Hurricane Rita (High Quality) – Key West, Florida – September 20, 2005

Between September 17th and 24th, 2005 Hurricane Rita, became the 17th named storm, 10th hurricane, fifth major hurricane and third Category Five hurricane of the record-shattering 2005 season. Hurricane Rita also has the distinction of producing the fourth lowest central pressure on record in the Atlantic basin, as well as the lowest pressure ever observed over the Gulf of Mexico.

By September 17th an area of disturbed weather associated with the combination of a tropical wave and the remnants of a old frontal boundary, became better organized over the Atlantic, north of the Dominican Republic and east of the southern Bahamas. The system was classified Tropical Depression 18 as it moved west-northwest towards the Florida Straits. On the following day, the depression reached Tropical Storm strength and was named Rita. On the night of September 19th, intensifying Rita entered the straits south of the Florida Keys and by the morning of September 20th had reached hurricane strength.

Hurricane Rita continued to strenghten as it passed south of the Keys, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (85 kts) and a minimum pressure near 970 mb (28.64 in) at the time of its closest approach, about 40 miles to the south of Key West, Florida.

From the evening of September 19th through the evening of the 20th, storm chaser Michael Laca intercepted Hurricane Rita at Key West, Florida. At my location I encountered sustained winds near 75 mph (65 kts) with peak gusts near 95 mph (80 kts).

Rita produced minimal hurricane condtions across the lower Florida Keys, with tropical storm conditions elsewhere throughout the middle and upper Keys. The highest winds reported in Florida during Rita’s passage were a ten-minute average of 76 mph (66 kts) with a peak gust of 92 mph (80 kts) at the Sand Key lighthouse, 6 miles southwest of Key West. The Sand Key anemometer was destroyed and it’s possible higher winds occurred there. The Sand Key station also recorded a minimum pressure of 988 mb (29.18 in). At the Key West Airport a two-minute average wind of 62 mph (54 kts) with a peak of 76 mph (66 kts) was recorded with a minimum pressure of 995 mb (29.38 in). An unofficial report of a 101 mph (85 kts) was also reported from a private anemometer on Key West. Dry Tortugas reported a peak gust of 88 mph (76 kts). The highest storm surge in the Keys was estimated at 5.0 ft (1.5 m) near the southernmost point in Key West.

After passing the lower Keys, Rita underwent a period of explosive deepening over the Gulf of Mexico with the central pressure falling to a record low value of 895 mb (26.43 in) and maximum sustained winds reaching 180 mph (155 kts) with peak gusts over 200 mph (175 kts). A peak flight level wind of 235 mph (204 kts) was reported by LT. Col. Warren Madden (OCM for The Weather Channel) during a reconnaissance mission he participated in.

Rita’s approach to the Gulf coast occurred only weeks after the devastating landfall of Hurricane Katrina, prompting an unprecented evacuation (likely in excess of two million people) across portions of Texas and Louisiana in advance of the storm. The resulting gridlock stranded tens of thousands of motorists along highways and evacuation routes as vehicles ran out of fuel during the extremely slow egress.

After reaching peak intensity, Rita began to gradually weaken as it moved west-northwest to northwest across the Gulf. Hurricane Rita made landfall between Johnson Bayou, Louisiana and Sabine Pass, Texas in the early morning hours of September 24th as a low-end Category Three with sustained winds of 115 mph (100 kts) and a minimum central pressure of 937 mb (27.67 in). Although the hurricane weakened significantly prior to landfall, the storm had a rather large windfield that produced very high storm surge values, in excess of 15 ft (4.6 m), across portions of the vulnerable low-lying coastline of southwestern, Louisiana.

After moving inland, Hurricane Rita weakened rapidly and was absorbed by into a frontal boundary early on September 26th.

Across the affected areas, Hurricane Rita was responsible for $11.1 billion (adjusted) in damage as well as 7 direct, and 113 indirect fatalities.


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