An unexpected hurricane

The Baltimore Sun

HOUSTON -- Texans went to bed Wednesday night expecting to be struck by a tropical storm. They awoke to find they had been hit by a hurricane.

The stunningly fast buildup of what became Hurricane Humberto shocked scientists, some of whom said there was nothing like it in the historical record.

In 18 hours, Humberto strengthened from a tropical depression with 35-mph winds to a Category 1 hurricane with 85-mph winds before crashing ashore. It did not grow into a hurricane until after midnight.

"That has never before happened" in the more than 150 years scientists have been tracking hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, said James Franklin, a senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

"It's very, very rare to see a storm go from a depression to a hurricane in this short a time," he said. "It's only happened four times before since 1851, and this is the only one to do this just before landfall."

Humberto came ashore near the East Texas cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur about 2 a.m. yesterday, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was a compact storm, with hurricane-force winds extending just 15 miles from its center.

It shook up parts of Texas, drenching an already soaked region, shutting down three oil refineries, knocking out power to about 100,000 people and killing an 80-year-old man.

Franklin said yesterday that its easterly course caused the storm to stay a little longer in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it picked up intensity.

"This took everyone by surprise. This just wasn't forecast to be this bad," said Sgt. Ken Carona of the Port Arthur Police Department. "We knew we were going to get heavy rains, but we did not expect hurricane-strength winds at all."

Carona said Port Arthur suffered minor wind damage to homes and businesses. The biggest problem yesterday, he said, was a lack of electricity: Roughly 80 percent of the city, including police headquarters, was still without power at noon.

Humberto, which struck about 50 miles from the spot where Hurricane Rita went ashore two years ago, quickly moved east into Louisiana and weakened to a tropical storm.

It was expected to drop up to 8 inches of rain before it passed, which led local and state officials to worry that the region, still recovering from Rita, would suffer serious flood damage. Mississippi and Alabama also were expected to receive heavy rain.

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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