Curtain Falls on Deadliest
Hurricane Season in Centuries

MIAMI (AP) -- This year's Atlantic hurricane season won't soon be forgotten, an onslaught of storms that left a staggering trail of death and destruction across Central America and the Caribbean.
The season, which started June 1, winds up today after racking up the deadliest toll in more than 200 years. Six of the named storms -- including the season's monsters, Georges and Mitch -- caused billions in damage.
And more of the same is possible next year, said pioneering hurricane forecaster William Gray at Colorado State University in Boulder, Colo.
"We are going to see the return of some of these type of storms," Gray said. "People have to face up to it. The insurance industry has a major problem."
Gray , who underestimated this season's activity, said the last four years have been the most active ever for hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. He expects even more hurricanes in 1999.
With the gradual fading of the latest cycle of the El Nino phenomenon, which tends to suppress Atlantic hurricanes, 1998 saw nine hurricanes and five tropical storms. In September, there were four hurricanes at once -- Georges, Ivan, Jeanne, and Karl -- for the first time since 1893.
The Pacific hurricane season, which also ends today, was about average with 13 named storms and nine hurricanes. Howard was the strongest Pacific hurricane with 240 kilometre an hour sustained winds. Only Isis reached land, and then only after weakening to tropical storm force.
The Atlantic season's last gasp was tropical storm Nicole, which formed last week and stayed out at sea.
But it was really Mitch that provided the season's climax.
After forming south of Jamaica on Oct. 22, Mitch erupted into a Category 5 storm with sustained wind blowing at 290 km/h and gusts estimated at more than 320 km/h, the fourth-strongest Caribbean hurricane this century.
Then it stalled over Honduras and Nicaragua with torrents of rain. Its death toll from floods, storm surge and mudslides will probably never be known but is estimated at more than 10,000.
Mitch's death toll would match Fifi, which hit Honduras in 1974, as the third-deadliest Atlantic hurricane.
The deadliest single storm on record was in 1780, killing at least 20,000 people on Martinique. A 1900 storm killed 8,000 to 12,000 in Galveston, Texas.
Mitch proved difficult for forecasters, even though they were equipped this season with a new satellite, a new hurricane-hunter airplane and other high-tech tools.
As the storm headed over Central America, they had to rely mostly on ground-level data to measure the storm's intensity because they couldn't use their airplane as much as they wished.
"It was a very challenging forecast for us," said Miles Lawrence, a specialist with the U.S. National Hurricane Centre. "It pointed out some of our limitations. We have a good justification for beefing up observations in Central America."
Mitch even overshadowed Georges, which formed Sept. 15 and grew into a Category 4 storm with 240 km/h winds. Georges rampaged across islands, the Florida Keys and the Mississippi Delta, causing about $1 billion US in damage and at least 350 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Bonnie grazed North Carolina and Virginia in late August and caused up to $2 billion US in damage. Tropical Storm Charley struck Texas on Aug. 22, dumping 45 centimetres of rain on one small town and killing at least 19 people in Texas and Mexico.
Hurricane Earl hit the Florida Panhandle on Labour Day; a week later, Frances caused floods along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Louisiana.
The vulnerable Florida Keys got hit twice. Georges damaged an estimated 700 homes on its way to Mississippi. And after Mitch weakened to a tropical storm, it spawned tornadoes that turned a Key Largo trailer park inside out.
Many Keys residents had never been through a hurricane before and decided to tough it out, a decision many regretted.
"We weren't prepared for it all," said Jerry Wright, whose got a tree through his bedroom window during Mitch. "We thought we were going to meet our makers."