This year could be the worst hurricane season that the Atlantic has seen in decades.
The Earth System Science Center at Penn State University just released their seasonal prediction for the 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season, which officially starts on June 1st and runs through Nov. 30th.
According to the data, countries situated along the North Atlantic should anticipate a range between 15 and 24 storms, with a best estimate of 20 named storms.
This number comes close to last year's actual count, which saw 18 tropical storms develop in the region.
The Caribbean is no stranger to battling through hurricanes. In 2017, two of the most devastating category 5 storms, Irma and Maria, wreaked havoc across the island countries just weeks apart. In some cases, countries have yet to recover to their pre-hurricane states.
But with COVID-19 currently the main cause for concern, can the Caribbean stand ready against both a health crisis and a series of potential natural disasters?
On Wednesday May 20th, the Caribbean Tourism Organization held a joint panel session with some of the Caribbean's leading tourism experts, including: Cardigan Connor, parliamentary secretary of tourism, Anguilla; Joy Jibrilu, director general of tourism, the Bahamas; Sharon Flax-Brutus, tourism director, British Virgin Islands; Colin Piper, CEO, Discover Dominica Authority; May-Ling Chun, tourism director, Dutch St. Maarten; and Valerie Damaseau, president, tourism office, French St. Martin.
During the chat, panelists discussed some of the lessons learned from past storms, including what they could have done differently, and how they intend to apply these lessons this year in light of COVID-19.
The Bahamas, for example, is made up of 700 different islands over 2,000 keys, with 19 of those islands populated with inhabitants.
In the last five years, the country has been hit by four major hurricanes, up significantly from prior decades.
The following are ways that some of the island countries are aiming to deal with expected hurricanes during the pandemic.
Anguilla's relationship with major storms goes back to 1960, when Hurricane Donna arrived as a category 4 storm, bringing winds of up to 145 mph.
"Back in 1960, we only had about 4,000 people on the island," Connor said. "From 1961 to 1964, there were no major storms, and complacency set in; some of the stories of Donn were forgotten. But in 1995, we got seriously hit by Luis, and then came Hurricane Lenny in 1999."
The following lessons were learned over the years:
- Homes were constructed using steel columns and concrete; roofs were galvanized.
- Government buildings used as shelters (they need to be better built).
- Business communities must work more closely with local governments and communicate effectively.
"One of the main lessons we continue to learn is that it's vitally important to remember where we came from, and the challenges we faced back then, so that as we move forward, the lessons we learned protect us now and in the future," Connor concluded.
"One of the things that we do routinely, and one of the things that has been effective for us, is to share critical information with our travellers," said Jibrilu. "We get an assessment of our visitors who are on the islands and we get information to them to give them the opportunity to leave the islands of the Bahamas in a timely manner."
Other strategies in place by the Bahamas include:
- Re-launching the Intergovernmental Crisis Committee
- Update the national hurricane plan
- Provide constant updates to media, partners, and the general public
- Monitor all weather updates and verify fact-checking on international broadcasting
For example, during Hurricane Dorian, Jibrilu noted, one of the most damaging aspects as a result of the storm was the fake news that came from it, which did nothing to help the Bahamas' recovery efforts.
With 100,000 square miles of territory, Jibrilu reminds travellers that a hurricane rarely disrupts the experience for international visitors.
"Dorian taught us that you can never be prepared enough," Jibrilu said. "Always assume that consumers do not understand the geography of the Caribbean, so you should never take that for granted. Designate one official spokesperson for the media to avoid confusion, and that goes for hotel partners as well."
British Virgin Islands
"As we approach this hurricane season, forecasts are predicting an above average season," said Flax-Brutus. "In my mind, that means we need to be above average in our preparations."
In the B.V.I., there are many lessons to be learned from the "trilogy of 2017," as Flax-Brutus calls it.
The B.V.I. was hit by major flooding as well as two catastrophic storms within two weeks of each other. Now, with COVID-19 looming, Flax-Brutus is adamant that the Caribbean, and the world, need to be more prepared than ever.
"COVID-19 is a super hurricane, and that combined with a weather hurricane creates an interesting scenario for us," Brutus-Flax said.
After the storms of 2017, the B.V.I. learned to plan and be prepared for worst-case scenarios, be strategic in building relationships with government agencies, recognize the "emotional side" of storms and invest in marketing/communication efforts within the trade and beyond.
"When we learned that COVID-19 was here to stay, our Emergency Crisis Team has been in activation since March," Flax-Brutus said. "Communication during crisis is crucial, so we've placed satellite phones and satellite communication on our main islands."
During the storms of 2017, Dominica was hit by winds that reached up to 277 km/h, making it one of the hardest hit regions of the Caribbean.
Total damages amounted to close to $38.2M, and the tourism sector suffered significantly. Some hotels are still not open, three years later.
Following the hurricane, Dominica rallied to clean up its runways and cruise ports, and aggressively targeted cruise business as the first to come back. The destination also focused more on meaningful travel and voluntourism, and distributed content to the media to ensure the world knew it was open for business.
Other lessons learned include the importance of having a personal business plan for before and after a crisis, ensuring sectors have proper insurance coverage, having a record of all visitors to the island, having a repatriation plan and understanding collaboration efforts with government ministries.
St. Maarten/St. Martin
In light of past hurricanes, St. Maarten has restructured its disaster plans as a country.
"We're trying to deal with the upcoming hurricane season, while at the same time, trying to deal with something that none of us could have expected," said Chun. "Still, we find that hurricanes are one of the few natural disasters that allow us time to prepare—it tells us where it's coming, when it's coming, and how much power it's associated with, which gives us ample time for its arrival in order to mitigate the loss of lives and damages."
As a country split between French and Dutch legislation, one of the biggest lessons St. Martin/St.Maarten learned following the hurricanes of 2017 was the power of communicating critical information effectively, in order to prevent duplicated messaging or over-stepping boundaries.
"Following Irma, our stakeholders now come together on a monthly basis to update each other and the public on the developments of our island," Chun said.
Coordination with the French tourist office is another major part of planning for the current COVID-19 crisis.
St. Maarten has created an Emergency Operating Centre, which is the country's disaster management centre that focuses on planning, warning, evacuation, repatriation and post-emergency efforts.
"A lesson learned was that we can't do things separately, as if we're in two different destinations," said Damaseau. "We're one destination, two islands with two different status, but the functioning method is an obligation that we work together. Be sure to remember that in any crisis, there is a prior, a during, and an after that you need to be ready for."
"Now, we're dealing with COVID-19 pandemic, but thanks to the measures that were taken communication-wise during Irma, we're not looking at where to start," she concluded.
To watch the entire webinar, click here.
The CTO will be hosting another webinar discussing the Caribbean's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, May 27th at 11 a.m. EDT.
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