MIAMI – So ferocious that it forced a hurricane hunter crew to abort its mission, Hurricane Felix rapidly intensified into a Category 5 terror Sunday night as it rumbled over the warm, nourishing Caribbean Sea.
It poses no immediate threat to U.S. residents. People who live in some other areas were less fortunate.
Felix produced 165-mph sustained winds as it drew energy from the warm sea and followed Hurricane Dean’s general path toward a midweek landfall in Central America or Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
In Belize, the most apparent target, coastal residents began seeking higher ground, others boarded up their homes, and food and water disappeared from markets.
Felix was so powerful, it compelled the crew of a P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft to abbreviate its data-collecting flight Sunday night – an exceedingly rare occurrence.
The plane, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, experienced a rapid updraft-downdraft cycle that placed four times the weight of gravity on those aboard.
The flights, which gather information crucial to the production of accurate forecasts, generally carry about 14 people.
“Four Gs can put a fair strain on the aircraft, and it also got some very heavy hail that can rip the paint off the plane,” said forecaster James Franklin, who has ridden aboard countless hurricane hunter flights.
“They got bounced around real good and they’re heading back” to their base in St. Croix, he said. The plane remained airworthy, he said, and he knew of no significant injuries.
Felix managed to impress Franklin and other veteran forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in west Miami-Dade County, who thought they had seen it all.
Its rate of intensification was one of the fastest ever recorded, and it acquired a classic, frightening shape – a well-defined eye embedded in dense, swirling bands of clouds.
“Spectacular,” said hurricane specialist Richard Pasch.
Luckily, sustained hurricane-strength winds never quite reached Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, but wet and windy squalls rocked the small Dutch islands, positioned so far south in the Caribbean that they usually avoid even glancing blows from hurricanes.
About a dozen homes in a low-lying area of Curacao were flooded and there was little visible damage in Aruba, according to the Associated Press. There were no early indications of deaths or injuries.
Felix was not expected to directly strike Jamaica or Grand Cayman, but its outer effects could reach those islands as the storm’s core passes to the south, so officials issued precautionary tropical storm watches.
Grand Cayman expected a modest storm surge, 4- to 6-foot waves and up to 3 inches of rain.
Still, the real danger exists farther along Felix’s track and will manifest itself later this week.
The storm’s intensity will fluctuate and is difficult to predict, but the long-range forecast had Felix’s winds at 155 mph – or higher – when it hits or brushes Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan on Tuesday or Wednesday.
In addition, oil workers may have to be evacuated again from rigs and other facilities in the southern Gulf of Mexico. They fled Dean’s Category 5 winds two weeks ago, and Felix seemed poised to reach the same area Thursday or Friday.