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Hurricanes in the Dominican Republic

Winds that howl like wolves in the night. Rains that mimic the storms that carried Noah’s Ark. Thunderbolts and lightning that sounds like the cymbals of a marching band crashing together during the pinnacle moment of the final show. Roofs torn from houses, cars flung across streets like marbles, hundred-year old trees uprooted like weeds in a back yard and winds crashing like plates at a Greek wedding. This is what its like to experience a hurricane. While not all hurricanes possess the strength of Zeus on top of his mountain, there have been instances throughout Dominican history where a hurricane has displayed its fervent strength and taken no prisoners. The fierce strength of Mother Nature is not to be reckoned with, but can inspire awe and fear. Although large storms are rare, the DR has been hit by some of history’s most unforgiving hurricanes, causing tremendous damage, financial losses, agricultural losses and not least, human tragedy. Each year between 1 June and 30 November Dominicans hope for the best and prepare for the worst, though in some cases even preparation has not been enough to avert the disastrous results of storms like Georges, David or Noel.

The word hurricane can be traced back to the Taino Indians that inhabited the islands of the Greater Antilles in the pre-Columbus era. Though there are varying anecdotes the most common indicates that Jurakan was a God within Taino myth who was perpetually angry and ruled the power of the hurricane. When angered he would control the water and winds and make hurricanes appear. During the conquest of the New World Spaniards integrated a the word into their vocabulary.

Hurricanes are divided into five categories depending on wind strength, one being the weakest and five being the strongest hurricane.

Category 1. Minimal, 74-95 mph (119-153 km/hr): Some damage is expected, with most of it limited to shrubbery. Some minor flooding occur.

Category 2. Moderate, 96-110 mph (154-177 km/hr): Considerable damage can be expected. Some low-lying areas and shoreline residences should be evacuated.

Category 3. Extensive, 111-130 mph (178-209 km/hr): Large trees and most signs may be blown down; there may be structural damage to small buildings. Serious flooding could occur at the coast, with damage to shoreline structures.

Category 4. Extreme, 131-155 mph (210-250 km/hr): Expect trees, signs and traffic lights to be blown down, and extensive damage done to roofs, windows and doors. Anyone staying within 500 yards (457 m) of shore will be evacuated.

Category 5. Catastrophic, 156+ mph (251+ km/hr): Trees, signs, traffic lights will be blown down. There will be extensive damage to buildings and major damage to lower floors of structures less than 15 feet (4.5 m) above sea level within 500 yards (457 m) of shore. Massive evacuation of residential areas 5-10 miles (8-16 km) from shore will be required.

The following article will highlight some of the most damaging hurricanes to pass through the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately we are limited by historical record with most historians recognizing San Zenon as the first major hurricane to hit the DR in the 20th century. However, records indicate that in 1916 an unnamed hurricane with winds of 117 km/h hit the island. In 1918 another storm struck once again registering winds of 117 km/h. The years 1921 and 1926 would bring a third and fourth unnamed storm with similar conditions, though it is difficult to determine how much damage or how many fatalities resulted from those four early storms.

The biggest storm to hit the DR in the first part of the 20th century was San Zenon, which all but destroyed Santo Domingo. San Zenon was a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall on 3 September 1930. Sources say that it is the fifth deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second of two known tropical cyclones during the 1930 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm was originally located on 25 August 1930 near the coast of Cape Verde. Within a week the storm had gained strength and was headed for the Caribbean. As the storm crawled up the Caribbean, warnings were sent out to islands along the Antilles with special warning for Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola. On September 2nd the hurricane hit Puerto Rico and continued gaining strength as it headed for the Dominican Republic. Winds were recorded at 150 mph. Estimates indicate that more than 2,000 people died and around 8,000 people were injured as a result of Zenon. The worst of the hurricane was felt in the DR. The aftermath of the storm could be seen for a 20-mile radius with the three districts of the city completely destroyed. Eyewitness accounts indicate that not even a wall was left standing in Santo Domingo. As a result, the hurricane flattened about half of the city and heavy rainfall caused the Ozama River to break its banks. The hurricane caused estimated damage of between US$15 million and US$50 million to the Dominican Republic alone. Relief work began immediately. By the day after the hurricane, lack of food had become a problem, and large numbers of robberies had occurred. The winds downed all communications inside of the city.

Katie was a Category 1 hurricane that hit the DR on 16 October 1955. Most of the damage occurred in Barahona on the southwestern coast, with observers recording winds upwards of 125 mph. Katie, unlike her predecessors, developed quickly. But as quickly as it was formed, it dissipated and cleared out. Estimates are rough, but some believe that Katie caused between US$200,000 and US$300,000 in total damage and a total of seven deaths.

Category hurricane 2 Edith was the next large-scale storm to hit the DR, arriving between 26 September and 27 September 1963. The hardest hit area was La Romana in the southeastern part of the country, with reported winds of 165 mph. The hurricane didn't have to travel far as it developed in the Lesser Antilles. It moved up the Caribbean quickly before landing in the DR. Although a great deal weaker than it had began earlier in the week, Edith killed ten people and injured 50 across the Caribbean and caused an estimated US$47 million worth of damage in the region.

Ines, a Category 4 hurricane crept up on Barahona on 29 September 1966 with winds of 150 mph. It is known as one of the deadliest storms in history, for its overall damage, leaving an estimated 100 people dead and 450 people injured and completely wiping out rural villages. In all, 293 people were killed and the storm caused an estimated US$40 million throughout the region.

Beulah, a Category 4 hurricane, came between 10 September and 11 September of 1967. The storm intensified rapidly, reaching an initial peak of 150 mph winds while south of the Mona Passage. Though strong, the storm weakened when it reached the DR. It hit Barahona on the southwestern coast. Beulah was by far the strongest hurricane during the 1967 season. It is estimated that Beulah led to significant flooding, and caused over US$1 billion in damage and 58 deaths in the DR and US.

David, a Category 5 hurricane, was one of the strongest and most damaging hurricanes to pass through the DR. The hurricane hit on 31 August 1979. In all David is known to have killed 2,000 people. David recorded winds of 175 mph and was the strongest hurricane to strike the DR since San Zenon in 1930. The storm brought torrential rainfall, causing rivers to flood. Entire villages were cut off, with many roads in the country either damaged or destroyed by the heavy rainfall. Nearly 70% of the country's crops were destroyed. In the end over 200,000 people were left homeless and David caused an estimated US$1 billion worth of damage in the DR alone.

Emily, a Category 4, hit the DR on 22 September 1987. Bani on the southwestern coast was the hardest hit, with winds registering 125 mph. Emily's heavy flooding caused widespread mudslides, resulting in three deaths. Meanwhile, 5,000 people were left homeless and the farming industry experienced US$30 million in losses to the Dominican Republic.

Hurricane Hortense was a Category 4 storm that landed in the DR on 10 September 1996 with winds upwards of 140 mph. The storm came one year after Luis and Marilyn and on the heels of Hurricane Bertha. Thirty-nine deaths were reported and the storm caused US$158 million worth of damage in the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico and the DR. A nine-foot storm surge combined caused 3 deaths, 21 missing and significant crop damage.

Georges, a Category 3 storm, hit the DR on 22 September 1998. It is known as one of the deadliest and most destructive storms in recent history. Georges killed a total of 603 people on the island of Hispaniola, and caused a total US$6 billion worth of damage. The island was hit with almost 10 hours of continuous rainfall and 120 mph winds, covering streets with debris. Thousands of houses were destroyed by the flooding. The entire country was without electricity, drinking water or communication systems for several days. The agriculture industry was hardest hit by the hurricane. For months after the storm, the DR had to import significant amounts of rice and other foods to compensate for the losses. In the end, 55% of agricultural production was lost while 90% of all of the plantations in the area were destroyed. Large pastures for animals were destroyed as well as poultry and other necessities. The damage to farmland and agriculture would total out to about US$434 million for the country. In all, 380 people were killed by Hurricane Georges in the DR, and 500,000 people were injured. 112 bridges were destroyed while damage amounted to US$1.2 billion in the DR.

In the Dominican Republic, Georges brought strong winds, heavy rains and a moderate storm surge. Nearly 10 hours of rainfall created mudslides and flooded rivers across the mountainous areas, damaging many cities along the southern coast, including the capital, Santo Domingo. 120 mph winds downed and uprooted trees across much of the country, littering streets with debris and mud. Thousands of houses were destroyed as a result of the flooding and winds. The whole country was stripped of electricity during the aftermath of the storm, which damaged water and communication systems.

Tropical Storm Odette hit the DR in 2003, and while relatively small in comparison to previous storms it arrived in the DR with 60 mph winds. The storm dropped a total of nine inches of heavy rainfall in only a few hours. In all, an estimated 60,000 homes were ruined. The agricultural sector took a beating, with 85% of the banana crop lost and total damages at an estimated US$8 million to the DR, Haiti and Puerto Rico. Odette was responsible for 8 deaths and 14 injuries on all three islands.

Jeanne was a Category 1 hurricane that made its presence felt on 17 September 2004. Originally it was not a strong storm but it left 1,500 people dead in Haiti, as well as 31 in Puerto Rico and the DR. In all more than 3,000 died and damage was estimated at US$6.9 billion.

Noel, a tropical storm with 80 mph winds, hit the DR on 30 October 2007 and battered the country with heavy rains and harsh winds. Flooding was reported throughout the country. The final bulletin from the Emergency Operations Center (COE) reported at least 41 dead, 20 missing, over 50,000 evacuated and over 14,500 people in refugee shelters, 39 communities cut off by floodwaters and 12,636 houses affected by the flooding.

Radhames Segura, the vice-president of the State-run Electricity Companies (CDEEE) reported that the electricity service had been restored to most of the country in the days after the storm. A total of 152 of the 510 nationwide circuits were reported to be out of service. At the time, Agriculture Minister Salvador Jimenez told reporters from Hoy that it was not yet possible to calculate the level of damage to crops, although in the months following Noel it was determined that damages had reached US$77 million on the island alone. It was expected to take months for the country to recover from Noel, but as recovery efforts began and things began to stabilize the DR was knocked sideways by another tropical storm, Olga.

Tropical Storm Olga landed on 11 December 2007 and caused 37 deaths, including 20 deaths in Santiago due to the opening of the Tavera Dam floodgates. The rainfall caused flooding along the Yaque del Norte River, and the decision was made to open the Tavera Dam floodgates, releasing about 1.6 million gallons of water into the river every second. The deluge created a 66-foot wave of water that caught many off guard due to the time of night. The flooding killed at least 35 people and inundated homes in several towns. The number of people killed during the storm was reported as 33. The National Emergency Commission (CNE) reported over 61,000 people were displaced from their homes during the flooding. Other reports indicated that 23 bridges and highways were affected by the floods, and 40 shelters were set up to assist the victims. Total damage in the country was estimated at US$1.5 billion.

Mother Nature is unpredictable at best. We are not able to comprehend her strength, but we can protect ourselves when she hits. Uncontrolled building, a lack of preparedness, poverty and not heading official warnings are usually to blame for casualties during hurricane season. Hurricanes do not usually affect people in secure structures or tourist areas. Although the DR has been spared from consistently experiencing strong storms, when they have hit they have been devastating. All that can be done is to prepare and hope for the best.

 

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