The Bahamas and the Caribbean Have Withstood Hurricanes for Centuries

Europeans came to the islands unprepared for the destructive storms, even as indigenous people understood their massive power

Hurricane illustration
A hurricane in the West Indies. Line engraving, late 16th century. Sarin Images/Granger

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.

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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 telltale 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.

No “normal” exists when living with the threat of hurricanes; they are unpredictable and inconsistent. The mechanism by which a low-pressure system blows up into a tropical cyclone is not even completely understood. But the question today for the Bahamas and elsewhere is whether the hurricanes we do experience are going to be more powerful, intense and dangerous because of our new environment. While science can't tell us if global warming “caused” a specific hurricane or a more active season, the impact of a warming world is undeniable. Ocean temperatures are rising, and warmer water is what gives a hurricane energy. Warmer air holds more moisture, allowing hurricanes to drop more rain. Studies indicate that all aspects of hurricane development are being affected, from the weakening of air currents guiding the storms, thus allowing them to wobble and pause as Dorian did over the Bahamas, to an increasing rate of rapid intensification during which storms strengthen quickly and unexpectedly.

Given their history, it's far too soon to write off the Bahamas, or any of the islands. Humans live with extreme weather and adapt. But Hurricane Dorian, and the outlook for future storms, does prompt the question of whether we can adapt fast enough. The endless cycles of rebuilding helped shape society; after a big blow, many small farmers couldn't afford to reubuild and would sell their property to large plantations and migrate, helping consolidate land with the very rich.

“The storms contribute to that history of inequality in the region,” Schwartz noted.

Schwartz also points out in his book that the Europeans initially attributed hurricanes to divine punishment for man’s sinful ways. But as we came to better understand the science, we saw them as natural phenomena. Now with today's comprehension on climate change, Schwartz argues we have “once again placed the onus for natural disasters on human error, but this time on human decisions and policies, not on sin or moral failures.”

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