In the early morning hours of August 18, 1983, Hurricane Alicia made landfall at San Luis Pass, Texas, just southwest of the Galveston area. Its 115 mph (185 km/hr) winds slammed the high rises of Houston leaving billions of dollars in damage in its wake.
Like many tropical storms that form during low-activity years, Alicia formed from an old frontal system draped over the northern Gulf of Mexico. An area of convection began to concentrate south of Mississippi early on August 15th and Air Force Hurricane Hunters were sent in to investigate. Their data prompted NHC to classify the system as a tropical depression. As the depression moved westward under the influence of a high-pressure cell to the north, it became organized into a tropical storm. That afternoon it was named “Alicia” (the first named system of the year).
A NOAA research flight was sent in during the night to carry out a reconnaissance mission. Alicia was slowly deepening and gaining strength. By the time the second NOAA mission flew into the storm the following night, it had reached hurricane status. With this flight HRD began a series of Long Term monitoring missions. The purpose was to tag team the two NOAA P-3 research planes to keep the hurricane under near-continuous monitoring with their newly installed Doppler radars.
At this time, the hurricane began a period of rapid intensification, with the winds going from 65 knots (33 m/s) to 95 knots (49 m/s) in 24 hours. It also changed track from westerly to northwesterly, heading for the Houston area. The maximum sustained winds peaked at 100 knots (51 m/s) and leveled off as the storm approached the coast.
The last NOAA mission was just as Alicia was making landfall along the Texas shore. The peak sustained winds had diminished slightly before landfall and radar indicated that Alicia was in the midst of an eyewall replacement cycle. Nevertheless, the hurricane’s full winds above the frictional boundary layer were striking the high-rise building of downtown Houston. The glass cladding of these skyscrapers was not designed to withstand the wind nor the debris borne by the wind. Thousands of glass shards littered the Houston business district once the storm had left.
Alicia also left 21 people dead in its wake and US$3 billion of damage as it arced up through Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. It dumped heavy rain along its track (9.5″ [241 mm] fell on Liberty, TX) and flooding in the Brownwood subdivision was so bad that FEMA bought out the owners in the flood-prone district and tore down their ruined homes.
Because of its slow pace and rapid intensification, Alicia proved an excellent case study for scientists. HRD was able to fly four Long Term Monitoring missions during this critical period from rapid intensification to landfall. The NOAA aircraft Doppler radars and the NWS land-based radar were able to map out the inner-core winds of the storm, which provided the first detailed look at the primary and secondary circulation of a major hurricane. The dataset also provided information on mesoscale updrafts and downdrafts in the rainbands, was a confirmatory case of eyewall replacement cycles, and mapped the changes in the hurricane structure as it came ashore.
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