Is climate change to blame for a deadly hurricane season in the Caribbean?

by Solveig Olafsdottir

In August and September four devastating hurricanes pounded North America and the Caribbean killing some 2,500 people and leaving more than 300,000 homeless. 2004 will go down in history as one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons in the region – unless, as some scientists have already warned, it is the start of a trend brought on by global warming.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) responded to these disasters by deploying local, regional and international relief teams, and appealing for $17m to assist 175,000 victims in the six worst affected countries. Assistance targeted mainly Grenada and Haiti, which bore the brunt of devastation caused by hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne. International insurance companies estimate that the total insured losses for the 2004 North Atlantic hurricane season amount to $25bn.

In Grenada 90% of all buildings suffered structural damage as hurricane Ivan battered the island. It destroyed most infrastructures too and it will be months before electricity and communication systems are restored throughout the country. Two-thirds of the island’s total population of 90,000 received emergency assistance. After leaving Grenada wind speeds increased making Ivan a category fi ve hurricane, yet Cuba suffered only minor damage when the northernmost part of the island was hit.

The fl oods caused by Hurricane Jeanne are thought to have killed some 2,700 people in Haiti. Yet only 19 died in the neighbouring Dominican Republic (see article opposite).

What could have been done to reduce the impact of these disasters? Can climate change be blamed for a series of four deadly storms in just one month? We need to fi nd answers to these questions and above all we need to react. Responding to disasters is part of the IFRC mandate, but it is also committed to understanding and addressing risks to which people are exposed. It can thus reduce the frequently horrible consequences of natural disasters.

There is solid evidence that disaster reduction measures can alleviate human suffering. In the Caribbean, the Cuban authorities, supported by the national Red Cross, have set up an excellent emergency preparedness system (see article on opposite page). The Dominican Republic has not exploited its natural resources in the same way as neighbouring Haiti. Though the same deadly hurricanes battered Cuba and the Dominican Republic the incidence of casualties was very different from many other countries in the region.

The Caribbean boasts well trained Red Cross disaster response teams and risk reduction activities, but we can do more to prepare communities to protect themselves more effectively against the effects of climate change. Disasters are increasingly frequent and severe, a trend aggravated by anarchic urban development and rapid population growth. Climate change is very probably already contributing to the trend and we need to raise the awareness of communities at risk. All too often it is the poor and deprived in society that are the hardest hit. They are the people that the IFRC is targeting worldwide with its risk reduction programmes.

“The Red Cross and Red Crescent see the increasing social cost of disasters, in terms of lost lives, destroyed livelihoods and setbacks to human development,” says Eva von Oelreich, Head of the IFRC Disaster Preparedness and Response Department in Geneva. “While donor governments are usually quick and generous in post-disaster relief and reconstruction, they dedicate fewer resources to risk reduction which is less tangible and visible. An urgent action is needed to provide more substantial investment in disaster reduction measures.”

Supporting community resilience to hazards and awareness of threats such as extreme weather events and more weather variability is the key to reducing the impact of disasters. Disaster preparedness and risk reduction is a crucial part of the IFRC’s work, and the effect that climate change can have on vulnerable communities is one of the risk factors that it must be prepared to address in the future. It is of obvious concern if, as a result of climate change, four deadly hurricanes occur within one month and devastate the same region.

The scientists, who argue that global warming accounts for the ferocity and frequency of the hurricanes that battered the Caribbean in 2004, blame one factor in particular: the unexpectedly warm water that has been building up in the mid-Atlantic and Caribbean Oceans over the past years. Hurricanes need specifi c conditions to form. Two of them are warm water and high water-vapour levels. Most experts agree that these conditions currently prevail, though the scientifi c community does not agree on whether climate change is to blame. But the IFRC cannot afford to wait for the results of that debate – it must be prepared here and now.

Solveig Olafsdottir is the liaison and communications is the liaison and communications offi cer for climate change and disaster reduction of IFRC/Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in Geneva. She worked as a press and TV reporter in Iceland before joining the IFRC in 1998.

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