Hurricanes are Inevitable, Best be Prepared

The Arawaks had a name for it—huracan, meaning "devil wind."  Throughout the north Atlantic, the forces unleashed by the storms known as hurricanes have created much of the region’s ecology.  The violent redistribution of energy built up by the relentless effects of heat upon water has sent plants and birds hurtling through the atmosphere, built up beaches and torn them down and swamped entire islands and created them, as if from nothing.  There is something apocalyptic about a hurricane, as if it embodied the will of the gods. If you were to be crushed by one, you might wonder what you had done to deserve such a fate, while to be spared might indicate the presence of a benign deity.
The historical record in these parts begins about July of 1515, when a storm caused the death of many “Indians” in Puerto Rico.  Subsequent storms struck Puerto Rico in 1526, 1527 and, most seriously, in 1530, when three storms within six weeks laid waste half the houses in San Juan.  Tropical storms and hurricanes attacked the islands near Puerto Rico, including the Virgin Islands, with great frequency.

In 1804, a storm named San Mateo II (ranking it with the first San Mateo of 1575, which did enormous damage in Puerto Rico) struck and was followed three years later by a monster that raged for 50 hours over the islands. Hurricanes struck again in1812, 1813, 1814, 1816, 1818, 1819 and 1825.  In 1827, the second of two storms did extensive damage to St. Thomas and, presumably, Tortola.  And so the record goes—year after year the hurricanes struck, or threatened to.  Within living memory, the hurricanes of 1931, ’32, and ’33 did their nastiest, whilst the near-misses make it seem that every year, on average, there is a worrying storm within one or two degrees latitude. On and on they come, Bertha and Hortense and Debby and Dean, all set on a course for the Virgin Islands.  The average time between direct hurricane hits is in the region of 12 years.
According to the Caribbean Hurricane Network, Virgin Gorda and Tortola rank 14th and 15th (out of 60) respectively on a list of “Hits and Misses” comparing all named storm systems (tropical storms and hurricanes) to visit the Caribbean region since 1851. Virgin Gorda has seen 59 such systems, Tortola, 57.  Reliable data collection on storms is deemed to have begun after 1944, and on this measure, Virgin Gorda scores 24 and Tortola, 21.  Of the most severe category storms, Virgin Gorda has seen a total of 10 Category 3 and 4 storms, five of them since 1944.  Tortola has also seen 10, but only four since 1944. There have been no Category 5 storms recorded here, although St. John and St. Thomas have recorded two each in this most severe category.  These figures don’t necessarily reflect direct hits from storms; rather, they record the passing of such storms within 60 NM of the named location.  By comparison, the top scorers in this league table are Abaco, Grand Bahama and Bimini in The Bahamas, which have seen totals of 81, 82 and 71 storms respectively in the same period.  Abaco comes out ahead since the total of 18 Category 3, 4 and 5 storms beats everybody else.  At the bottom of this table lie Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, around positions 58, 59, and 60, slightly ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.
Complicating an already complex business, recent hurricanes have behaved in ways at odds with historical norms.  In 1999, Hurricane Lenny formed very late in the season and proceeded to follow an unusual west-to-east course, leaving many previously sheltered harbours and hurricane holes open to the storm’s track.
Whilst there is still much debate and deliberate confusion in the political sphere, the popular belief seems to be that rising global temperatures have increased the likelihood of severe hurricanes—and changed the behaviour of the hurricanes themselves. One theory avows that hurricanes have changed their historical track and now tend to veer more to the north, or have changed their behaviour radically.  Recent storms such as Lenny and Katrina might bear this out.
In the history of hurricanes, however, it is plain that anything is possible.  The greatest of all recorded hurricanes occurred from 10th to 18th October, 1780.  Nearly 20,000 people perished as the storm hit virtually every island from Tobago in the southeast through the Windward and Leeward Islands and across to Hispaniola and Cuba.  If that were to happen today, many would doubtless ascribe it to global warming.  They might, of course, be right.  The lesson in it all, though, is to be prepared for anything. The only sure thing is that the Big One is coming. Maybe not this season, maybe not next season, but rest assured it is on its way.  

Hurricanes and their Effects on Buildings and Structures in the Caribbean:

Hits and Misses: Climatology of Caribbean Hurricanes: