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The Bahamas and the Caribbean Have Withstood Hurricanes for Centuries

September 19, 2019

By Paul Homewood


h/t Dennis Ambler


If Prof King really believes the Bahamas were devastated by Hurricane Dorian, perhaps he should try reading a bit of history.

This is from the Smithsonian:



The Bahamas were spared this past weekend when Tropical Storm Humberto’s 70 mph winds just brushed by the islands. Only two weeks earlier, they were not so fortunate as Hurricane Dorian caused such havoc to the country that the full extent of the damage has yet to be accounted. The Category 5 behemoth rampaged through the upper Bahamas with record-setting windspeeds, then lethally paused its forward motion over Grand Bahama for more than a day, allowing its destructive eyewall to spin in place. The storm’s 185 miles-per-hour winds splintered homes and whipped up a storm surge that swallowed the land. An international effort is searching for the 1,300 people (as of this writing) still missing.

The level of destruction is reminiscent of Hurricane Maria’s landfall on Dominica in 2017, which killed 65, damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the island’s structures, and prompted a fifth of the island to migrate in its aftermath. Maria also tore through Puerto Rico, causing flash floods, destroying homes and completely crashing the power grid for months. The initial death toll of 64 was later expanded to nearly 3,000 as people died from the lingering effects the storm caused. An estimated 130,000 Puerto Ricans left the island in its aftermath.

In the past four Atlantic hurricane seasons, five Category 5 hurricanes have formed; the vulnerability of these islands has never seemed more stark. Can these communities recover and survive such an uncertain future? If history is any guide, they will, as many times as they need to.

Hurricanes have ravaged the Caribbean for millennia. The cycles of activity have varied, but the massive storms have always presented a threat. Centuries ago, long before the advent of weather forecasting, the storms in and around the Caribbean inflicted so much catastrophic damage that it seems remarkable people remained. But they did, and they rebuilt. Now, as we enter an uncertain era marked by a warming planet, the resilience of these communities will be tested again and again.

For the indigenous Taíno and Carib people who populated the Caribbean islands in the pre-Columbian exchange years, the storms were part of the cycle of their seasons—feared, but expected. The Carib, from the Lesser Antilles, were skilled navigators on the water and scheduled the launch of their raiding party canoes for early winter, past what is recognized today as the June-to-November hurricane season, notes Yale history professor Stuart Schwartz in Sea of Storms, his history of Caribbean hurricanes.

“There’s even evidence Europeans relied on Indians to tell them when hurricanes were coming,” Schwartz said. The indigenous islanders read signs in the way birds and fish behaved, the color of the sun, and abrupt shifts in the breeze. “The Indians are so skillful that they know two or three or four days beforehand the coming of it,” one Englishman wrote in 1638.

Scientists still marvel at a Taíno statuette, believed to be the god Huracán—from which we get the word hurricane—found in Cuba by scholar Fernando Ortiz. The ceramic sculpture depicts a head with two arms sweeping in counterclockwise direction, mimicking a hurricane’s spiral winds. “How they may have made this deduction remains mysterious,” writes MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel in his history of hurricanes Divine Wind. The storms are far too big for humans to perceive from the ground. It wasn’t until much later that Europeans deduced the storm’s counterclockwise circular wind pattern. Perhaps they inferred this from the pattern of destruction, or from observing small funnel clouds over the water called windspouts, he suggests.

While the hurricane’s fearsome vortex winds may have been well known to the Taíno and Caribs, they were new to the colonizing Europeans in the 16th century. Because the early colonists had no name for them, researchers scouring diaries and records look for the tell tale description of winds “coming from all points on the compass,” according to Schwartz.’

More often than not, the storms caught the European colonizers off-guard, with cataclysmic results. Christopher Columbus had experienced a hurricane or tropical storm in 1495 near Hispaniola, the first known recorded. Seven years later, on his fourth voyage from Spain, Columbus stopped in what is now the Dominican Republic.

In port, he observed signs of an approaching cyclone and warned the island’s governor, who was about to send 30 ships back to Spain, including one carrying gold pilfered by Columbus. The governor, a political enemy, ignored the warning and ordered the fleet to sail. While Columbus took his own ships to the lee side of the island for protection, where they survived relatively unscathed, the ensuing hurricane sank nearly all of the governor’s ships.

From there, hurricanes themselves would reshape the wars among European powers to control the New World. In the middle of the 16th century, both Spain and France had footholds on the Florida peninsula and neither was willing to share. The French had a settlement along the St. Johns River near what is now Jacksonville, called Fort Caroline; the Spanish were not far away in St. Augustine. In 1565 Spain tried to attack France by sea, but a hurricane scattered the fleet. The French counterattack was thwarted by another storm. Finally, the Spanish marched over land to take the French by surprise at Fort Caroline, winning control of Florida.

Over and over again, the storms intervened in the affairs of men.

In 1640, a hurricane destroyed a Dutch fleet as it sailed to attack Havana, Cuba, allowing the island to remain in Spanish possession. In 1666, 17 British ships were destroyed by a hurricane in the Lesser Antilles, allowing the French to retain control of Guadeloupe. In each of these tempests, hundreds, even thousands, of lives were lost.

But it was one month in 1780 that still stands as the deadliest on record. By then, the Caribbean had a thriving economy based on sugar, rum and other products, and its population had grown as enslaved laborers and others were imported to do the work. On October 3, the Savanna-la-Mar hurricane landed on Jamaica’s shores, whipping up a storm surge so swiftly that people gathering outside to observe the clouds were swept away. The storm ripped through the port city of Savanna-la-Mar, the village of Lucea and Montego Bay. It cruised northwestward after destroying much of Jamaica, crossing Cuba and the Bahamas. Along the way it flattened sugar cane fields, crushed homes and buildings, and sank ships by the dozen, including a British transport ship with hundreds of Spanish prisoners aboard. In all, 3,000 people were killed by this storm. “Not a tree, or bush, or cane was to be seen: universal desolation prevailed,” wrote British clergyman George Bridges.

One week later, while the residents of Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas were still digging out, a second storm, so deadly it still holds the record as the most lethal Atlantic hurricane recorded, swept up from the south. On October 10, it struck the Lesser Antilles. The storm leveled Barbados, destroying nearly the entirety of the island’s sugar plantations and rum production, and killing 4,300 people. It tore through St. Vincent, St. Eustatius, St. Lucia and Martinique, where storm surges swept whole villages into the sea. It continued on a lethal path up to Bermuda before heading out to sea on October 18. The storm severely crippled the British navy in the region, weakening the empire at a crucial point in the American Revolution. In total, the storm directly killed 22,000 people.

Even as the Great Hurricane of 1780, as it came to be known, was assaulting the outer islands, a third cyclone whipped up off Jamaica and sped west into the Gulf of Mexico six days later. It is known as Solano’s hurricane, after the Spanish Admiral Don José Solano y Bote, who was at that time leading an armada of 64 ships and 4,000 soldiers to attack the British in Pensacola in the fight to control Florida. The storm skirted Cuba then hit the Gulf and made landfall in the United States, killing roughly 2,000 people along its journey. In total, these three hurricanes, only weeks apart, were responsible for roughly 27,000 deaths. The cost of sugar and rum shot up in Europe and America, and it would take years to rebuild the destroyed economies.

But they did rebuild, which is the point. The infrequency of hurricanes—some years you have them, some you don’t—and the lucrative industries of the Caribbean made it worth the risk. The sugarcane grew back, ships and homes were hammered back together.


Unfortunately a thoroughly sensible article finishes with the usual apologetic “climate change is making hurricanes worse” drivel, something which the data does not support.

But arguments about slight trends in wind speeds, frequency,  rainfall etc misses the point anyway. Society nowadays is far better equipped to deal with bad weather events, thanks to better infrastructure, transportation and weather forecasting.

Unfortunately some places like the Abacos are still relatively underprotected, though certainly not as vulnerable as in the 18thC.

And that is where the real challenge lies. To help the Abacos and others to be better protected, not to waste trillions on a fight to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

  1. September 19, 2019 11:41 am

    Reblogged this on Climate-

  2. The Old Bloke permalink
    September 19, 2019 12:09 pm

    Having tracked the storm Dorian for days, the maximum wind speed recorded in the most Northern Island was just 109 km/h when the power went off because of the tidal surge and flooding. The eyewall as the author puts it was only a few kilometers from the most Northerly Island when that happened. A Cat 5 storm? Not a hope. Maybe at 20,000 ft but at best only a Cat 2 in gusts. 185mph? As you have already stated on here Paul, the winds of Dorian do not stand up to scrutiny.

    • JKintheUSA permalink
      September 19, 2019 10:10 pm

      NOAA data reports maximum surface wind speeds, after adjusting from 1 or 10 second gusts to 1 minute sustained wind speeds, of 171 MPH via dropsondes and 192 MPH via SFMR and vortex. Reference link: Pick dropsonde, HDOB for SFMR, or vortex. Dropsonde measurements are likely 1 second duration, while SFMR and vortex are likely 10 second duration. Conversion factor from 1 second to 1 minute at sea is approximately 1.18 and from 10 seconds to 1 minute at sea is approximately 1.06.

      • September 20, 2019 10:33 am


        That pretty much confirms the barometric pressure calculations

  3. Saighdear permalink
    September 19, 2019 12:12 pm

    You realllllly have, I mean Reeeeeeeally, have to wonder about these professors …. At Uni we didn’t “question” their authority – huh maybe we should have, – but were too polite to, – way back then. Now, Hell man, whatever happened to successive generations that not only do they question what our forefathers have done, but are sooooh willing to accept what rubbish some follk come out with.

  4. September 19, 2019 12:26 pm

    In the late 1960’s as a graduate student in botany at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I did a paper on the Outer Banks for a taxonomy course to my major professor. Although I have been unable to locate those publications with the historic hurricane maps, I remember that the area over several hundreds of years looked like spaghetti. It would have been “likewise” farther south. During the 1940’s, a series of major hurricanes greatly reconfigured the Outer Banks. In fact, today’s Oregon Inlet did not exist prior to that. I first saw the Outer Banks in 1956 when on a family vacation. The Oregon Inlet Bridge had just been constructed.

  5. Tregonsee permalink
    September 19, 2019 12:41 pm

    There was a lot of concern in some quarters about the horses on some of the OBX islands. The NPS(?) official pointed out that they have been surviving storms for 500 years without human help.

  6. Broadlands permalink
    September 19, 2019 2:49 pm

    It might be worth noting that NASA’s James Hansen (and his team) studied some “big” boulders in the Bahamas that they concluded were moved. This means that the hurricanes in the Eeemian interglacial period must have been much stronger than they are now and CO2 was higher back then…. so? Better get ready to lower emissions??? Stronger hurricanes are on the way!


    • C Lynch permalink
      September 20, 2019 9:46 am

      Would that be James “no alarmist prediction I ever made has come true” Hansen Broadlands?

  7. terbreugghen permalink
    September 19, 2019 3:26 pm

    The indigenous lived on those islands for thousands of years. They evolved structures and modes of living that allowed them to sustain their way of life. Modern people attempt to import modern modes that are not sustainable in the Carribean climate zone. How much sense does that make? If you’re going to build something that you need, why build it in a way that gets blown away by the inevitable hurricane? Surely we have sufficient technology to build structures that are impervious to hurricane winds. If we can build nuclear blast resistant structures, we can build structures to withstand the occasional hurricane. Of course the issue is cost. There’s not sufficient return on investment IN the islands to build this kind of thing ON them. Unless that investment is also imported. Meanwhile people cling to the edges of the island and beg for relief.

    Remember the lyrics from the 1950’s West Side Story song about Puerto Rico . . . “Puerto Rico, always the hurricane blowing, always the population growing. . . ”

    For the same reason that we ought to question the wisdom of taxpayer support for rebuilding expensive vacation homes in hurricane zones, we should question the wisdom of continual relief of a location that will be wiped clean a few times per century.

  8. Ivan permalink
    September 19, 2019 6:18 pm

    Many people did not return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. By 2010, the population of New Orleans was 150,000 less than in 2000. Today, it has since increased by 50,000. These are modest changes in comparison to what mediaeval disasters did to some places, but large changes for modern times. New Orleans is still, geographically, there, but its human development is substantially reduced.

    Two clear and large trends are observable in relation to the consequences of storms, and far outweigh anything that might be to do with any measurable change in the storms themselves.

    – Far fewer people are killed or injured. This is because we have much better storm forecasting and carry out disaster preparation and disaster recovery far better than in the past. Even in less developed countries, this has avoided storms being anything like the human disasters they were in the past, in terms of deaths and injuries.

    – Far more property damage (in money value) occurs than in the past. This is because there is far more property (in monetary value) in the storm risk zone. Governments have failed to impede people from putting large assets in the line of fire. Maybe the total value of developing in the storm risk zone exceeds the occasional major loss of property that comes from storms – I wonder if anyone has made the assessment. You might say that in poor places people lose everything. But as was explained to me on a storm-prone Pacific island, people choose banana frond roofs because it isn’t much to lose when a storm comes along, and you can put it back pretty quick.

    Saying that society has recovered from disasters in the past, and those disasters were far worse, isn’t terribly helpful. Life was nasty, brutish and short in those days, largely as a consequence of widespread poverty and so many people living life at the very edge. We are much wealthier today and it is worth spending some of that making sure our disasters are not on that scale. The Black Death killed about half he population of NW Europe. Saying look how well Europe recovered, well it took generations and we are all exceedingly lucky we don’t have to live in mediaeval conditions.

  9. September 19, 2019 6:37 pm

    Reblogged this on WeatherAction News and commented:

    Over and over again, the storms intervened in the affairs of men.

    And they still do no matter how much Swedish saints tell us to listen to the science. Thanks the heavens for the energy dense fuels we have available which mean we can survive events that killed our forebears by the thousands.

    Thank you for highlighting the article Paul.

  10. September 20, 2019 12:01 am

    Why not build the houses out of concrete and steel that can stand the winds?

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