Caribbean rolls out multi-hazard preparations for hurricane season

The Caribbean is gearing up for yet another active Atlantic hurricane season, compounded by the continuing challenges and constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of a major volcanic eruption.

The triple whammy of hydro-meteorological, health and geological risks has highlighted the need for multi-hazard early warnings in islands on the front-line of climate change and its many impacts. It also once again underlines the need for regional cooperation, which is embodied by WMO’s Hurricane Committee for North and Central America and the Caribbean (Regional Association IV).

The Hurricane season officially begins on 1 June and lasts until 30 November. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center forecast a 60% chance of an above-normal season, with a likely range of 13 to 20 named storms (winds of 63 kmh / 39 mph or higher), of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 119 kmh / 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 5 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 179 kmh / 111 mph or higher).

Many parts of the region are recovering from the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which had a record-breaking 30 named tropical storms, including 13 hurricanes and six major hurricanes. The Caribbean was also badly hit during the 2019 and – in particular – the 2017 season.

“Developing countries and small islands in the Caribbean and Central America are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of tropical cyclones, which can overturn years of socio-economic development in a matter of hours. In 2020, we saw this once again with tragic effect,” says Evan Thompson, President of WMO’s Regional Association IV.

“We cannot prevent this incredible force of nature, but we do have the power to minimize the loss of life and property through cutting-edge forecasts and warnings and strong regional coordination and cooperation,” says Mr Thompson, who head’s Jamaica’s national meteorological service.

Caribbean Islands with steep terrain are at high risk for landslides and mudflows from heavy rains and volcanic debris. Hurricane winds are strongest at higher altitude than at the surface, so higher terrain has the additional wind hazard.

Meteorological services will be working closely with health authorities during the 2021 season to adjust the preparedness and readiness plans to the new circumstances and challenges to ensure an effective health response during this complex scenario.

The Pan-American Health Organization will discuss contingency plans at a meeting on 9 June. Challenges for the health sector include the difficulties guaranteeing social distancing and public health measures in overcrowded shelters, resulting in a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, as well as an increased demand for health services for a larger group of vulnerable population. This is in addition to the traditional risk of destruction of health facilities and increased demand as a result of extreme weather.

Volcanic Eruption

To add to the complexities, the recent eruption of La Soufrière volcano on St. Vincent caused displacement and disruption on the Caribbean island, destroyed infrastructure and the entire economic base, and generated volcanic debris, with ashfall adversely affecting nearby Barbados, in particular, and Saint Lucia. The ash was transported as far as Europe and Asia.

The RAIV Hurricane Committee virtual session in May heard how the Meteorological Service of St Vincent and the Grenadines provided volcano support to the National Emergency Council and National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), tailored forecasts were provided to the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre for onsite activities, anticipating rain-soaked ash, disruptions to the water supply and early warnings on heavy rain events, among other things.

Barbados Met Service (BMS) supported St Vincent and the Grenadines with forecast and warnings and by requesting rapid scan of the GOES Satellite over the volcano, in coordination with the Caribbean Meteorological Organization Headquarters. . The BMS is also critical to their national multi-hazard response, where they provided impact-based forecasts and warnings (e.g., guidance to the Barbados Water Authority on significant rain events and how to manage high water demand for ash removal in areas still recovering from drought; wind forecasts for airport cleanup; and information on wind and rain to parent Ministry of Agriculture). The BMS is expected to automate future tsunami alert messages.

Volcanic ash and gas atmospheric transportation modeling at the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) was used to support St Vincent with emergency management officials. Model runs performed daily using a predefined set of eruption parameters.

A considerable amount of ash was transported into drainage wells, thus increasing the potential for community level flooding during the rainy season. In addition to ash covering many beaches, lahar flows and flood discharges has brought considerable amounts of material to the marine environment which will need to be addressed through modeling and monitoring.

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