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Hurricanes: Science and Society
1988- Hurricane Gilbert

On September 3, 1988, a tropical wave was detected on satellite imagery satellite imagery as it moved off the coast of Africa. It would wreak havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico for nearly nine days and become the most destructive storm in the history of Jamaica.

At first, the tropical wave showed no signs of organization. It was not until 8 September that low-level circulation was detected. On 9 September, the system was declared the 12th tropical depression of the 1988 season while it was located 644 km (400 mi) east of Barbados. Reconnaissance aircraft Reconnaissance aircraft flew into the depression later that day, and it was upgraded to tropical storm status just before crossing the island of Martinique and entering the Caribbean Sea. Late on 10 September, aircraft reconnaissance reported a wind speed of 130 km/h (81 mph) and a central pressure of 984mb- the storm had intensified into a hurricane. On 12 September, Hurricane Gilbert made a direct landfall on Jamaica as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 201 km/h (125 mph) and gusts of up to 241 km/ (150 mph). This was the first time the island had received a direct hit from a hurricane in 37 years.

Satellite image of Hurricane Gilbert.
Satellite image of Hurricane Gilbert. Source: NOAA

From 10:00am-6:00pm on 12 September, Hurricane Gilbert traversed the entire length of Jamaica. After re-emerging into the warm open waters of the northwest Caribbean Sea, the storm rapidly intensified. Gilbert’s central pressure then fell an extraordinary 74 mb in just 24 hours, from 962mb to a record-breaking 888 mb. This made Hurricane Gilbert the most intense hurricane ever documented in the Atlantic Basin, a title held until 2005 when Hurricane Wilma surpassed it. The NOAA aircraft that measured this extraordinary drop in pressure also measured a peak wind speed for the hurricane at 298 km/h (185 mph). On September 14, 1988, Hurricane Gilbert made a second landfall on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 5 storm. The hurricane quickly weakened as it crossed the peninsula and emerged into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 2 hurricane. The hurricane made its final landfall on 16 September near the town of La Pesca, Mexico on the northeast coast. The system weakened further as it moved inland, recurved as a heavy rainstorm across Texas and Oklahoma, and then merged with another system over Missouri on 19 September.

Hurricane Gilbert caused much destruction and loss of life in all regions that it impacted. Coastal storm surge flooding produced tides up to 2.7 m (8.9 ft) above normal on the northeast coast of Jamaica. Inland flash flooding was the result of over 700 mm (27.6 in) of rainfall from 10-14 September. The hurricane was so large that significant amounts of rain fell as far away as Venezuela and Costa Rica as Gilbert made landfall across Jamaica. In Jamaica, 40% of total damages were to agriculture. 95% of all hospitals suffered damage with only 2 of 25 escaping with minimal damage while 2 were completely destroyed and 11 others suffered severe damage. All over the island, 50% of the domestic water supply (storage and distribution facilities) was destroyed.

Hurricane Gilbert caused tremendous amount of damage upon its landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula. 83 Ships were sunk when the storm moved in with a storm surge of 4.5-6 m (15-20 ft). 60,000 homes were destroyed in Mexico leaving at least 35,000 people homeless. The mountainous areas near Monterrey received greater than 250 mm (10 in) of rain during the event. In all areas affected, 341 lives were lost in, with the majority of those due to flooding caused by the hurricane’s torrential rain. Other deaths occurred in Venezuela, Hispaniola, and much of Central America as a result of flooding rains. Damages in the US were low, with hurricane force winds reaching only some areas in Texas. 1-1.5 m (3-5 ft) storm surges eroded beaches in part of the state, which was considered to be the storm’s largest impact. 3 deaths were reported in San Antonia, TX, caused by tornadoes generated from the residual winds of the hurricane.

Initial damages amounted to between $1-2 billion (1989 USD) in Mexico - the tourism industry around the Yucatan took a critical hit in the months following the storm with resultant losses totaling $87 million. The destruction in Jamaica accounted for the majority of monetary losses associated with Hurricane Gilbert, with damage to crops, buildings, roads and homes totaling $4 billion (1988 USD). Damages in the US amounted to a few million dollars. All in all, the total damage from the storm is estimated to be about $5.5 billion.

Fast Facts:

  • The jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula was nearly completely defoliated during the event, while the density of the trees decreased by 33% with small diameter trees accounting for most of the losses. Defoliation and destruction of trees has been known to a direct affect on bird populations due to loss of nesting a roosting locations, and lack of vegetative coverage.
  • Gilbert was one of the largest tropical cyclones ever observed in the Atlantic basin. At one point, tropical storm force winds measured 800 km (500 mi) in diameter. Even before becoming a tropical depression, the storms circulation extended almost to the equator from the storm’s center when the storm was still only midway between Africa and the Lesser Antilles.
  • Hurricane Gilbert was the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the western hemisphere since Camille struck in 1969.
  • Wild fires, fueled by debris left by the storm, became out of control in 1989, burning 740 km2 (460 mi2) in Mexico.


Preliminary Report: Hurricane Gilbert. National Hurricane Center, 1988. Web. Pp. 1, 2.

Archive for all NHC Gilbert report pages etc.:

Hurricane History. National Hurricane Center.

Hurricane Gilbert. Wikipedia. 2009.

Lawrence, Miles and James Gross. 1988. Atlantic Hurricane Season of 1988. Monthly Weather Review. 117: 2252-2257.

Regional Disaster Information Center (CRID), Latin American and the Caribbean- The Hurricane and its Effects

HPC page for Hurricane Gilbert