Hurricane warnings are flying for the coast of Belize, the southern portion of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and the islands off the north coast of Honduras, as a strengthening Tropical Storm Earl speeds westwards at 14 mph. The Hurricane Hunters did not find hurricane-force winds in Earl in a mission that departed from the storm around 8 am EDT Wednesday, but a new airplane arrived in Earl around 11 am, and will likely find that Earl is a hurricane by mid-afternoon Wednesday. Satellite loops on Wednesday morning showed Earl was steadily gaining in organization, with an increase in symmetry, low-level spiral bands and heavy thunderstorm activity. No eye was apparent in the visible satellite imagery, but we should see one appear before sunset on Wednesday. The outer bands of Earl were just beginning to appear on Belize radar late Wednesday morning.
Forecast for Earl
The forecast for Earl appears straightforward. Earl is trapped to the south of a strong area of high pressure that will keep the storm moving on a track slightly north of due west at 10 - 14 mph over the next four days. This motion will bring the center of the storm within twenty miles Guanaja Island off the coast of Honduras near 4 pm EDT Wednesday, then to the coast of central Belize around 4 am EDT Thursday. Earl has favorable atmospheric and oceanic conditions for intensification: light to moderate wind shear of 5 - 15 knots, and very warm ocean waters near 30°C (86°F). These warm waters extend to great depth, providing plenty of fuel to power intensification of the storm. Typically, storms that approach landfall begin to undergo interaction with land that causes a slowdown in intensification or weakening. However, storms in the Western Caribbean often undergo intensification right up until landfall, due to the extremely warm waters with high heat content that lie along the coast. The topography of the coast in the right-angle bend between Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras may also act to aid intensification by giving storms more spin, as air gets deflected into a counter-clockwise motion by the high terrain ringing the ocean. This effect has been shown to exist in modeling studies of some storms in the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche, but has not been studied (to my knowledge) for the region along the coasts of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize, though.
The main concern from Earl is its heavy rains. With rainfall amounts in excess of 8" expected over a swath of northern Honduras, northern Guatemala, most of Belize, and a chunk of Mexico, expect life-threatening flash floods and landslides. The storm's 4 - 6' storm surge will cause additional flooding along the coast near and to the right of where the center hits in Belize. Strong winds will also be a major concern. In their 11 am EDT Wednesday Wind Probability forecast, NHC gave Guanaja Island a 97% and 30% chance of experiencing tropical storm-force winds of 39+ mph and hurricane-force winds of 74+ mph, respectively. For Belize City, these odds were 94% and 17%, respectively. Earl is already a killer: high winds in the Dominican Republic associated with the tropical wave that became Earl brought power lines down and sparked a fire aboard a bus, killing 6 and injuring 12 people, according to weather.com. Three others were killed after a tour boat overturned, although that incident had not yet been confirmed to be weather-related.
Belize hurricane history
Belize is often struck by tropical storms and hurricanes. Approximately 80 tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes have hit Belize since 1851, but it has been five years since the last landfall by a named storm--Tropical Storm Harvey, which hit on August 20, 2011, with 65 mph sustained winds. Harvey's flooding rains killed five people in Mexico, but did little damage in Belize. The last hurricane to hit Belize was Hurricane Richard on October 23, 2010, which made landfall about 20 miles south of Belize's largest city, Belize City (population approximately 100,000--1/3 of Belize's population.) Richard hit as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds, but was a small hurricane, with hurricane-force winds affecting a region of coast of no more than 20 - 30 miles wide. The hurricane killed one and did about $80 million in damage. The last major hurricane to hit Belize was Hurricane Iris on October 9, 2001, which made landfall in southern Belize as a Category 4 storm with 145 mph winds, killing 35 and doing $250 million in damage.
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