Hurricanes and Other Disasters

Hurricanes - An Overview

Life in the Caribbean has it's advantages -- year-round warm weather, beautiful beaches, a generally more laid-back life style -- but it also has its disadvantages. One of the potentially most devastating is the annual arrival of the Atlantic hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1st to November 30th, with a peak in mid-September. A report on Hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea written by Gilbert B. Clark of the National Hurricane Center gives some interesting historical statistics on these annual visitors to the Caribbean.

  • During the 88-year period 1901 to 1988, there were 245 Atlantic tropical storms, 110 of which can be classified as hurricanes.

  • Of the 110 hurricanes, 24 developed in August, 40 in September, and 32 in October. The remaining 14 occurred in January (1), March (1), May (1), June (5), July (4), and November (2). There have been no hurricanes in February, April, or December.

  • There were 54 tropical storms and hurricanes during the 20-year period 1906 to 1925, 73 tropical storms and hurricanes during 1926 to 1945, 58 tropical storms and hurricanes during 1946 to 1965, and 40 tropical storms and hurricanes during 1966 to 1985.

  • Using the Saffir-Simpson scale (with Category 1 the weakest storms and Category 5 the strongest) on average, a Category 1 storm has affected the Caribbean once every 2 years, a Category 2 storm once every 3 years, a Category 3 storm once every 4 years, a Category 4 storm once every 5 years, and a Category 5 storm once every 17 years.

  • During the 88-year period 1901 to 1988, there were about 28,550 deaths in the Caribbean known to have been caused by hurricanes, with many hundreds more reported as missing. Over one-half of those deaths occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. The cost in terms of property damage is incalculable, but most likely in the billions of dollars over that period.

Hurricanes and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Looking a little closer to home (my home), in his book A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States, Professor Isaac Dookhan of the University of the Virgin Islands comments briefly on hurricanes that had an impact on the history and development of the Danish West Indies (which became the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917). Here are some of the highlights:

  • A 1666 hurricane devastated the Danish settlement on the island of St. Thomas.

  • A July 1733 hurricane caused considerable damage to food crops in the islands and a second hurricane in the winter of the same year further damaged the food crops on St. John.

  • A 1772 hurricane threw ships ashore and devastated the sugar cane and cotton fields, and destroyed the buildings where many of the slave laborers lived.

  • A 1785 hurricane caused 2.25 million "rigsdalers" [Danish currency] worth of damage on St. Croix.

  • An 1819 hurricane destroyed the harbor facilities on Tortola, British Virgin Islands and destroyed the plantations on St. Thomas. As a result, St. Thomas became an important trading center as the island's plantation base began to shrink.

  • An 1837 hurricane caused further devastation of the remaining planations, which resulted in the almost complete abandonment of crop production on St. Thomas.

  • A November 1867 hurricane was followed by a major earthquake and tsumani, which destroyed St. Thomas's reputation as a safe haven for shipping. The combination of the hurricane, earthquake, and tsumani threw many small boats, sailing ships, and steamships ashore, including two warships of the U.S. Navy.

  • A pair of 1871 hurricanes, one in August and the other in October, struck St. Thomas, destroying about 400 homes, damaging the hospital, and killing several residents. This destruction caused further setbacks to the island's trade.

  • A 1916 hurricane damaged the harbor facilities of the Danish West India Company on St. Thomas.

  • Hurricanes in 1924 and 1928, together with a worldwide depression, put the last remaining planations on St. Thomas out of business.

My own research shows that in my lifetime (1950 to 2008) 16 hurricanes have passed within 100 miles on my home island of St. Thomas. They were:

Hurricane Year Comments --------- ---- ------------------------------------------------ Hilda 1955 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Donna 1960 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Betsy 1965 Passed to the East of St. Thomas Eloise 1975 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Frederic 1979 Passed directly over St. Thomas, minor damage Chris 1988 Passed to the South of St. Thomas Hugo 1989 Passed directly over St. Thomas, major damage Klaus 1990 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Luis 1995 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Marilyn 1995 Passed directly over St. Thomas, major damage Bertha 1996 Passed directly over St. Thomas, moderate damage Erika 1997 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Georges 1998 Passed just South of St. Thomas, minor damage Jose 1999 Passed to the North of St. Thomas Lenny 1999 Passed to the South of St. Thomas, west-to-east Omar 2008 Passed to the South of St. Thomas, west-to-east

It's obvious from this chart that the decade of the 1990s has seen much more hurricane activity near the U.S. Virgin Islands (and more specifically St. Thomas) than the prior 4 decades combined. In particular, Hurricanes Hugo in September 1989 and Marilyn in September 1995 devastated the islands, including causing extensive damage to my home and the homes of several family members. Click below for an "up close and personal" look at the effects of some of these storms.

| Hurricane Donna - 1960 > |

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Last Updated: October 23, 2008