30th Anniversary of Hurricane Elena

Hurricane Elena near its peak as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery (NASA)
Hurricane Elena near its peak as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery (NASA)

Midday on September 2, 1985, Hurricane Elena came ashore near Biloxi, MS.  But it had been anything of a direct path.  Elena’s track had many twists that had vexed forecasters and emergency managers all along the northern Gulf coast.

Elena began as a disturbance in the deep tropical Atlantic, but hostile conditions prevented it from organizing until it had reached the Windward Passage between Hispanola and Cuba.  As it traveled northwestward along Cuba’s northern shore, a NOAA aircraft monitored its slow organization.  Once it reached the Gulf of Mexico, it began strengthening in earnest becoming a hurricane by mid-morning of the 29th.  By the next day, Elena’s forward speed had slowed considerably even as its maximum winds increased.  The hurricane then began an unexpected jog to the northeast, heading toward Florida’s Big Bend area.  Frantically, watches and warnings were shifted to the eastern Gulf shore.  Slowly throughout the 31st, Elena crawled closer to Florida.

Hurricane Elena rainfall amounts and track.
Hurricane Elena rainfall amounts and track.

Then its progress stopped as it made a clockwise loop just 50 miles from Cedar Key, FL.  It then resumed a west-northwesterly course and accelerated toward the Mississippi shore.  Although it weakened from its peak twelve hours before, Elena came ashore as a Category Three hurricane, bringing winds of 115 mph (177 km/hr) to Biloxi.  Because of its track moving parallel to the coast before landfall, high storm surges (up to 9 feet [2.7 m]) were recorded from Florida to Louisiana.  Elena cost 9 lives and US$1.3 billion in damage.  But Elena was even more disruptive in its changeable course.  The shifting warning zones caused what was to that time the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history.

Hurricane Research Division missions into Elena measured the storm at every phase of its history, and also detailed the erratic movements of its eye.  And research papers that came from examining the data written by HRD scientists are:

Corbosiero, K. L., J. Molinari, and M. L. Black, 2005: The Structure and Evolution of Hurricane Elena (1985). Part I: Symmetric Intensification. Mon. Wea. Rev., 133, 2905–2921.

Corbosiero, K. L., J. Molinari, A. R. Aiyyer, and M. L. Black, 2006: The Structure and Evolution of Hurricane Elena (1985). Part II: Convective Asymmetries and Evidence for Vortex Rossby Waves. Mon. Wea. Rev., 134, 3073–3091.

Black, M. L., R. W. Burpee, and F. D. Marks Jr., 1996: Vertical Motion Characteristics of Tropical Cyclones Determined with Airborne Doppler Radial Velocities. J. Atmos. Sci., 53, 1887–1909.

Samsury, C. E., and E. J. Zipser, 1995: Secondary Wind Maxima in Hurricanes: Airflow and Relationship to Rainbands. Mon. Wea. Rev., 123, 3502–3517.

Willoughby, H. E., 1990: Gradient Balance in Tropical Cyclones. J. Atmos. Sci., 47, 265–274.

Willoughby, H. E., 1990: Temporal Changes of the Primary Circulation in Tropical Cyclones. J. Atmos. Sci., 47, 242–264.

Burpee, R. W., and M. L. Black, 1989: Temporal and Spatial Variations of Rainfall Near the Centers of Two Tropical Cyclones. Mon. Wea. Rev., 117, 2204–2218.