Lessons from Tomas

As it is with people on many
Caribbean islands, the residents of St Lucia thought they could easily handle
Hurricane Tomas, a mere Category 1 storm, when it passed on 31 October –
Halloween Day. The island, after all, had endured much stronger hurricanes in
the past.

Although dressed in the costume of
a Category 1 hurricane, Tomas turned out to be much more frightening than
expected, killing 14 people, resulting in an estimated $500 million damage and
causing its tourism minister to say that some parts of the lush island looked
like a “war zone”.

Allison Jean, the permanent
secretary for St Lucia’s Ministry of Communications, Works, Transport &
Public Utilities, recently visited the Cayman Islands to attend the 50th
Session of the Caribbean Meteorological Council. Ms Jean said the storm
surprised St Lucia, not only because it developed very rapidly as it approached
the Windward Islands, but also because of its ferocity.

“We didn’t expect the extent of
damage we had,” she said. “We learned it’s not necessarily the category of
hurricane that causes damages, but the forward speed and the amount of [rain]
water you get.”

Because Tomas was a large storm
moving at less than 10 miles per hour when it passed very close to St. Lucia,
some parts of the island received more than 23 inches of rain in 24 hours.

“We had tremendous landslides and
flooding coming from the rain,” she said, adding that several bridges –
including one on St Lucia’s main north-south thoroughfare – were washed away.

Ms Jean said that she was told the
excessive amount of rainfall St Lucia experienced as a result of Hurricane
Tomas represented a once-in-180-years event. Afterward, people asked if there
was anything that could have been done to prepare for such a rainfall, Ms Jean

Fred Sambula, Cayman Islands
National Weather Service director general, believes there is.

“[Hurricane Tomas’ effects on St
Lucia] highlights the need of the meteorological service of any country to
advise the government on the negative social, economic or physical impact of
extreme weather events,” he said, adding that with good advice, governments can
implement policies to help project life and property.


Climate change

In the context of a trend of
changing climate, Mr. Sambula believes the meteorological services must work in
collaboration with the government to help formulate policies and plan

“Climate change is a reality; it is
there,” he said. “We need to be more aware of what [meteorologists] have to deliver
to policy makers so they know what they have to prepare for.”

In addition to lingering debate
about whether the world is experiencing global warming or climate variability,
there is also the question of either phenomenon’s effect on hurricanes in the Atlantic

Caribbean Meteorological
Organisation Coordinating Director Tyrone Sutherland, who was also in the
Cayman Islands for the council meeting, said the impact of climate change on
hurricanes is still “in the realm of research”.

“Some people argue that hurricanes
will be stronger; some people argue they will affect a wider area; others say
it could cause the trigger temperature to jump higher so there will be no
change,” he said, adding that one thing seems certain. “There will be a change
in rainfall patterns.”

Mr. Sutherland said some areas will
experience droughts while other areas experience much more rainfall.

“These patterns could move out of
variability into more permanent features.”

Because of this, Mr. Sutherland
agrees that Caribbean governments need to act on the possible repercussions of
climate change on their countries, even if they aren’t seeing significant
effects of climate change right now.  He
said that because of the political and economic costs of implementing new
policies to address climate change, governments often conclude they don’t have
to do anything right now and that they can leave it for future generations to
deal with.

“That is a mistake,” he said.

St Lucia’s recent experience seemed
to support that contention. Ms Jean said inspections of damaged areas after
Tomas showed a lot of poor building practices.

“Even in some planned development
areas, we saw some poor practices that have exacerbated the effects of the
rainfall,” she said.

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