MIAMI (Reuters) - The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season tested the New Orleans levees rebuilt after Katrina, hammered the Texas oilpatch and killed 800 in Haiti, but may be best remembered as one of the worst in Cuba’s history.
Three “major” hurricanes of Category 3 or higher, Gustav, Ike and Paloma, caused an estimated $10 billion damage in the Communist-ruled Caribbean island, where it damaged nearly half a million homes and flattened sugar cane and tobacco fields.
With about two weeks remaining in the six-month season, 16 cyclones have formed -- eight tropical storms and eight hurricanes -- making it the busiest Atlantic season since the record-breaker of 2005, which produced 28.
The official season ends on November 30 and chances for another storm are ebbing. But three years ago, Tropical Storm Zeta formed on December 30 and lasted into January.
“The hurricane season’s over for the United States, that’s for sure,” AccuWeather forecaster Joe Bastardi said.
“It’s the natural endgame,” he said, citing cooling sea surface temperatures, strong upper-levels winds and a drier atmosphere, which all work against hurricane formation. “You might get something developing in the middle of nowhere.”
But 2008 will go down in the record books as another in a string of exceptionally busy seasons. The average hurricane season produces about 10 storms, of which six become hurricanes.
In 1995, researchers believe, the Atlantic basin entered a new cycle of prolific hurricane production that could last anywhere from 25 to 40 years.
For impoverished and nearly treeless Haiti, the 2008 season brought a rapid succession of soggy storms -- Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike -- and deadly floods. Gonaives, the seaside city where 3,000 were killed by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004, was buried in a sea of mud.
The storms triggered a global call for aid for the poorest country in the Americas and proved another setback for a government still reeling from April riots sparked by skyrocketing food prices.
After crushing Haiti, Gustav cranked up to Category 4 over Cuba’s west end and took dead aim at New Orleans, which was quickly abandoned by residents with fresh memories of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion damage across the U.S. Gulf coast.
The levees, rebuilt but untested since Katrina, cracked and leaked but did not break when a weakened Gustav hit shore far enough west of the city to spare the floodwalls a direct hit.
Gustav and Ike disrupted oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering widespread shortages and long lines at gas pumps across the U.S. South.
Ike destroyed tens of thousands of homes when it smashed into the barrier island of Galveston on September 13, killing over 30 in Texas. Dozens of people are still missing from communities along the Texas coast, especially the remote Bolivar Peninsula.
In Cuba, the official hurricane death toll was seven, all from Ike, thanks to the government’s efficient evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from danger zones. But the three powerful cyclones ripped the island from end to end.
Gustav registered a gust of 212 mph in Paso Real de San Diego, the strongest wind ever recorded in Cuba.
This season has bested 2005 in one regard. According to tropical storm expert Jeff Masters, founder of the Weather Underground website, it was the first time a major hurricane had formed in each of five months -- Bertha in July, Gustav in August, Ike in September, Omar in October and Paloma in November. The previous mark was four.
“Having major hurricanes five months in a row is a considerable highlight ... when put in the context that we only average six hurricanes a year,” said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. “To get five majors anytime, in any season, is not normal.”
If it ends without another tropical storm, 2008 may be remembered as a year when storm prognosticators almost got it right, after some shaky forecasts in the past.
At season’s start, pioneering forecaster Bill Gray and his Colorado State University team predicted 15, as did the U.K. Met Office. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expected 12 to 16. London-based Tropical Storm Risk said 14.8.
Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana and Chris Baltimore in Houston; Editing by Tom Brown