Cayman’s government and support staff gathered for the annual National Hurricane Exercise this week, plotting the path for the season ahead and mapping out the response to various contingencies.
Members of the National Hazard Management Council and Emergency Support Teams met for a briefing on Tuesday and reconvened for a hurricane table-top exercise on Wednesday. The point was to review lessons learned from last year and to prepare for any storm-related occurrences in 2018.
“Thank you for coming. And thank you for taking this very seriously. At some point, we’re going to gather here and it’s going to be real,” Deputy Governor Franz Manderson told attendees on Tuesday.
“We only have to look at what happened in [the British Virgin Islands] and Anguilla and our sister overseas territories last year to see the devastating effects that a hurricane had.… We’re very fortunate and God has blessed and protected us, but at some point we’re going to get hit again. We need to always be prepared.”
Hurricane season will officially start on June 1 and will run until Nov. 30.
This year’s hurricane preparedness exercises were held in the memory of Kirkland H. Nixon, Cayman’s former fire chief, who helped establish the National Hurricane Committee and was pivotal in the creation of Hazard Management Cayman Islands. Mr. Nixon passed away on Monday. The members of Tuesday’s briefing bowed their heads for a moment of silence in his honor.
John Tibbetts, the director general of the Cayman Islands National Weather Service, told the assembled crowd what happened in last year’s hurricane season and what could be expected for this year.
Last year, he said, was one of the most volatile hurricane seasons in recent memory. Four hurricane names – Harvey, Irma, Nate and Maria – were retired as a result of last season. According to Mr. Tibbetts, that was one off the Atlantic Basin record of five retired names set in 2005.
Names of catastrophic storms are stricken from the list of hurricane names, and an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization chooses new names to replace them.
Mr. Tibbetts used last year’s predictions to point out how inaccurate projection models can be. Last year, the National Weather Service projected 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major storms, but reality brought a total of 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes.
“It was not supposed to be a very active season,” said Mr. Tibbetts when reviewing the hurricane predictions for 2017. “Needless to say, the predictions were terribly inaccurate.”
This year, said Mr. Tibbetts, is presenting conflicting signals. He said that western tropical Atlantic seas are warmer than normal, which could support the development of storms. But he also said that forecasters do not expect a significant El Nino effect for the rest of the hurricane season. Those two factors, he said, result in a slightly above average probability of major hurricanes making landfall.
The National Weather Service is currently working on installing a new state-of-the-art weather satellite system that should be in place by June. Mr. Tibbetts called it a “phenomenal jump in technology” that should yield high resolution satellite images and provide data on lightning for weather researchers.
He also said that local forecasters are taking a course on flood mapping and storm surge, and that he hopes Cayman will have its own storm surge model generated at some point in the future. Danielle Coleman, Hazard Management’s deputy director of preparedness and planning, shared some lessons she had learned in the wake of helping to coordinate the post-hurricane disaster response in the British Virgin Islands last year. The bottom line, she said, is being prepared for things you cannot anticipate.
“Predictions are just predictions,” said Ms. Coleman. “We really can’t rely too much on them and we need to learn how to expect the unexpected and how to be prepared for the worst. I don’t think BVI had ever imagined they would have three back-to-back storms with Harvey, Irma and Maria.”
Ms. Coleman said that Cayman can currently shelter just 8 percent of Grand Cayman’s population in the event of a major storm, and she hoped to greatly enhance that capacity in the years to come.
She also said that in the wake of a major storm, it will help to have as many avenues of communication as possible. They had satellite phones, UHF radios, Instagram and Facebook in the British Virgin Islands, but the most effective communications tool was a simple WhatsApp text messaging group.
The government needs to consider, said Ms. Coleman, what to do if its headquarters were flooded.
“If we couldn’t get back in the office for a whole month, what would we be doing?” she asked. “What would this department be able to do? How could we function? Where would our staff go?”