Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Late Hurricanes: a Message for the Region

By Dr. Gillian Cambers, coordinator COSALC

As the 1999 hurricane season neared its end, Caribbean islanders gave thanks that they’d been spared the season’s wrath.  Managers of hotels and other tourism enterprises spruced up their properties as they awaited millenium celebrations and the peak winter season.  Then, along came two hurricanes that left forecasters scrambling, tourists stranded, and island residents in awe of the  unpredictability of nature. 

Compare these views of Toucarie Bay on Dominica in 1987 (left) and early 2000.

In October, Hurricane José formed unusually far south in the Atlantic at about 10° north.  At one stage, José threatened Trinidad and Tobago, which are supposedly outside of the hurricane belt.  Then José appeared to be headed for Barbados, until the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida admitted that a mistake had been made in locating Jose’s eye.  As they criticised their local forecasters, some Bajans came to believe that it had all been part of a sales conspiracy between forecasters and supermarket owners: a good way to get old canned goods off the shelves!  José was actually a relatively weak (category 1) hurricane.  It moved through the northern islands fairly quickly, bringing 80 mph. winds and heavy rains. 

  In November, Hurricane Lenny emerged on Nicaragua’s east coast.  Typically, when a tropical storm forms in the Caribbean this late in the season, it heads north, rarely making it to hurricane strength.  But Lenny challenged modern models of prediction, and moved east, passing just south of Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, and into the Lesser Antilles.  Forecasters were at a loss, unable to predict the track the storm would take.  A category 4 hurricane with winds ranging from 131 - 155 mph, Lenny was only the fifth (category 3 or higher) November storm since 1871, when records were first kept.  Its west to east track made it even more of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

  As this system moved eastward, the waves of the Caribbean Sea reached full hurricane proportions.  Moving on ahead of their source, hurricane waves rode a storm surge of at least six feet onto the west coast beaches of the Lesser Antilles.

Remains of a coastal road in Hamilton on the "safe" western coast of the island of Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in November of 1999.

Since the late seventies, the Lesser Antilles, from Grenada to the Virgin Islands, have focused on tourism as their major industry, and the calm waters and sandy beaches of the islands’ western coasts are highly favored tourist sites.  On November 16, Grenada was enjoying a typical calm, windless sunny day when huge waves and swells over 15 ft. high started pounding the west coast.  The waves continued to wreak havoc for two full days.  Coastal highways were destroyed, and entire communities were cut off.   The bulk storage facility for petroleum products at Grand Mal was severed from the rest of the island, and all gasoline stations ran dry.  Dozens of indomitable Grenadans waded through the sea with gasoline containers in order to fuel their cars.

Similar scenes were observed along the entire chain of islands as hotels, roads, houses, boats, jetties, crops and animals were devastated.  No island was left untouched, and the damage extended along the north coast of Venezuela. 

The destruction was especially extensive on the islands hit directly by Lenny.  Anguilla, a flat limestone, riverless (and thus “flood proof”) island, was flooded indeed.  In the Valley, Anguilla’s capital, a lake formed with a maximum depth of 14 ft!  Shops and government buildings — including all government vehicles — were submerged. 

Could forecasters have done a better job?  Perhaps not in terms of tracking the hurricane’s path; but in terms of the likely effects of the storm on coastal communities, a far better job could have been done.  A fully developed hurricane moving eastward through the Caribbean Sea was bound to generate massive swells.  Had coastal communities down the islands been warned, they could have at least pulled their fishing boats out of the water and made preparations to move their belongings to higher ground. 

  While considerable strides have been taken in the fields of disaster prediction and preparedness, this event points to the need for even closer collaboration between meteorologists or “met men,” the oceanographic community and disaster preparedness teams so that future hurricanes like Lenny will not catch us unprepared. 

On the northern islands hit by Luis and Marilyn in ‘95, Hortense in ‘96, Georges in ‘98, and José and Lenny in ‘99, the big question has changed from whether we will be hit to when we will be hit.  And Lenny has shown us that ideas like “By November, the hurricane season is almost over,” and “Hurricanes move west,” are now in the realm of wishful thinking.

In "unfloodable" Anguilla, rainfall raised the salt ponds' water level so that they broke through the sandy barriers separating them from the sea. These same scenic barriers were also under attack on the sea side from the storm waves and surge. Dunes were washed away. Hopefully, the desire to build on the barriers themselves has been mitigated!

Hurricanes, Part of Our Future

The long-term impact of hurricanes may gravely affect tourist-dependent economic patterns, as potential visitors become aware that hurricanes may be annual events in our region.  Some island governments order a news blackout after each hurricane so as not to scare tourists away, but seasonal travelers may eventually simply opt for visiting non-Caribbean locations. 

Hurricanes have affected our family and social lives, for many beaches have been transformed, if not destroyed, by these events.  On Dominica’s west coast, once-inviting beach sand has been replaced by rubbly stones and boulders, so holiday picnic spots such as Toucarie and Belle Hall, have been abandoned.  And as such attractive, out-of-door recreation spots disappear,  replacements have not been found.

The damage not only affects our beaches, which we can see. In Mustique, St. Vincent and Grenadines, a series of offshore bars composed of shards of dead coral are evidence of how our submerged reefs are suffering as well.

Insurance premiums have gone up in price, and some companies will no longer even offer hurricane insurance.  And for island economies that have been hit repeatedly since 1995, it’s getting harder and harder to recover, as the massive sums spent on reconstruction jeopardize economic stability.  As peak tourism season is upon us, islanders work frantically to repair and rebuild.

Much to the relief of tourism operators, the sand of our western beaches began to return within weeks of Lenny’s visit.  But we should all reflect upon what the coming decade of more potentially damaging hurricanes means to us.  Wise planning will include hurricanes in policies ranging in scope from building codes to agriculture (planting more crops that grow underground, for instance), and will certainly bring us to question our dependence upon tourism.  All sectors of island society are going to have to work closely together to maintain and adapt our ways of living: social, cultural and economic.

pages 1-4 in Sea Grant in the Caribbean, University of Puerto Rico Newsletter, October - December 1999


For more information or to order the COSALC brochure (UPRSG-A-62)  contact :
Dr. Gillian Cambers, COSALC Coordinator, SGCP-UPR, P.O.Box 9011,
College Station, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Fax (1) 7872652880;
g_cambers@rumac.uprm.edu
 
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