Unwelcome guests: Caribbean hurricanes

After two devastating hurricane seasons in a row, Richard Costas looks at the impact of these meteorological disasters on the Caribbean’s economies

–Illustration by James Hackett

As a premier tourist destination, the Caribbean is frequently the subject of travel and lifestyle articles, but rarely hits the headlines in the international news media. In global terms, the Caribbean is tiny, its economies small, and its share of world trade even smaller. Apart from their musical achievements, the many contributions made by Caribbean people to the rest of the world are too often overlooked and under-reported. But what almost always catches the eyes of the international headline-writers is a Caribbean hurricane.

For Caribbean people, hurricanes are a fact of life. But at the same time as Caribbean citizens, governments, and commercial organisations prepare for them, they hope that they will pass them by, or better still, that the tropical storms from which hurricanes develop will peter out before they come anywhere near the region.

While they sometimes cause a great deal of damage and can cause loss of life, most Caribbean hurricanes are low on the “global catastrophe scale”. According to Swiss Re, a reinsurance company, there were 330 natural and man-made catastrophes in 2004 — and more than 300,000 people lost their lives as a result. The most deadly of these catastrophes was the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in which 280,000 people were reported dead or missing.

A division of Swiss Re, sigma, has published a report that “puts the total losses directly attributable to these [330] natural and man-made catastrophes at US$123 billion — of this figure, US$49 billion was covered by property insurance. For property insurers, 2004 was a record year in terms of claims, mainly due to windstorms: hurricanes in the US and neighbouring countries cost insurers around US$32 billion, typhoons in Japan and neighbouring countries a further US$6 billion”.

The Caribbean has never experienced losses on this scale, of course, but the region is not always lucky enough to avoid losses that are significant relative to the small size of its economies. 2004 was an exceptionally bad year for the Caribbean and the US mainland that skirts the region. Hurricane Charley proved to be the second costliest US mainland hurricane since 1900, according to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), causing US$15 billion worth of damage. And Hurricane Ivan proved to be the third costliest US mainland hurricane since 1900, causing damage to the tune of US$14.2 billion.

According to NOAA, the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) estimates the damage caused by Hurricane Ivan in the Caribbean Sea region at more than US$3 billion. The CDB says Ivan caused damage of US$1.85 billion in the Cayman Islands, US$815 million in Grenada, US$360 million in Jamaica, US$40 million in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and US$2.6 million in St Lucia.

According to Swiss Re, Hurricane Jeanne (another 2004 event) was the world’s third worst catastrophe last year as regards loss of life, accounting for 3,034 deaths. Floods in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the neighbouring region caused 3,344 deaths.

Statistics can be difficult to gather and misleading, even when they are used purely as a measure of economic loss. (They can certainly never adequately describe the social and emotional effects of a hurricane.) Take the damage caused in Grenada by Hurricane Ivan. Neither the CDB figure (US$815 million) nor the figure given by the US State Department (US$889 million) puts Grenada at the top of the list of most-damaged Caribbean islands. But in terms of the country’s small economy and extremely limited resources, the devastation was massive.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the damage to Grenada totalled 200% of the nation’s gross domestic product (the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year), a scale of loss the island would never have been able to overcome without the support of the international community.

Hurricanes are particularly problematic for developing regions like the Caribbean, whose small economies are ill-equipped to deal with climatic events that can put a country’s development back by years. A small county’s hard work can quickly be negated.

Hurricanes are especially damaging to agriculture and tourism, the two most important industries in almost all Caribbean countries. When a Caribbean hurricane hits the headlines, tourists consider a holiday elsewhere, despite the fact that the Caribbean is one of the safest regions on Earth. Severe weather is usually much less damaging and dangerous than in other parts of the world, and even then is usually restricted to the rainy season, between June 1 and November 30. Crime rates are generally low, international and inter-island transport safe.

In May 2005, NOAA predicted that the eastern Atlantic and the Caribbean would again experience an above-normal hurricane season in 2005. The economic losses that hurricanes cause will continue to affect the region; its businesses will continue to face hazards and difficulties that might destroy or discourage others. Despite this, the Caribbean’s resourceful and resilient people and businesses will survive 2005, as they have survived other years and other disasters. And, if they have any sense, tourists will continue to come and enjoy the more usual and benign face of Caribbean weather.

This article was written before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the US Gulf Coast in August and September.

 

How hurricanes are measured

Tropical storms are cyclonic storms having winds ranging from approximately 48 to 121 km (30 to 75 miles) per hour.

Hurricanes are measured on a scale (called the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) of one to five, as follows:

Category One Hurricane:
Winds 119 to 153 km per hour (74 to 95 mph)

Category Two Hurricane:
Winds 154 to 177 km per hour (96 to 110 mph)

Category Three Hurricane:
Winds 178 to 209 km per hour (111 to 130 mph)

Category Four Hurricane:
Winds 210 to 249 km per hour (131 to 155 mph)

Category Five Hurricane:
Winds greater than 249 km per hour (155 mph)

Source: US NOAA National Weather Service National Hurricane Centre Tropical Prediction Centre

 

Ivan: a study in mayhem

Hurricane Ivan reached Category 5 strength three times. It was also the strongest hurricane on record so far south-east of the Lesser Antilles. It caused considerable damage and loss of life as it passed through the Caribbean Sea. Ivan was directly responsible for 92 deaths.

BARBADOS
More than 176 houses completely destroyed; many lost their roofs; most coastal roads severely damaged due to erosion caused by the storm surge and wave action.

CAYMAN ISLANDS
95 per cent of the houses and other buildings (which generally follow south Florida’s building codes) were damaged or destroyed.

CUBA
Roofs were torn off houses in extreme western Pinar del Rio Province; flooding damaged houses, and fishing and farm installations; mud slides cut off at least two towns.

GRENADA
Ivan was the worst hurricane to strike the island since Hurricane Janet in 1955. At least 80 per cent of the 100,000 residents were without power; more than 14,000 houses were damaged or destroyed; 80 per cent of the nutmeg trees were destroyed.

JAMAICA
At least 47,000 houses were damaged, of which 5,600 were completely destroyed; most of the island’s utilities were damaged.

ST VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES
Fifty homes were severely damaged, with two homes washed away into the sea; more than two-thirds of residents lost power.

TOBAGO
At least one house collapsed and fell into the ocean; at least 45 houses lost their roofs; numerous trees and utility poles were blown down; 20 villages suffered various forms of damage.

Source: Stacy R. Stewart, US National Hurricane Centre (NOAA)