Cayman preps for hurricane season

The National Emergency Operations Centre ran its annual hurricane exercise Wednesday to test the preparedness of those that will be in charge of emergency response in the event that a storm hits the Cayman Islands.

Such an exercise might be of particular importance this year as forecasters say emerging weather patterns suggest there may be more hurricanes this season than previously predicted, and the center will likely have to be activated this year.

“I’ve got some bad news for you. It’s a crazy year,” director general of the Cayman Islands Weather Service John Tibbetts told National Emergency Operations Centre committees convened at the Government Administration Building for the hurricane response simulation.

Mr. Tibbetts explained that hurricane development was hampered last year by El Nino, a weather system that causes the warming of seawater in the eastern Pacific Ocean, creating westerly winds which prevent or diminish hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean.

This year, however, “we are moving from that scenario to what is the less favorable situation for ourselves, into what we call a La Nina,” Mr. Tibbetts said.

A La Nina is a cooling trend in the eastern Pacific Ocean, so while the Pacific goes quiet, the Atlantic becomes active with powerful storms.

Coupled with higher temperature in the Atlantic Ocean, La Nina could mean a “fairly active year” for hurricanes, Mr. Tibbetts said.

“Moreover … the La Nina seems to be coming faster than what was originally predicted,” he added.

Mr. Tibbetts’s forecast has been echoed in a recent statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, which stated that: “Overall, La Nina is favored to develop during the Northern Hemisphere summer 2016, with about a 75 percent chance of La Nina during the fall and winter 2016-17.”

In April, forecasters with the Tropical Meteorology Project from Colorado State University predicted that the 2016 Atlantic basin hurricane season would have “approximately average activity,” with 12 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

That’s a slight increase over what was predicted for last year’s Atlantic hurricane season.

As La Nina appears to be “coming in a lot faster than what was expected,” Mr. Tibbetts said, “it may mean that those numbers predicted there may be even a bit higher.”

While most forecasters agree there’s no way to predict whether or not a storm this year will make landfall in any particular region, Mr. Tibbetts stressed that residents should be reminded that “it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season … they should prepare the same every season regardless of how much activity is predicted.”

How the National Emergency Operations Centre operates

If a severe storm appears to be heading toward landfall in Cayman, the National Emergency Operations Centre, which coordinates and enacts emergency preparations and responses, would be activated.

There are three distinct storm threat levels: alert, watch, and warning. The facility is generally activated once the warning level has been reached, which is at 36 hours or less before a storm’s impact, according to Omar Afflick, deputy director of preparedness at Hazard Management Cayman Islands.

The last time the emergency center had to be activated was 2008, when Hurricane Paloma affected Cayman Brac, Mr. Afflick said.

When the emergency center is activated, 16 subcommittees with responsibilities ranging from debris management, emergency shelters, relief aid management, communications and more are called together to roll out the emergency plan.

This year, for the first time, the National Emergency Operations Centre will convene at the Government Administration Building. Previously, it met at the fire station in George Town.

“It’s a vast improvement from the previous location at the fire station,” Mr. Afflick said. “There’s a lot more room for personnel to operate and also in terms of use of technology and supporting resources, the Government Administration Building provides a better alternative than the previous location.”

“The building itself is designed to withstand major hurricanes and it is self-sufficient for an extended period of time, so overall it is a much better facility for NEOC operations,” he added.

There were around 50 participants at the hurricane exercise, demonstrating the wide breadth of the facility and its teams.

For the exercise, the weather service created a fictional hurricane scenario, to which the participants had to respond as they would in a real emergency event.

As the exercise was the first time members were convening at the Government Administration Building, and there have been technological upgrades since last year, the event’s participants had a few kinks to work out.

“Today is not a day when we figure out all things. Today is a day where we identify the gaps, the bugs and we try to work them out before June 1,” Mr. Afflick said. “If some of these cannot be dealt with or solved before June 1, we continue working on them through hurricane season.”

“The importance of a hurricane exercise is to ensure that the plans and procedures that we’ve put in place are feasible and all entities, agencies, government departments, private sector and NGOs are quite knowledgeable and aware of the rules that have been prescribed for them for hurricane preparedness and response,” he added.

Mr. Afflick said that hurricane preparedness in the Cayman Islands improves every year, and this year is no exception.