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Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane Gustav

25 August – 4 September 2008 (AL072008)

John L. Beven II and Todd B. Kimberlain
National Hurricane Center
22 January 2009

Gustav moved erratically through the Greater Antilles into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually making landfall on the coast of Louisiana. It briefly a category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale and caused many deaths and considerable damage in Haiti, Cuba, and Louisiana.

Synoptic History

Gustav formed from a tropical wave that moved westward from the coast of Africa on 13 August. The wave continued westward across the tropical Atlantic, with the associated shower activity first showing signs of organization on 18 August. Westerly vertical wind shear, however, prevented significant development for the next several days. The wave moved through the Windward Islands on 23 August with a broad area of low pressure accompanied by disorganized shower activity.   Organization increased late on 24 August as the system moved northwestward across the southeastern Caribbean Sea, and it is estimated that a tropical depression formed near 0000 UTC 25 August about 95 n mi northeast of Bonaire in the Netherland Antilles. The “best track” chart of the tropical cyclone’s path is given in Fig. 1, with the wind and pressure histories shown in Figs. 2 and 3, respectively. The best track positions and intensities are listed in Table 1.

The depression formed a small inner wind core during genesis with a radius of maximum winds of less than 10 n mi. Subsequently, it rapidly intensified. It became a tropical storm near 1200 UTC 25 August and a hurricane just after 0000 UTC 26 August. Gustav reached an intensity of 80 kt later on 26 August, then weakened slightly before making landfall on the southwestern peninsula of Haiti near 1800 UTC that day. The center of Gustav crossed the peninsula into the Canal du Sud, and the cyclone weakened to a tropical storm by early 27 August.

A low- and mid-level ridge built over the western Atlantic and Florida on 27 August, and Gustav turned westward in response. Although the center was over water on 27 August, enough of the circulation was interacting with Hispañiola to prevent re-intensification. Indeed, Gustav weakened further to an intensity of 40 kt by late that day. Early on 28 August the storm moved southward, possibly due to a reformation of the center. During this change of course, the maximum winds increased to 60 kt. Little change in strength occurred before the center moved westward over Jamaica around 1800 UTC that day. The storm then turned west-northwestward early on 29 August and emerged from the western end of Jamaica about 1200 UTC that day. Later that day, Gustav entered an area of stronger southeasterly low and mid-level flow on the southwestern side of the ridge. As a result, the cyclone began a northwestward motion at about 15 kt that would continue until its final landfall.

The cyclone intensified over the warm water of the northwestern Caribbean Sea. Gustav regained hurricane status late on 29 August, then became a Category 2 hurricane as it moved through the Cayman Islands early on 30 August. It rapidly intensified to a Category 4 hurricane before it made landfall on the eastern coast of the Isle of Youth, Cuba, near 1800 UTC that day. Gustav reached a peak intensity of 130 kt as it made landfall in the Pinar del Rio province of western Cuba near 2200 UTC 30 August. The eye of Gustav emerged into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico early on 31 August.

Gustav weakened over Cuba, and it continued to weaken over the Gulf of Mexico on 31 August. An upper-level trough west of Gustav caused some southerly vertical wind shear, and satellite imagery suggested that mid- to upper-level dry air became entrained into the cyclone. This combination appears to have prevented strengthening over the warm Gulf waters. However, the hurricane grew in size as it crossed the Gulf. By 1 September, tropical-storm-force winds extended roughly 200 n mi from the center in the northeastern quadrant and hurricane-force winds extended roughly 70 n mi from the center in the same quadrant. Gustav made its final landfall near Cocodrie, Louisiana, around 1500 UTC 1 September with maximum winds near 90 kt (Category 2).

The hurricane weakened to a tropical storm and its forward motion slowed as it crossed southern and western Louisiana later on 1 September. It became a tropical depression on 2 September over northwestern Louisiana. Gustav then meandered over southwestern Arkansas, extreme northeastern Texas, and extreme southeastern Oklahoma on 3 September as it encountered weak steering currents at the western end of the Atlantic ridge. An approaching mid- to upper-level trough and accompanying cold front caused Gustav to accelerate northeastward on 4 September, with the cyclone becoming extratropical due to merging with the front. The extratropical remnants of Gustav were absorbed by another extratropical low on 5 September as it moved through the Great Lakes.

Meteorological Statistics

Observations in Gustav (Figs. 2 and 3) include satellite-based Dvorak technique intensity estimates from the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch (TAFB) and the Satellite Analysis Branch (SAB), as well as flight-level, stepped frequency microwave radiometer (SFMR), and dropwindsonde observations from flights of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (53rd WRS) of the U. S. Air Force Reserve Command. Data and imagery from NOAA polar-orbiting satellites, the NASA Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), the NASA QuikSCAT, and Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites, among others, were also useful in tracking Gustav.

The 53rd WRS and NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft flew 29 missions in association with Gustav. These included 15 53rd WRS operational flights, 5 NOAA research missions, and 6 synoptic surveillance missions of the NOAA G-IV jet. There was also one NOAA mission to deploy aircraft expendable bathythermographs, one 53rd WRS mission to deploy drifting buoys, and one NOAA mission to study oceanic changes caused by the hurricane. During the flights, the maximum observed 700-mb flight-level winds were 143 kt at 2014 UTC 30 August, with a 141-kt wind reported at 1654 UTC that day. The maximum surface wind estimated in Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) data was 108 kt at 1658 UTC 30 August, and an eyewall dropsonde reported a surface wind of 108 kt nine minutes earlier. It should be noted that SFMR winds near the time of Gustav’s landfall in Cuba were unreliable due to shoaling issues. The lowest central pressure reported by aircraft was 941 mb at 2154 UTC 30 August.

Ship reports of winds of tropical storm force associated with Gustav are given in Table 2. The only observation of hurricane-force winds was from the Bona Foam (call sign C6CL6), which reported 68 kt at 2100 UTC 31 August. However, this report appears a little high compared to aircraft data and other nearby reports.

Selected surface observations from land stations and data buoys are given in Table 3. Gustav brought hurricane conditions to portions of western Cuba, with the strongest winds reported at Paso Real de San Diego in Pinar del Rio province. This station (elevation 10 m) reported a 1-minute wind of 135 kt at 2235 UTC 30 August with a peak gust of 184 kt. The World Meteorological Organization has been investigating the validity of the report as a possible world record wind gust in a tropical cyclone. As of this writing, the data appear valid. However, these winds are possibly associated with a transient eyewall mesovortex and enhanced by terrain affects. Due to this and the SFMR issues mentioned above, the peak intensity estimate of 130 kt is based mainly on aircraft flight-level winds. Hurricane conditions also occurred over portions of southern Louisiana. The National Ocean Service station at the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River (elevation 24 m) reported 6-minute winds of 79 kt at 0918 UTC 1 September with a gust to 102 kt. An offshore oil rig (elevation 122 m) reported sustained winds of 90 kt at 0505 UTC 1 September with a gust to 108 kt. Strong winds accompanied Gustav well inland, with wind gusts of tropical-storm force occurring as far north as central Arkansas. Gustav also brought hurricane conditions to the southwestern Peninsula of Haiti. However, no observations are available from this area.

The lowest pressure reported in western Cuba was 939.9 mb at La Fe on the Isle of Youth at 1845 UTC 30 August. This pressure appears to be a little low compared to other nearby observations, and the 943 mb Isle of Youth landfall pressure is based on aircraft data. In Louisiana, the lowest observed pressures were 951.6 mb at the United States Geological Survey station at Caillou Lake, and 954.5 mb at the Louisiana Marine Consortium (LUMCOM) laboratory in Cocodrie. The Caillou Lake reading also appears somewhat low compared to other nearby measurements, and the Louisiana landfall pressure of 954 mb is based on the LUMCOM pressure and aircraft data. In Jamaica, the lowest observed pressure was 988.7 mb at an amateur radio station in Stoney Hill.

Gustav likely caused a significant storm surge in western Cuba. No surge observations, however, are available from this area. The hurricane caused a widespread storm surge along the northern Gulf coast, with above normal tides reported from the Florida Panhandle to the upper Texas coast, including Lake Ponchartrain (Table 3).  Surges of 12-13 feet occurred along the Louisiana coast in the Mississippi Delta southeast of New Orleans, with surges of 9-10 ft in other portions of southeastern Louisiana. The storm surge overtopped the levees and floodwalls in a few parts of the New Orleans metropolitan area.  However, it did not cause widespread inundation of the city and its surburbs.

Heavy rainfall and widespread freshwater flooding occurred along the path of Gustav. Camp Perrin, Haiti reported a storm total rainfall of 10.75 in, while Baharona, Dominican Republic reported a storm total rainfall of 9.71 in. In Cuba, Central René Fraga and Perico in Matanzas province reported 24 h totals of 10.70 and 10.69 in respectively. In Louisiana, Larto Lake reported a storm total of 21.00 in. The rainfall distribution elsewhere in the United States is shown in Fig. 4. The rains over Louisiana and Arkansas caused moderate flooding along many rivers.

Gustav is known to have produced 41 tornadoes – 21 in Mississippi, 11 in Louisiana, 6 in Florida, 2 in Arkansas, and 1 in Alabama. The strongest tornado was an EF2 in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana.

Casualty and Damage Statistics

As of this writing, reports from relief agencies and the media indicate that Gustav was directly responsible for 112 deaths – 77 in Haiti, 15 in Jamaica, 8 in the Dominican Republic, 7 in Louisiana, 4 in Florida, and 1 at sea. The deaths in the Dominican Republic were due to a landslide or mudslide. Five deaths in Louisiana were due to falling trees, while the other two were caused by the EF2 tornado in Evangeline Parish. The deaths in Florida were drownings in rip currents that were caused by high surf produced by the hurricane. In addition, there are 41 deaths indirectly associated with Gustav in Louisiana.

Gustav was the second of four tropical cyclones (along with Fay, Hanna, and Ike) to affect the Greater Antilles in quick succession. Because of the timing of these events, it is very difficult to separate the impacts of the individual storms in the region using the reports from relief agencies and the media. Therefore, the true death toll from Gustav will probably never be known.

Gustav caused considerable casualties and damages along its track. Significant property damages occurred in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, although monetary damage figures are not available. The storm caused $210 million (U. S.) in damages in Jamaica. Gustav’s winds and tides caused major damages in western Cuba, particularly in the provinces of Pinar del Río and the Isle of Youth. However, monetary damage figures are not available. In the United States, the Insurances Services Office reports that the hurricane caused an estimated $2.15 billion in damages to insured property, of which $2.045 billion occurred in Louisiana. Doubling this figure to account for uninsured losses results in estimated U. S. damages of $4.3 billion.

Forecast and Warning Critique

Forecasting the genesis of Gustav was somewhat problematic. The pre-Gustav disturbance was first mentioned in the Tropical Weather Outlook (TWO) on 18 August, when it first showed signs of organization. Over the next two days, it was correctly forecast that vertical wind shear would slow development, and the probabilities associated with an experimental genesis forecast were in the “medium” (20-50% chance of tropical cyclone formation within 48 h) and “low” (less than 20% chance of tropical cyclone formation within 48 h) categories. On 22 August, the TWOs noted that the upper-level wind would become more favorable for development. However, it was not until early on 24 August (about 18 h before genesis) that the TWO mentioned the possibility of a depression forming, and the experimental genesis forecast did not reach the “high” (greater than 50% chance of tropical cyclone formation within 48 h) category until the time of genesis.

A verification of official and guidance model track forecasts is given in Table 4. Average official track errors for Gustav were 23, 42, 65, 85, 124, 137, and 149 n mi for the 12, 24, 36, 48, 72, 96, and 120 h forecasts, respectively. The number of forecasts ranged from 32 at 12 h to 20 at 120 h.  These errors are significantly lower than the average long-term official track errors (Table 4) and were almost 50% lower at 120 h. While the average errors are very good, examination of the individual forecasts (Figure 5) suggests two areas where they could have been better. First, the southward motion that resulted in Gustav hitting Jamaica was not anticipated. Second, the forecasts of Gustav’s track across the Gulf of Mexico had a westward and slow bias, with the actual track along the eastern edge of the forecasts and moving faster than forecast.

Average official intensity errors were 14, 18, 19, 21, 22, 21, and 37 kt for the 12, 24, 36, 48, 72, 96, and 120 h forecasts, respectively (Table 5). These errors are significantly higher than the average long-term official intensity errors of 7, 10, 12, 14, 18, 20, and 22 kt, respectively. Examination of the individual forecasts (Figure 6) shows several factors that contributed to the large errors. First, the forecasts early in Gustav’s life anticipated that the storm would not interact with land as much as it did, resulting in the forecast intensities being too high. Second, as is often the case, Gustav’s rapid intensification on 30 August was underforecast. Third, Gustav’s weakening over the Gulf of Mexico was not well anticipated. Finally, several forecasts had Gustav making landfall in Louisiana 24 hr after it actually did, which caused the forecast intensities to be well above the observed intensities.

Watches and warnings associated with Gustav are given in Table 6. A tropical storm warning was issued for Haiti on the first advisory 27 h before landfall, with a hurricane warning issued in a special advisory 3 h later. A tropical storm watch was issued for Jamaica 63 h before the center of Gustav reached the island, with that watch being replaced by a hurricane watch 6 h later. A tropical storm warning was issued for Jamaica 33 h before Gustav made landfall, with a hurricane warning issued for the island about 6 h before landfall. In western Cuba, a hurricane watch was issued 45 h before the center reached the Isle of Youth, while a hurricane warning was issued 30 h before the center arrived. A hurricane watch was issued for the northern Gulf coast 42 h prior to Gustav’s Louisiana landfall, and a hurricane warning was issued 30 h before that final landfall. One warning issue was a westward extension of the hurricane warning to the upper Texas coast on 31 August. This was due to a leftward shift in the forecast guidance and forecast track on that date, which did not verify.


Data from the Cayman Islands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica was provided by their respective national meteorological services. In the U. S., data were provided by the National Weather Service forecast offices in Key West, FL, Miami, FL, Tallahassee, FL, Mobile, AL, Slidell, LA, Lake Charles, LA, Shreveport, LA, Jackson, MS, and Little Rock, AR. Rex Hervey of the National Data Buoy Center provided much of the marine data. David Roth of the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center in Camp Springs, MD provided the rainfall graphic and much of the U. S. rainfall data. Rainfall data in Haiti was provided by Mousson Pierre of the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment.

[1] A digital record of the complete best track, including wind radii, can be found on line at Data for the current year’s storms are located in the btk directory, while previous years’ data are located in the archive directory.