Hurricane Mitch began as a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea on 22 October 1998. By 26 October, Mitch had strengthened to a Category 5 storm as defined by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale (National Climate Data Center, 1999a), and on 27 October was threatening the northern coast of Honduras (fig. 1). After making landfall 2 days later (29 October), the storm drifted south and west across Honduras, wreaking destruction throughout the country before reaching the Guatemalan border on 31 October.
According to the National Climate Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (National Climate Data Center, 1999b), Hurricane Mitch ranks among the five strongest storms on record in the Atlantic Basin in terms of its sustained winds, barometric pressure, and duration. Hurricane Mitch also was one of the worst Atlantic storms in terms of loss of life and property. The regionwide death toll was estimated to be more than 9,000; thousands of people were reported missing. Economic losses in the region were more than $7.5 billion (U.S. Agency for International Development, 1999).
Honduras suffered the most widespread devastation during the storm. More than 5,000 deaths, and economic losses of more than $4 billion, were reported by the Government of Honduras. Honduran officials estimated that Hurricane Mitch destroyed 50 years of economic development. In addition to the human and economic losses, intense flooding and landslides scarred the Honduran landscape - hydrologic and geomorphologic processes throughout the country likely will be affected for many years.
As part of the U.S. Government's response to the disaster, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted post-flood measurements of peak discharge at 16 river sites throughout Honduras (fig. 2). Such measurements, termed 'indirect' measurements, are used to determine peak flows when direct measurements (using current meters or dye studies, for example) cannot be made. Indirect measurements of peak discharge are based on post-flood surveys of the river channel (observed high-water marks, cross sections, and hydraulic properties) and model computation of peak discharge. Determination of the flood peaks associated with Hurricane Mitch will help scientists understand the magnitude of this devastating hurricane. Peak-discharge information also is critical for the proper design of hydraulic structures (such as bridges and levees), delineation of theoretical flood boundaries, and development of stage-discharge relations at streamflow-monitoring sites.