International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
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Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
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Newsletter for Latin America and the Caribbean        Inssue No. 15, 1999


The 1999 Hurricane Season in the Atlantic Basin
Dr. José Rubiera
Director, National Forecasting Centre
Meteorology Institute of Cuba

In November 1999, the hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin came to an end. It was one of the most active in recent years, as had been forecast by Prof. W. Gray in the United States and M. Ballester and his associates in Cuba.

In 1999, a total of 12 tropical storms took place, two more than the average. However, what was really striking was the number and intensity of the hurricanes. On average, there are six hurricanes a season; in 1999, there were eight. In the case of severe hurricanes of 3 or more on the Saffir-Simpson scale, a dramatic increase in cyclone activity took place, since instead of the two severe hurricanes on average a season, the 1999 season included five, all of category 4.

Another interesting aspect is that the total number of tropical storms during the 1995-1999 period, 65, matched the 1932-1936 period, the most dynamic to date. However, if we look at the number of hurricanes in the same period, 41, it turns out that the 1995-1999 season was the most active since 1886, the year that strict records began to be kept.

The most outstanding hurricane of the season was Floyd, which reached sustained wind speeds of 250 km an hour and a minimum pressure of 921 hPa. It devastated the central and western parts of the Bahamas on 13 and 14 September 1999. It also hit the eastern coast of the United States; although its winds had weakened, torrential rain caused catastrophic floods, particularly in Northern Carolina. Earlier, that state and neighbouring areas had been exposed to torrential rain from hurricane Dennis; Floyd came along to complete the destruction. It caused 56 deaths in the United States, turning it into the deadliest hurricane in that country since Agnes caused 122 deaths in 1972. The estimated economic damage caused by Floyd surpassed US$6 billion.

One of the most spectacular hurricanes of all times was Lenny. It started quite late in the season, in mid November. Among its most notable characteristics were the following:

  1. It moved eastward from the Western Caribbean to the south of Cuba and Jamaica towards the northeastern Lesser Antilles. In other words, its movement was totally unprecedented, as the first since records beganto be kept to move East over such a low latitude.
  2. It intensified gradually until it reached 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, and came close to reaching category 5; its movement was erratic and extremely slow over the northeastern Lesser Antilles, and although it lost strength it produced torrential rain. Its approach from the West caused unprecedented tidal waves on the West coast of these islands.
    Tropical depression N° 11, although a weak system, caused torrential rain in early October 1999 over several days in the Mexican states of Puebla, Tabasco and Veracruz. The resultant floods, which reportedly killed 400 people, were the deadliest of the season. (Editor’s note: This article was written before the December disaster in Venezuela.)

Although one thinks of the wind and the ocean as the chief sources of risk in a hurricane, the above instances show that torrential rain and floods can also cause many deaths. That became clear in 1998 during the passing of Mitch over Central America, and it has also been underscored by the 1999 season.

The damage caused by a hurricane, particularly loss of life, can be considerably mitigated by education and the timely adoption of prevention measures. In Cuba, we have learned that the articulation and effective coordination of modern early warning systems, Civil Defense and the media can save lives and minimize economic or material losses.

Bearing in mind that the La Niña phenomenon remains active in the Pacific, and will bring with it another heavy hurricane season in 2000, we must work harder at educating the public and key officials on the need for prevention. An awareness of existing hazards will encourage people to take prevention and mitigation measures to protect themselves, their loved ones and their assets.