45th Anniversary of Hurricane Edith

Satellite photo of Hurricane Edith near peak strength, Sept. 9, 1971 (NOAA)
Satellite photo of Hurricane Edith near peak strength, Sept. 9, 1971

On September 9, 1971, Hurricane Edith grazed Cabo Gracias a Dios as a Category 5 storm, destroying nearly every house in the area and leaving 7000 homeless.  Edith caused a trail of destruction from the Antilles to Venezuela, then across Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Mexico, and the United States.

Edith formed from a disturbance that came out of the tropical Atlantic and organized into a tropical depression on Sept. 5th while east of the Windward Islands.  It passed over the islands, dumping heavy rains on them.  Once near Curacao, the depression strengthened into a tropical storm and was named.  It brought stormy winds to northern Venezuela and the ABC islands where it sunk a fishing boat with the loss of two men.

As it passed over the southern Caribbean Sea, Edith began to rapidly intensify.  Just prior to landfall in Nicaragua, it reached its peak with winds measured at 160 mph (260 km/hr) by NOAA’s DC-6 (39 Charlie).  The aircraft was on a 7-hour mission out of Kingston, Jamaica which included 4 eye penetrations.  By the time of the last penetration, the eye had shrunk to 7 miles (11 km) in diameter and the plane was violently shaken by turbulence.  By the time pilots Dave Turner and Howard Mason regained control of the aircraft, they had lost 1000 feet (300 m) of their 5000-foot (1500-m) flight altitude.

Jim McFadden was on that flight and recalled, “How vividly I remember that flight to this day.  I believe in my 50 years of flying into hurricanes, Edith may have been the roughest. As I recall, we had made a rather uneventful pass from east to west, turned to the SE after passing through the storm in order to position the aircraft for the pass to the north.  As we started in, I can remember Dick Decker commenting on the eye shrinking to 7 mi.”

“I can remember sitting across the aisle from Wink Richardson, the Flight Director, as he calmly smoked a cigarette during our last penetration on a south to north track.  If he was worried, he certainly didn’t show it.  I looked up the aisle and saw Dave Turner wrestling with the controls trying to keep the aircraft on a level keel.  He and Howard Mason did a masterful job, and I think the entire crew owe their lives to the great job they did in getting us out of the storm safely.  At that point we sent a radio message to NHC Director Bob Simpson saying that we were not going back into the storm again.”

Hurricane Edith's U.S. rainfall totals. (NOAA/WPC)
Hurricane Edith’s U.S. rainfall totals.

Edith rapidly lost strength as it passed over Nicaragua and Honduras.  By the time it made a second landfall in Belize it was down to a tropical storm.  It remained a weak system as it moved over the Yucatan and into the Gulf of Mexico.  It tracked to the northwest but stalled just off the coast of Tamaulipas in northern Mexico.  Under the influence of an approaching trough, the storm turned to the northeast and accelerated forward.  It also regained hurricane strength by the time it made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana. It raked the area with 105 mph (170 km/hr) winds and released as much as 8 inches (200 mm) of rain on Louisiana and Texas.

Edith was responsible for 37 deaths over its course and caused US$25 million in destruction.

Papers written by NHEML scientists using Edith data:

Griffith, C. G., W. L. Woodley, P. G. Grube, D. W. Martin, J. Stout, and D. N. Sikdar, 1978:  Rain estimation from geosynchronous satellite imagery – Visible and infrared studies.  Mon. Wea. Rev., 106,  1153-1171.