. And the NWS' unprecedented forecast of El Niño and its expected impacts drew media attention nationwide. Probably all Southern Region offices were called upon for interviews and opinions. Many provided detailed summaries of expected local effects.
El Niño-related storms, floods, and tornadoes during winter-spring 1998 in the Southeast caused over $1 billion in damages and 132 deaths. Florida, where winter rainfall (December - February) averaged 19 inches (220 percent of normal), recorded both its wettest winter and wettest November-March period ever. Florida also endured its deadliest tornado outbreak on record when storms on the night of Feb. 22 killed 41 people in the Kissimmee area, and destroyed 800 homes. The Melbourne NWSO has been credited for saving many lives during the storm, thanks to their significant efforts in providing advance warning.
Active Hurricane Season. The most tropical storms to strike the country since 1985 caused an estimated $6.5 billion in damages, primarily in the Gulf Coast states, but the storms also helped to relieve drought across the South.
A total of 14 tropical storms and hurricanes developed in the Atlantic basin during the 1998 season. Three hurricanes and four tropical storms made landfall in the United States this year, and all except one of the tropical storms impacted the Southern Region. Hurricanes Bonnie, Earl, and Georges, and tropical storms Charley, Frances, and Mitch, caused an estimated $6.5 billion in damage to the U.S. South, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.
Hurricane Bonnie seriously threatened the Caribbean islands and Florida before striking the North Carolina coast on Aug. 26, killing three; cutting off power to nearly a half-million people; and causing $720 million dollars in damage. Earl hit the Florida Panhandle on Sept. 3, causing $79 million in damage. Hurricane Georges caused $5.1 billion in damage, much of it in Puerto Rico on Sept. 21-22, where it damaged or destroyed more than 170,000 homes. It then crossed the Florida Keys and struck near Biloxi, Mississippi, on Sept. 27. Up to 20 inches of rain deluged Puerto Rico, northwest Florida and southeastern Alabama. Hurricane Mitch, which may have killed as many as 9,000 in Central America, crossed southern Florida as a tropical storm on Nov. 4-5, bringing tornadoes, heavy rains, and flooding.
Throughout the season, NOAA scientists, working with NASA and university collaborators, conducted the most complete and sophisticated campaign of observations in hurricanes ever. Faculty from both Southern Region cooperative institutes (at Florida State and Texas A&M) were involved. This investment in technology and research will contribute to better hurricane predictions.
Tornado Outbreaks. Severe storms were rampant throughout the year, not just during the spring, and tornado outbreaks took many lives. Nationwide, 333 tornadoes were recorded in June, more than twice the usual number and the second highest June total in 49 years of record keeping. The preliminary national death toll from tornadoes during all of 1998 reached 129, about twice the number recorded in 1997 and three times the average. By early December, an estimated 1255 tornadoes had occurred across the U.S. in 1998, with five of those being F4-F5 intensity. There were several major tornadoes and outbreaks in the Southern Region.
Central Florida Tornado Outbreak of February 22-23.
During the night of February 22-23, Florida endured its deadliest tornado outbreak on record. Despite watches from the Storm Prediction Center and advance warning from the NWS Forecast Office in Melbourne, there were numerous casualties. The storms produced several strong mesocyclones and at least seven tornadoes. Five of these tornadoes were classified as strong (F2-F3). The tornadoes resulted in 41 deaths and over 260 injuries, as well as widespread property damage in Volusia, Orange, Seminole, and Osceola counties. The SPC issued tornado watches several hours before the storms, and NWSO Melbourne issued tornado warnings with an average lead time of 15 minutes. Only preparedness activities and close coordination with the media and county officials kept the death toll as low as it was.
Hall County, Georgia, Tornado of March 20.
In the predawn hours of March 20, a tornado rapidly developed in western portions of Hall County, Georgia. The tornado quickly moved 11 miles to the north-northeast, across northern Hall County, before dissipating in southern White County. The tornado killed 12 people; 11 in mobile homes and one in a vehicle. Over 170 injuries were reported, and over 150 permanent and mobile homes were destroyed or damaged.
Southeastern U.S. Tornadoes of April 8-9.
During the afternoon of April 8, severe thunderstorms developed over Mississippi, Arkansas, and southwestern Tennessee. As the storms swept through Alabama and western Georgia that evening and night, the storms produced at least nine tornadoes. The tornadoes resulted in 36 fatalities and 273 injuries. One of the tornadoes, which struck Tuscaloosa and Jefferson Counties in Alabama, was rated F5 and destroyed over 1,100 permanent homes. Local NWS offices and the SPC provided advance notification of the event, with over 300 county warnings issued as the thunderstorms moved through the area.
Arkansas/Tennessee Tornadoes of April 16.
Early on the morning of April 16, a line of strong thunderstorms moved through eastern Arkansas and extreme western Tennessee. These storms produced killer tornadoes in Mississippi County, Arkansas, and Dyer County, Tennessee. Later in the day, the same system produced several supercells over middle Tennessee. Strong to violent tornadoes were reported in Davidson and Wayne Counties in Tennessee. Five fatalities and numerous injuries were reported, along with extensive damage. Included was the downtown Nashville vicinity. None of the fatalities occurred in Nashville. All of the significant tornadoes were preceded by warnings with lead times of at least 20 minutes.
Oklahoma Tornadoes of Oct. 4.
At least 20 tornadoes cut a swath of destruction through parts of Oklahoma on Oct. 4, breaking a record for the most tornadoes ever reported in a single day, in a single state, during the month of October since records began in 1950. Thirteen tornadoes touched down in western and central Oklahoma, and seven in other parts of the state. The number of confirmed tornadoes in Oklahoma eclipsed the previous mark for October tornado outbreaks set in 1996, when 18 twisters tore through sections of Florida. As a result of accurate and timely weather warnings from local NWS forecast offices, no lives were lost during this October outbreak.
Wildfires in Florida and Texas. By mid-July, wildfires raging since late May in Florida had consumed some 490,000 acres of land and destroyed at least 370 structures. Wildfires in Texas burned 143,000 acres in May-June, while the severe drought caused more than $2 billion in damage to agriculture, according to state officials. For the year, wildfires across the southern U.S. burned 1.3 million acres, four times the acreage burned in 1997. The NWS deployed a team of incident response meteorologists to Florida to aid in providing the most accurate and timely weather information to help manage the fires and keep firefighters safe. Additional incident response meteorologists were assigned to the Texas Department of Public Safety throughout the summer.
Summer Heat Wave and Drought. Spring and summer heat and drought caused massive wildfire outbreaks in Florida and damage to crops from the southern Plains to the Southeast. April-June was the driest such period in 104 years of record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. May-June was the warmest such period on record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The total drought and heat costs exceeded an estimated $6 billion in damage/costs and resulted in at least 200 deaths.
Summer-autumn drought from the mid-Atlantic to Tennessee Valley caused crop losses, increased wildfire risk, and threatened water supplies. July-November rainfall was the lowest since 1930 in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. In addition, Tennessee, Maryland, and Virginia posted their second, third, and fourth driest autumns in 104 years of record, respectively.
Flooding throughout Texas and other areas. Tropical storms Charley and Frances, along with several other wet weather systems, finally brought heavy rains to Texas from August to November, ending drought over much of the state, but causing at least 42 deaths from several rounds of severe flooding. Tropical storm Charley caused 9 deaths in Texas. Del Rio, Texas, recorded its wettest day ever on August 23 with 17.03 inches of rain from Charley's remains. During the previous 8 ½ months, Del Rio had measured just 2.89 inches. Frances made landfall on the Texas coast on September 11, bringing a five-foot storm surge and over two feet of rain. Another weather system brought over a foot of rain to southeast Texas on Oct. 17-18, causing major flooding and at least 29 deaths, predominantly motorists driving into flooded roads and crossings. Raging floodwaters swept away or destroyed dozens of homes. San Antonio tallied 18.07 inches of rain in October, its wettest month ever, including 11.26 inches on Oct. 17, the city's wettest day ever.