May 4, 2006
Caribbean in for Another Bad Hurricane Season
By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA -- Small Caribbean and Central American countries have suffered devastation and thousands of deaths from increasingly frequent hurricanes, and forecasters predict another rough season this year for the region and its tourist resorts.
International relief agencies warn poor countries are not prepared to cope with the disasters and say deaths will continue to rise.
A record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season brought 28 tropical storms, 15 of which became full-blown hurricanes.
Cuba's National Weather Institute predicted on Tuesday that there will be an above-average 15 tropical storms this year, and at least nine are expected to become hurricanes.
That's because water temperatures in the Atlantic-Caribbean basin remain warm and there is no sign of a counteracting El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific, said Cuban forecaster Maritza Ballester. The first storm will form in late June or early July, she predicted, with three arising in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Everything points to an active season," said Ballester, developer of a mathematical model for predicting hurricanes.
Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked New Orleans and killed about 1,300 people in August, brought home to Americans a scenario of devastation familiar to inhabitants of the Caribbean and Central America.
Mudslides buried entire villages and floods washed away homes and roads in Central America when Hurricane Stan drenched the region for a week in October. More than 2,000 people died, mainly in Guatemala.
Hurricane Wilma briefly became the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever observed before hovering over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula for two days, causing heavy damage to Cancun and Cozumel resorts where tourists were trapped in their hotels.
Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, is by far the most vulnerable. It has been virtually stripped of trees, which are cut down for charcoal, allowing for erosion and devastating flash floods and mudslides.
Two years ago, 3,000 people died in its third-largest city Gonaives when Tropical Storm Jeanne triggered flash floods.
Barren, parched, brown hillsides loom on the outskirts of the port city on Haiti's west coast. Jeanne's heavy rains saturated the hills, sending torrents of mud into Gonaives in September 2004. Muddy water reached the roof of the two-story Chachou Hotel in the center of the city.
U.N. experts say environmental degradation, the lack of governability and acute poverty make Haiti the most complicated case, and loss of life is lower in other Caribbean states.
English-speaking Caribbean nations have decreased hurricane casualties through preparedness and early-warning systems, but the economic impact on their small economies grows larger.
"While the deaths are decreasing, the economic losses are increasing," said Jeremy Collymore, head of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, a CARICOM initiative set up in 1991 to handle disaster management from Barbados.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan damaged 90 percent of Grenada's housing and caused $2.2 billion in destruction, more than double its annual economic output. Grenada officials said it would take the island 10 years to recover.
Wealthier Caribbean nations, such as the Cayman Islands, an off-shore financial haven, have not escaped the wrath of storms but can get back on their feet faster.
Ivan damaged or destroyed 93 percent of the housing on the Cayman Islands, ranked fifth in the world in per capita income ($35,000 a year). The real estate market has since bounced back, fueling a construction boom. But higher rates for homeowner insurance have pushed up the cost of living.
Some countries, such as Jamaica and Belize, have tried to beef up their evacuation plans for hurricanes, taking a cue from Cuba, which has the best record in avoiding fatalities. Countries focus on getting residents out of precarious buildings.
A recent U.N. Development Program study concluded that the risk of dying in a hurricane in the United States was 15 times higher than in communist-run Cuba.
Cuba has been hit by 14 major storms in the last 20 years, but fewer than 40 deaths have been reported. President Fidel Castro's government has reduced hurricane deaths to a minimum through mandatory evacuations.
Some 2 million of Cuba's 11 million people were evacuated before Ivan passed by, skirting the western tip of the island.
Western diplomats in Havana said this was only possible in a one-party state, but no democratically elected government could resort to such drastic steps.
According to Angeles Arenas, a UNDP advisor on regional disaster reduction, evacuation is fine but very costly, and few poor nations can afford to do the same.
Moreover, the run-down state of 43 percent of its housing makes Cuba vulnerable to a disaster, said Arenas, who works for the UNDP's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.
"You don't need a category 5 hurricane, just a category 2 and intense rains...Losses would be much greater," she said.
(Additional reporting by Alan Markoff in Gran Cayman)