Hispaniola and Hurricanes

Cold Front Warm Front Hurricane Felix 2007

Hurricanes are so important to the history of the Dominican Republic, the word itself has its origins there. The native Taino people called the fierce tropical storms passing through the Caribbean,”hurakans” which is thought to have been derived from the Inca word for their God of Evil. Thus, the native word hurakan, quickly became integrated into the Spanish language. The Taino had no written language so the Spaniards just sounded it out phonetically. The word”hurricane” is the anglicized spelling of the Spanish version of the word.

The peak of the season falls somewhere between late August and early September. However, you should keep in mind that some of the deadliest Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes have shown themselves earlier in the season. To put it differently, it is impossible to predict for certain when the largest hurricanes of this season will hit.

The Dominican Republic shares the big island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Normally, Hispaniola gets a direct hit with a significant hurricane about every 23 years. However, close calls are a lot more frequent. Hispaniola gets brushed by the outer bands of a significant hurricane about every 5 years. Moreover, it’s fairly normal for the Dominican Republic to be pounded with tropical storms during the hurricane season. This is the reason why so many people planning a visit to the Dominican Republic are concerned about the weather but I will return to this point later.

The intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean region are grouped by the Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale. The evaluations are based on the maximum sustained wind speeds in the wall of the hurricane. In other words, the average rate of all the winds averaging a minute or longer. Wind gusts associated with hurricanes that last just a few seconds can, and usually are, even faster in speed. The Saffir-Simpson intensity ratings are meant to serve as a rough guide to the potential wind damage and storm surge (the wall of ocean water the storm pushes inland) a hurricane can bring.

It is important to note that hurricane strength increases exponentially, not linearly, as you go up the scale by a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane. In other words, a Category 4 hurricane isn’t just 4 times as intense as a Category 1 hurricane, it is about 255 times as intense!

Although it’s important to know about the different categories of hurricanes, it is also important to realize that it these categories can sometimes be misleading in regards to the quantity of damage they may impose. There are instances when a Category 1 hurricane can wreak as much havok for a Category 3 or 4. In these cases, you need to look at other factors besides wind speed. For instance, a slow moving Category 1 storm may dump far more water into an area than a fast moving Category 3 hurricane. All this extra water may cause rivers to flood, bridges to topple, dams to break, etc.. The size of the population of an area and how sound the infrastructure is also very important to how much damage a hurricane can cause. If there are a whole lot of people around which feeble buildings, a Category 1 or 2 hurricane can be totally devastating.

We should also talk about tropical storms. Tropical storms are described as well organized storms with an eye which has maximum sustained wind speeds ranging between 39-73 miles — in other words, basically a baby hurricane. The ability of these tropical storms should not be under-estimated just because they do not get called a”hurricane” in modern terminology. Odette is an example of a tropical storm that did considerable damage — in fact, as much as some hurricanes have caused. In 2003, Odette hit the Dominican Republic at 60 mph. As a result, 85% of the banana crop was destroyed as well as many other crops. More than 60,000 homes were lost across the area and 8 individuals were directly killed by the tropical storm. So, you can see that a tropical storm is nothing to sneeze at! Of course, when the Taino probably talked about”hurakans,” they didn’t make such a distinction between tropical storms and hurricanes because they are on the same continuum.

The first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492 was created in the month of September, usually the most active month for hurricanes. But he and his crew enjoyed very pleasant weather on that first voyage and never encountered a hurricanes. Now that’s one for the other novelists to take into account! In Columbus’ second and third voyages that he and his crew did encounter hurricanes.In reality, early Spanish colonies on Hispaniola, such as Isabella named after the Queen of Spain, were totally destroyed by hurricanes. But it was the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus that produced the largest hurricane recorded in those early years of Spanish conquest but the history books have been lacking in pointing out the importance of this hurricane (see below).

In July of 1502, on his 4th voyage to the New World, Columbus noticed a veil of cirrostratus clouds developing, an oily swell coming from the southeast, and several other indicators that he took for a storm coming. He sent a message to Ovando, the Spanish Governor of Hispaniola, to warn him not to send out the Spanish fleet of 30 gold ships that were due to leave for Spain. He also asked for permission to dock his ships at Santo Domingo. Ovando wasn’t a fan of Columbus and mocked his request and sent the fleet of 30 Spanish gold boats in their merry way. As they were traversing the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, 29 of the 30 ships sank, killing everyone on board and dropping the massive fortune of gold. Columbus and his men rode out the storm on the south side of Hispaniola with the mountains to guard against the worst portion of the storm and survived it by the skin of their teeth. Historians think this hurricane was probably a powerful Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane. Some historians called it the”Columbus Hurricane” because he predicted it.

There have been many terrible hurricanes and fierce tropical storms in the Dominican Republic over the decades — far too numerous to list them all here. However, I’d like to mention a few of the more notable ones.

San Zenon was a Category 4 hurricane that hit the Dominican Republic in 1930. It’s widely considered one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record. It hit Puerto Rico first but the brunt of the damage was to the Dominican Republic. It was a Category 4 that was just under a Category 5 in relation to wind speed with150 mph winds. 2000 people died and it basically leveled Santo Domingo. San Zenon was a very broad hurricane and its aftermath spread out within a 20 mile radius. Everything in sight was devastated. This was before modern hurricane proof buildings so almost every structure in Santo Domingo fell.

Thinking about the path of destruction that San Zenon left behind reminds me when the Taino people referred to a”hurakan” they were not just referring to the real physical event but also the devastation it leaves in its wake. The lost lives, the accidents, the downed trees, the destroyed plants, the destroyed structures, the flooding… all of this would have been contained from the Taino definition of the word hurricane. So, to the Taino, a hurricane included the effects of a hurricane that you see after it passes over.

Another hurricane that won’t ever be forgotten in the Dominican Republic was named David. It is one of the biggest cyclones to be born off the coast of Africa. It was a Category 5 hurricane and it hit August 31, 1979. The wind speed of this devastating hurricane was clocked at a whopping 175 mph!! 70% of all the crops in the country were destroyed. 200,000 homes were lost. More than 2000 people were killed and every major river in the country was flooded. Entire communities were isolated and the consequences were felt across the entire country, although the southern region was hardest hit.

Another very memorable storm was George which struck September 22, 1998. This one dumped more rain than any other in modern history. Crops were destroyed, pastures for livestock were destroyed, and food had to be brought in from outside the country or the people would have starved.

Sometimes the smaller Category 1 hurricanes can cause a whole lot of harm and inconvenience if they hit in just the perfect location. This is certainly true for Jeanne that hit on September 17, 2004. This Category 1 hurricane affected the very popular tourist area of Punta Cana and other places on the east shore. Bridges were removed and travel became impossible for some time.

Most tourists to the Dominican Republic aren’t from areas that are hit by hurricanes in order that they may not have a great understanding of what to do if they hear that a hurricane is coming. So, here is some advice on what to do If you are visiting the Dominican Republic during hurricane season. First, you shouldn’t worry too much about hurricanes. Yes, they can be tremendous but the probability of a direct hit to your region is extremely low, even in the peak of hurricane season, AND the infrastructure is significantly better today. To put it differently, if you are staying at a modern hotel, it is build to withstand hurricanes. Second, do not forget that the hotel operators and tour operators have been through hurricanes before and they are well prepared. They know exactly what to do and they have contingency plans for dealing with every possibility. They also have back up satellite communication devices in case the principal communication goes down as well as plenty of emergency supplies. Therefore, you’ll be safe if you heed their instructions.

The fantastic news about hurricanes is that you get loads of warning when they are coming, unlike other natural disasters such as tornadoes that can hit with very little notice. The resort operators on the Punta Cana coast and south coast of the Dominican Republic are especially well prepared for big weather events. When they get word that a hurricane is coming, and this will happen more than 24 hours beforehand, they will execute their hurricane plans immediately. Furthermore, the buildings on the Punta Cana shore are the most modern and hurricane proof of any you will find anywhere in the entire Caribbean. They are built with concrete blocks and steel rods and designed to withstand high speed storm force winds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *