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Hurricane History of Matthew's Targets: Haiti, Eastern Cuba and Jamaica

By: Jeff Masters 12:29 PM GMT on October 03, 2016

Very dangerous Category 4 Hurricane Matthew is churning northwards towards Haiti, Jamaica, and eastern Cuba, and is poised to deliver a historic pounding on Monday and Tuesday to these unfortunate nations. At 8 am EDT Monday, an Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft passed through the eye of Matthew, and found the storm was a little stronger: Matthew's surface pressure was approximately 940 mb (extrapolated from their 10,000' flying altitude), and surface winds as high as 140 mph were seen with their SFMR instrument. Matthew passed over NOAA buoy 42058 early Monday morning, and top winds during passage of the eyewall were 74 mph, gusting to 92 mph. Seas were 34 feet, and the buoy recorded a minimum pressure of 943 mb. The outer spiral bands of Matthew are already drenching the south coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as seen on Jamaican radar (see long loop saved by Brian McNoldy, Univ. of Miami, Rosenstiel School.) An unusual area of extra spin and low pressure that has been embedded on the east side of Matthew’s circulation for days is generating intense rains in excess of 1”/hour that are now deluging the coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as seen on microwave imagery (Figure 1.) A personal weather station in Cabo Rojo, on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, recorded 7.90" of rain from midnight to 8 am Monday, including 5.33" in the hour from 6 am to 7 am.

Figure 1. Microwave image of rainfall rates in Hurricane Matthew from the F-16 polar orbiting satellite taken at 5:16 am EDT October 3, 2016. At the time, Matthew was a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Rainfall amounts in excess of 1”/hour (orange colors) were occurring along the coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Image credit: NRL Tropical Cyclone Page.

I’ll need some time this morning to digest and formulate a post on the latest sets of model forecasts for Matthew, and will be back around noon today with a detailed look at the long-range forecast for Matthew. Until then, I wanted to detail the hurricane history of the three nations under immediate threat from Matthew—Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. Haiti will take the brunt of Matthew’s heavy rains, and will suffer the most from the storm. In the wake of the great 2010 earthquake, over 50,000 people still live outdoors in makeshift shelters consisting of tarps or tents, and are highly vulnerable to Matthew's floods and winds.

Figure 2. Track of all hurricanes that are known to have passed through the shaded circle with at least Category 3 intensity. The only major hurricanes that took a south-to-north track similar to the forecast for Matthew were Sandy (2012), which briefly attained Category 3 strength before striking eastern Cuba, and Hazel (1954), which struck southwest Haiti as a Category 3 storm. Up to 1,000 Haitians died as a result of Hazel, and the nation’s economy was hobbled for years afterward. NOAA’s hurricane data base extends back to 1851. Both Hazel and Sandy were October hurricanes that went on to affect much of the U.S. East Coast. Image credit: NOAA

Haiti’s hurricane history
Haiti has been hit by 8 major Category 3 or stronger hurricanes since 1851 (see Figure 2). Two of these hurricanes were Category 4 storms with 150 mph winds: Hurricane Cleo of 1964 and Hurricane Flora of 1963. The last major hurricane to make a direct hit in Haiti was Category 3 Hurricane David of 1979, which crossed over the nation from east to west with 115 mph winds after devastating the Dominican Republic as a Category 5 storm with 170 mph winds.

Haiti has been relatively fortunate with hurricanes since the great 2010 earthquake, which killed over 200,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands of people to live outside for multiple years in makeshift shelters highly vulnerable to hurricanes. The deadliest hurricane in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake was Hurricane Sandy of 2012, which did not make a direct hit on the nation, but still killed 75 people and did over $250 million in damage. In the month following Sandy, a resurgence of cholera linked to the storm killed at least 44 people and infected more than 5,000 others.

Figure 3. Satellite-estimated rainfall amounts from NASA's TRMM satellite show that portions of Haiti received over 12.75" (325 mm) of rain (pink colors) from Hurricane Sandy. The capital of Port-au-Prince received 8 - 10" (200 - 250 mm.) Image credit: NASA.

Prior to the earthquake, the hurricane season of 2008 was the cruelest natural disaster ever experienced in Haiti. Four storms--Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike--dumped heavy rains on the impoverished nation. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country. Particularly hard-hit was Gonaives, the fourth largest city. According to reliefweb.org, Haiti suffered 793 killed, with 310 missing and another 593 injured. The hurricanes destroyed 22,702 homes and damaged another 84,625. About 800,000 people were affected--8% of Haiti's total population. The flood wiped out 70% of Haiti's crops, resulting in dozens of deaths of children due to malnutrition in the months following the storms. Damage was estimated at over $1 billion, the costliest natural disaster in Haitian history up to that time. The damage amounted to over 5% of the country's $17 billion GDP, a staggering blow for a nation so poor. (This would be roughly equivalent to the United States experiencing an $800-billion-dollar hurricane, eight times more costly than Sandy.)

The year 2008 was only one of many years hurricane have brought untold misery to Haiti. Hurricane Jeanne of 2004 passed just north of the country as a tropical storm, dumping 13 inches of rain on the nation's northern mountains. The resulting floods killed over 3,000 people, mostly in the town of Gonaives. Jeanne ranks as the 12th deadliest hurricane of all time on the list of the 30 most deadly Atlantic hurricanes . Unfortunately for Haiti, its name appears several times on this list. Hurricane Flora killed over 5,000 people in 1963. An unnamed 1935 storm killed over 2,000, and Hurricane Hazel killed over 1,000 in 1954. More recently, Hurricane Gordon killed over 1,000 Haitians in 1994, and in 1998, Hurricane Georges killed over 400 while destroying 80% of all the crops in the country.

Figure 4. Devastation in Haiti after Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Image credit: Bertrand Roy.

Why does Haiti suffer a seemingly disproportionate number of natural disasters? The answer in that in large part, these are not natural disasters--they are human-caused disasters. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. With oil too expensive for the impoverished nation, charcoal from burnt trees has provided 85% or more of the energy in Haiti for decades. As a result, Haiti's 9 million poor have relentlessly hunted and chopped down huge amounts of forest, leaving denuded mountain slopes that rainwater washes down unimpeded. Back in 1980, Haiti still had 25% of its forests, allowing the nation to withstand heavy rain events like 1987's Category 3 Hurricane Emily, without loss of life. But as of 2004, only 1.4% of Haiti's forests remained. Jeanne and Gordon were not even hurricanes--merely strong tropical storms--when they stuck Haiti, but the almost total lack of tree cover contributed to the devastating floods that killed thousands. And it doesn't even take a tropical storm to devastate Haiti--in May of 2004, three days of heavy rains from a tropical disturbance dumped more than 18 inches of rain in the mountains, triggering floods that killed over 2,600 people.

Figure 5. The flooded city of Gonaives after Hurricane Hanna, September 3, 2008. Image credit: Lambi Fund of Haiti.

What can be done to reduce these human-worsened natural disasters? Education and poverty eradication are critical to improving things. In addition, reforestation efforts and promotion of alternative fuels are needed. If you're looking for a promising way to make a charitable donation to help Haitian flood victims, I’m a big booster and donor to the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which is very active in promoting reforestation efforts, use of alternative fuels, and infrastructure improvements at a grass-roots level to help avert future flood disasters.

Eastern Cuba’s hurricane history
Six major hurricanes have hit the eastern coast of Cuba over the past 100 years, according to NOAA’s Historical Hurricane Tracks website:

Hurricane Sandy of 2012. Sandy was low-end Category 3 storm when it struck just west of Santiago de Cuba from the south. Sandy destroyed tens of thousands of homes and killed at least 11 people on Cuba. However, Sandy was not a top-ten most expensive hurricane for Cuba.

Hurricane Dennis of 2005. Dennis was the strongest hurricane on record to hit eastern Cuba: a Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds. Dennis was the fourth most expensive Cuban hurricane on record, with damages of $1.4 billion (2005 dollars.)

Hurricane Inez of 1966 (Category 3, 115 mph winds.)

Hurricane Cleo of 1964 (Category 3, 115 mph winds.)

Hurricane Flora of 1963 (Category 3, 120 mph winds.) Flora wandered over Cuba as a hurricane for four days, dumping prodigious rains. Flora was by far the deadliest hurricane in Cuban history, with 1750 deaths.

Hurricane Ella of 1958 (Category 3, 115 mph winds.)

Jamaica’s hurricane history
Despite being in a part of the Caribbean prone to hurricanes, Jamaica has suffered only three direct hits by hurricanes since 1950:

Hurricane Charlie of 1951. This Category 3 storm plowed along the length of the island, killing 154 people. According to EM-DAT, the international disaster database, this was Jamaica’s deadliest hurricane (NHC lists the death toll at 259.)

Hurricane Gilbert of 1988. The mighty Category 3 storm also took a path over the length of the island with sustained winds of 125 winds, killing 49 and causing over $2 billion in damage—by far Jamaica’s most expensive hurricane on record.

Hurricane Sandy of 2012. Sandy hit the island as a Category 1 storm with 85 mph winds, killing two and causing $100 million in damage. About 70% of the residents of Jamaica lost power.

Hurricanes have a funny way of taking 11th-hour course changes that spare the island a direct hit. Category 5 Hurricane Allen took an odd wobble around the island. Category 4 Hurricane Dean of 2007 was headed straight for the island, but also wobbled just to the south, keeping the dangerous northern eyewall just south of Jamaica. Dean caused plenty of damage, though, bringing sustained Category 2 hurricane winds to the coast. Damage was estimated at $350 million, and 3 people died.

Perhaps the remarkable turn of an approaching hurricane was by Hurricane Ivan 2004, as it headed directly for the island with 145 mph Category 4 winds. Ivan took a sudden turn 35 miles from the island, traced out an exact outline of the island's coast 35 miles offshore, then resumed its previous track. In the Jamaica Observer, Custos of Kingston, Reverend Carmen Stewart, contended that prayer was responsible. "It has happened time and time again," Reverend Stewart said. "I know people have been praying and I don't see any other reason why it (the hurricane) would make such a drastic turn…God hears prayer." Ivan still did $760 million in damage, making it Jamaica’s second costliest hurricane on record.

Figure 6. Hurricane Ivan about to take its miraculous wobble around the island of Jamaica.

I’ll be back around noon today with a detailed look at the long-range forecast for Matthew.

Jeff Masters


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