Hurricane Mitch hits Central America on this day in 1998. The storm, the most deadly hurricane to hit the Western Hemisphere in more than 200 years, went on to kill thousands of people.
The storm formed on October 8 off the west coast of Africa. For 10 days it grew larger, slowly making its way across the Atlantic Ocean. On October 18, still only a tropical storm, Mitch entered the Caribbean. At the time, the storm provoked relatively little concern, but by October 24, it reached hurricane status with the help of unseasonably warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. By the next day, Mitch was a Category 5 storm battering southern Mexico with torrential rains.
Hurricane Mitch then bore down on Central America, forcing the evacuation of 75,000 people from Belize City. As it made landfall, the storm began moving very slowly and unpredictably. In areas where the storm stalled, rainfall in excess of 50 inches was recorded. Flash floods and mudslides were the deadly result of overwhelming rains.
Honduras and Nicaragua were worst hit by Hurricane Mitch. In Honduras, flooded rivers completely isolated the city of San Pedro Sula. The water levels reached 10 feet in large towns such as Tegucigalpa. Not only were thousands killed but nearly three-quarters of the country’s crops were destroyed, a huge economic loss. The worst single incident of the disaster took place in Posoltega, Nicaragua, where 2,000 people perished in a huge mudslide. The town of Casitas was also virtually wiped off the map by a mudslide.
Making matters even worse, 10 more people were killed when a plane carrying missionaries to assist in the relief efforts crashed in Guatemala. Additional assistance was sent from around the world. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was particularly helpful in restoring access to areas that had been cut off by the hurricane.
In total, somewhere between 11,000 and 18,000 people are believed to have died because of the hurricane, making Hurricane Mitch the most deadly storm since the Great Hurricane of 1780. Nearly 1 million people lost their homes and the region suffered an estimated $4 billion in damages.