Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Don’t Worry, Be Ready – for Hurricanes

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jun 17 2008 (IPS) - Cuba has decided not to make public announcements of the overall outlook for the coming hurricane season, because it makes little practical difference to people’s lives and tends to create false apprehensions, said José Rubiera, regarded as this Caribbean country’s top expert on hurricanes.

In an interview with IPS, Rubiera, the head of the Meteorology Institute’s Forecast Centre, recognised that such predictions have a scientific basis and are a source of important information for researchers.

But the Institute has dropped its longstanding practice of announcing long range forecasts for the Atlantic weather system, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and has an average of 10 tropical storms per season, six of which can reach hurricane strength, and one of maximum intensity (category 5).

“We decided not to issue public forecasts for the hurricane season, not because they were or should be kept secret, or anything like that, but because the decision was in the best interests of the public,” said Rubiera.

In his view, until it is known where and when a hurricane will make landfall, “it doesn’t matter much how many are expected.” Instead of needlessly alarming people, they should “be well prepared at all times, systematically prepared,” said the expert, who has been tracking tropical storms in Cuba and the Caribbean region for more than three decades.

The general public does not properly understand the precise meaning of the forecasts, he said. “On the contrary, they often create a heightened sense of alarm, and a sense of being misled when the season ends and no hurricane has affected the area where a particular person lives,” he said.

The usefulness of hurricane season outlook information is controversial at the moment, especially in the United States, where hoteliers in the southeastern state of Florida brought a lawsuit against atmospheric scientist Professor William Gray of Colorado State University for his forecasts last year.

In the third update of their forecast for the 2007 Atlantic season, published on Aug. 3, Gray and his colleague Philip Klotzbach predicted the formation of 15 named storms, seven of which would be tropical storms, four moderate hurricanes (categories 1 or 2 on the Saffir-Simpson scale) and four major hurricanes (categories 3, 4 or 5).

The press circulated the forecast widely, and many people chose not to travel to Florida, which in the end was not hit by any hurricane last year. The tourist industry suffered losses, however, which is why the hoteliers are angry, Rubiera said.

Therefore, “speculating in advance is not advisable. But when there is a tropical cyclone in the vicinity that might strike us, detailed forecasts should be given, specifying the dangers that people must protect themselves against, and keeping the population very well informed, but without sensationalism,” he said.

According to Rubiera, Cuba’s experience in disaster preparedness has contributed to its being the country with the lowest number of fatalities per tropical cyclone in the entire Atlantic area, with a record better even than that of developed countries, “thanks to the integrated protection system it has implemented.”

In the 11 years from 1995 to 2006, the most active period of Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, this Caribbean island nation was swept by three tropical storms and eight hurricanes, including four of high intensity.

“However, only 34 people died as a result of the hurricanes during the whole of that period, an average of three fatalities a year,” he said. That is because residents in zones vulnerable to flooding, housing collapse and other risks are always evacuated to safe places well in advance.

The Civil Defence, which comes under the Armed Forces Ministry, is in charge of protecting the population. When a tropical depression is detected in the area, the ministry activates the prevention system.

The Meteorology Institute’s Forecast Centre issues warnings about tropical storms of any class and category in the area, and steps up the frequency of its bulletins as the cyclone approaches the country.

When there are indications of potential danger in the short or medium term, the Forecast Centre headed by Rubiera also issues early warning alerts, which allow the authorities to make decisions in sufficient time to reduce risks.

Tracking and predicting the path and future intensity of a hurricane is a complex and arduous task, said Rubiera, which involves great responsibility for decisions that have to be made quickly, and have a direct impact on the population and the economy.

In 2007, the region was hit by six hurricanes, including two that were category 5: Dean, which made landfall on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, and Felix, which battered northeastern Nicaragua, causing over 100 deaths and enormous economic losses, and leaving hundreds of missing persons.

Two others, Noel and Olga, brought extremely heavy rainfall.

The hurricanes and tropical storms in 2007 caused heavy material damages and 370 fatalities, especially in Caribbean countries, according to a report by the Meteorology Institute, which is part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.

Cuba was affected by Noel in its tropical storm stage, bringing intense and persistent rainfall to the eastern part of the island, which caused one death and great material damage. As it advanced over the Caribbean, hurricane Dean caused coastal flooding in low-lying areas in the south of the country.

A tropical storm reaches hurricane force when its maximum sustained wind speed is greater than or equal to 118 kilometres per hour.

The worst hurricane to have devastated Cuba since the 1959 revolution was Flora, in October 1963, which left a death toll of 1,200.

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