The Washington Diplomat / September 2005
By Larry Luxner
Ivan, Dennis, Michelle and Emily are all recent visitors to the Caribbean — but unlike the millions of cash-laden tourists who descend on the islands each year, these visitors are most unwelcome.
Killer storms are increasing in both frequency and severity, exhausting the resources of small island nations that are left devastated in their wake.
According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the 2005 hurricane season is likely to yield 18 to 21 tropical storms, with nine to 11 becoming hurricanes — including five to seven major hurricanes.
"The tropics are only going to get busier as we enter the peak of the season," said David L. Johnson, director of the NOAA National Weather Service. "This may well be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, and will be the ninth above-normal Atlantic hurricane season in the last 11 years."
Even more ominously, hurricanes have grown stronger and more destructive over the past 30 years, with the duration of storms and their maximum wind speeds increasing about 50% since the mid-1970s.
"The total energy produced by hurricanes has nearly doubled over the last 30 years, because the intensity has increased by about 50%, and they're lasting longer," according to Kerry A. Emmanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This increase in storm intensity mirrors the recent rise in ocean surface temperatures, he said, suggesting that global warming may indeed produce fiercer storms.
In early July, Hurricane Dennis struck Cuba with sustained winds in excess of 131 mph. The worst storm to hit Cuba in 42 years, it killed 16 people, caused an estimated $1.4 billion in losses and forced the evacuation of 1.5 million residents — the highest ever.
On July 10, the State Department offered to send Cuba $50,000 worth of emergency supplies and an assessment team to determine what items were needed most. Cuban President Fidel Castro flatly refused the offer.
"If they offered $1 billion, we would still say no," said Castro. Nevertheless, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. government supported the role of NGOs in Cuba, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.
"We will continue to work through appropriate non-governmental organizations to deliver relief provisions quickly and directly to the Cuban people," he said. "Individuals and groups that wish to send humanitarian goods to hurricane victims in Cuba may do so through NGOs with an existing license, or by applying for a license through the Treasury and Commerce departments."
Hurricane-force winds raged over 41 of Cuba's 85 active sugar mills; at least 13 of them suffered the direct impact of the devastating core winds of Dennis. Based on the experience of previous storms, it is safe to assume that some of these mills are severely hurt and at best will remain idle in the next harvest. Some of them may be dismantled if it costs too much to repair.
Dennis came only 10 months after the mess left by Hurricane Charley; many houses destroyed by Charley's raging winds still had not been replaced by the time Dennis arrived. Some 15,000 houses were ruined by Dennis, and Cuba's sugar industry, already suffering from a sustained drought and fuel shortages, is in shambles.
Things are no better in Grenada. Only a few days after Dennis ravaged Cuba, Hurricane Emily left a trail of destruction across Grenada — a tiny island that had been wrecked by Ivan only 10 months earlier.
"Emily hit us everywhere, bringing rain, water and landslides where we never had before," said Denis Antoine, Grenada's ambassador to the United States. "Emily reversed our progress in recovery efforts after Ivan. A number of homes that were being rebuilt lost their roofs. Some construction sites were also damaged. Some people are still in shelters."
Antoine, who's represented his country in Washington for nearly 10 years, said Grenada has received $40 million in assistance from the U.S. Agency for Interntional Development, as well as help from the Organization of American States (OAS), the Pan American Health Organization, the Caribbean Community and the governments of Cuba, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela.
He also praised the Caribbean Disaster Relief Agency and various NGOs for helping his country in time of desperate need.
"As of January 2005, we have collected $100 million. But while we were dealing with the whole issue of reconstruction, we now have to find more money," Antoine said, noting that Grenada will suffer a $119 million shortfall — representing more than two and a half times the country's entire GDP.
"The private sector suffered enormous losses, completely eroding the government's tax base," he told the Diplomat. "Our two main foreign-exchange earners, agriculture and tourism, were brought to a halt. Grenada can only recover through continued engagement with the international donor community."
Meanwhile, Deborah-Mae Lovell, ambassador of the twin-island nation of Antigua & Barbuda, has activated a hurricane disaster response committee composed of top government and private-sector officials and volunteers.
"It is incumbent on the embassy and on nationals [of Antigua & Barbuda] to become pro-active, given the frequency and severity of hurricanes in the Caribbean," she said, explaining this topic has been a central focus of her embassy, "in an effort to broaden the country's response capability to mitigate the effects of disaster."
Joshua Sears, the Bahamas' top diplomat in Washington, said his country knows all too well the effects suffered last year by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, both of which caused widespread damage in the northern Bahamas.
"The scientific evidence is that hurricanes are becoming more brutal and dangerous, hence all these efforts are more preventive measures like strict building codes, getting information out to the community," he said. "Every day, ads are running on the national radio station informing the public of the need to prepare for hurricanes. We are as ready as we can be."
Indeed, experts say the problem will only get worse.
NOAA meteorologist Gerry Bell added that "although we have already seen a record-setting seven tropical storms during June and July, much of the season's activity is still to come."
Izben Williams is the ambassador of St. Kitts & Nevis, which with only 45,000 inhabitants is the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. He says global warming is definitely the culprit.
"We're not the ones messing up our environment, but we're the ones who are paying for it dearly," said Williams.
In addition to the physical destruction, he said, killer storms also take a serious mental toll on Caribbean islanders.
"Here in Washington, we're trying to get the OAS to develop a disaster relief fund. We think it is important for them to recognize the vulnerability of our states," he said. "Every year, we are anxious about our impending and uncertain fate. The islands try to help each other out, but the fact is, we are so vulnerable."
So far this year, Antigua hasn't been hit by any hurricanes, says Williams, "and we hope and pray that we won't be."