Hurricane forecasts in the Caribbean can save lives

Tropical storms can cause widespread destruction during hurricane season in the Caribbean. Advance warning before a storm can save property and even lives.

That’s why the U.S. government supports hurricane tracking and forecasting in the region to warn residents of potentially catastrophic storms — before they hit.

Two women using rope to walk through rapid water, with men walking on rocky shore in background (Logan Abassi/UN/MINUSTAH)
After a bridge was washed away by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, Haitians crossed a flooded river using a rope. (Logan Abassi/UN/MINUSTAH)

Roughly a dozen tropical storms threaten the Caribbean islands every year during the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30. Past storms have left thousands without electricity, destroyed homes, and even led to lost lives.

And it could get worse. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry says tropical storms and hurricanes will likely increase in frequency and severity because of climate change.

“What these extreme weather events translate to on the ground should concern every single one of us,” he said at the Munich Security Conference on February 19.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts more hurricanes than average during the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. NOAA says 13 to 20 storms and six to 10 hurricanes will develop, three to five of which could be severe hurricanes.

Using a satellite forecasting system, NOAA can make these predictions and issue alerts to the region before disaster strikes.

NOAA also deploys planes — Hurricane Hunters — to fly into the eyes of storms, collect data and give meteorologists more information about the storm’s path and severity.

NOAA recently tested meteorological drones as well. The Hurricane Hunters drop the drones into the middle of a hurricane or cyclone and the drones transmit data about the storm back to scientists at NOAA.

“Deploying the uncrewed aircraft from NOAA Hurricane Hunters will ultimately help us better detect changes in hurricane intensity and overall structure,” said Joseph Cione, a meteorologist at NOAA, during the drones’ test flight in January.

U.S. Agency for International Development

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) works year-round with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to help them predict and prepare for tropical storms and their impacts, including the effects of storm surge.

A storm surge occurs when powerful winds push coastal water levels higher than normal and flood communities before, during and after a storm.

“Sometimes when you hear about hurricanes, people only think about wind damage,” says USAID Hydrometeorological Hazard Advisor Sezin Tokar. “But water can be as damaging as hurricane winds.”

Man in protective helmet wearing large equipment belt pointing to debris from demolished house (Alison Harding/USAID)
During their 10-day deployment responding to Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas in September 2019, members of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team, from Virginia, searched more than 1,000 houses and buildings. In this photo, a team member conducts an assessment on Great Guana Cay. (Alison Harding/USAID)

On the ground, USAID — under the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership — works with Caribbean countries to develop maps to assess and visualize storm-surge risk.

“Paired with early warning systems, this storm surge mapping program will help Caribbean countries ensure they are ready for weather threats,” says USAID, “and can respond quickly by providing forecasts and early warnings that will help emergency managers, first responders, governments, businesses, and the public identify who is most at-risk and make smart and timely decisions.”