for National Geographic News
A record-setting heat wave kept Hurricane Dean from landing a devastating blow on the U.S. Gulf Coast, which has been pounded by a series of powerful storms since 2004.
But Dean's intensity bolsters forecasts of a busy 2007 Atlantic hurricane season that could see up to three more major storms.
And the high-pressure system that has baked the eastern and southern U.S. this month may weaken soon, which might mean bad news for the rest of the season, forecasters say.
Driven west by the high-pressure system, Dean came ashore early Tuesday morning at Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula with sustained winds of 165 miles (266 kilometers) an hour. It was the third-most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin since measurements began in the 1850s.
The storm, which has been blamed for 20 deaths, also lashed central Mexico with rain after a weaker second landfall and had earlier ravaged parts of the Caribbean. (Read the full story: "Dean Hits Mexico Again, With Hundred-Mile Winds" [August 22, 2007.])
Published reports say damage in Mexico could exceed 1.5 billion U.S. dollars. In Jamaica—where Dean's eye brushed the island's southern shore—destruction could be as much as three billion dollars. (See photos of the destruction.)
Dean had made residents of Texas, Louisiana, and other coastal states nervous from the beginning and even prompted NASA officials to call home the space shuttle Endeavour a day early.
The storm roared into life with devastating potential, then encountered conditions perfect for strengthening into an intense Category 5 hurricane as it coursed through the Caribbean, said Lian Xie, a professor of meteorology at North Carolina State University.
"It did not encounter a major land mass on its way," Xie said. Dean also stayed over warm water, with low wind shear—high-strength winds that can prevent storms from developing.
In addition, since the storm was the first major hurricane this year, the deep, warm waters of the Caribbean had not been cooled by an earlier storm, Xie pointed out.
"There was plenty of energy available from the ocean."
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