March 2, 2006

Next Hurricane Season Could Match 2005, or Worse

By Mica Rosenberg

GUATEMALA CITY -- This year's hurricane season could match the record breaking destruction caused by storms in 2005, the United Nations warned.

In 2005, an unprecedented 27 tropical storms, 15 of which became full-blown hurricanes, battered Central America and the U.S. Gulf coast, killing more than 3,000 people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.

"We have reason to fear that 2006 could be as bad as 2005," Jan Egeland, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs who coordinates U.N. emergency relief, told Reuters on Wednesday.

"We have had a dramatic increase in climate related natural disasters and at the same time we have more vulnerable people, so it's a double effect," he said in Guatemala, where he is meeting Central American leaders to plan for future disasters.

"That's why we need to prepare in order to prevent the damage."

Hurricane Stan killed more than 2,000 people in Central America last October. Guatemala was hardest hit with mudslides burying villages and washing away roads.

Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans and much of the U.S. Gulf coast in late August, killing about 1,300 people.

Guatemala's losses from Stan were nearly $1 billion, equivalent to more than 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to a recent U.N. study.

The U.N. launched an international appeal for more than $30 million in hurricane relief here but has only managed to raise two-thirds of that amount so far.

Most is earmarked for reconstruction rather than prevention. Programs to reinforce buildings and train emergency workers are expensive but Egeland insisted that every dollar spent on prevention can save millions in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

"Haiti is the most vulnerable society in the region and Cuba is one of the best prepared, if not the best prepared for natural disasters," said Egeland. "The same hurricane which would take zero lives in Cuba would kill massively in Haiti."

Latin American and Caribbean nations are prone to floods, earthquakes and forest fires as well as hurricanes, the fallout from which is compounded by poverty and weak infrastructure.