Beyond Grenada

The 2004 Caribbean hurricane season was one of the most destructive in recent history

Nov 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

THOUGH HURRICANES ARE A FACT OF LIFE in the Caribbean, no one was prepared for the massive destruction and loss of life the islands experienced in 2004. There were six major hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin (defined as Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, with winds topping 111 miles an hour). This was twice the annual average, and four of them slammed the Caribbean. The cost to the region was more than $6 billion, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In August, Hurricane Charley hit Cuba and Jamaica, killing five people. Three and a half weeks later, Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada. Ivan then intensified to a Category 5 storm (winds over 155 mph) and pounded Grand Cayman, washing over the island and causing severe damage to homes and hotels, many of which couldn't reopen until this fall. Ivan generated the largest ocean waves ever recorded—upwards of 90 feet—before knocking out the monitoring buoys; post-storm computer models put the waves at up to 130 feet. Ivan also struck parts of Jamaica, killing 17 people, racking up nearly $600 million in damage, wiping out many of Negril's waterfront bars, and forcing hotels to close for several months of repair work. Days later, Hurricane Jeanne and the massive flooding that followed killed 2,700 people in Haiti and 23 in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Jeanne also brought floods and wind damage to Grand Bahama and Abaco, which had been hit hard by Hurricane Frances a few weeks earlier.

In mid-August, with the hurricane season already off to a record start, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was forecasting 18 to 21 tropical storms in 2005. Of those, NOAA said, nine to eleven could become hurricanes, and five to seven could end up as major storms. The season officially runs from June 1 to November 30, with the peak between late August and early October. This grim outlook reflects a continuation of increased storm activity that began in 1995, when shifts in atmospheric and oceanic flow patterns resulted in warmer Atlantic water. Forecasters say this pattern may continue for at least another decade, if historical cycles repeat themselves.

As the 2005 season began, NOAA added seven weather-data-buoy stations in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic, to fill some gaps in its data-monitoring map. It also launched a Web page called Storm Tracker, which provides advisories and tracking maps. Still, international agencies continue to call for better early-notification systems. "I've warned the world that it is not going to get better; it is going to become worse," said UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland last June, at a workshop on disaster preparedness. "We owe it to the people to prepare them."