Hurricane Mitch, 1998

Hurricane Mitch, 1998

Natural hazards are the natural phenomenon to which a region is exposed, as well as the vulnerability of a society in resisting, facing and recovering from them. In this sense, the natural hazard combines the danger of the phenomenon with a society’s vulnerability in facing it. Although the Caribbean is an area with a high frequency of natural disasters, in recent years the region has experienced natural phenomenon of particular magnitude, such as Hurricane Mitch, which battered the coasts of Central America in 1998, and more recently the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The magnitude of the social, economic and environmental repercussions of these phenomena have led the region to develop risk management efforts that take into consideration the possibility of these events that are common in the region and to adopt development policies that are consistent with climactic situations that can no longer be ignored. Therefore, the concept of natural hazards forces to analyze the natural phenomenon that are common to the zone and the measures assumed by the societies that live there in order to face them.
What are the characteristics of the natural phenomena to which the Caribbean is exposed? Specifically, the Caribbean is threatened each year by hurricanes and it is also subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, to name just the most significant threats. The response to these phenomena, however, has been at the mercy of the development guidelines and interests assumed by each society. Therefore, we cannot talk about vulnerability in general, but rather must consider the specifics of each society’s ability to face and respond to natural phenomena in the region. About 36,314,000 people live in the Caribbean, so many people can be affected, as has happened in the past, if risk management policies are not adopted.

The Caribbean zone is defined by the Caribbean Sea. It is a tropical sea that is bordered to the north by the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), to the east by the Lesser Antilles, to the south by the coasts of Venezuela, Colombia and Panama and to the west by the coasts of southern Mexico and the countries of Central America. The Caribbean Sea connects to the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal and with the Atlantic Ocean through the waters around the arc of islands that forms the Antilles, through the Anegada Passage, between the Lesser Antilles and the Virgin Islands, and the passage between Cuba and Haiti.

The temperature of the Caribbean Sea is approximately 28 degrees centigrade at the surface and 4 degrees centigrade at the bottom of the sea. This surface temperature encourages the formation of hurricanes during the months of June to December. The intensity of cyclonic activity varies depending on the effects of phenomena known as El Niño and La Niña. Experts say that 2012 will be a year of low cyclonic intensity due to the fact that the Caribbean waters will be cooler due to the effect of El Niño. In a sense, the Caribbean suffers the effects of climate change not only with respect to the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, but also from the floods and droughts that these climate changes bring.

One of the most devastating hurricanes to hit the Caribbean was Mitch. With this hurricane, the dangerousness of the phenomenon itself combined with the vulnerability of the region that was hit. At one time, Mitch was a Category 5 hurricane and it passed along the length of the east coast of Central America. It is estimated that it killed approximately 20,000 people. Damages to agriculture, as well as to infrastructure, mainly in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, were so significant that it has been estimated that it will take decades before Central America is able to recover from the effects of the hurricane. This shows the extreme vulnerability of Central America.

Beyond the obvious catastrophe, however, the losses caused by the hurricane were not due solely to the strength and intensity of the storm. The region’s vulnerability led the area’s leaders to question how prepared they were to face this type of event. In other words, it raised questions about why the region is so vulnerable. This vulnerability is largely linked to the development models put into practice in these countries that often do not recognize the natural hazards to which they are exposed.

The Caribbean is also subject to volcanic eruptions. The Caribbean has two volcanic arcs: the arc of fire in the Lesser Antilles and the Central American volcanic arc. The formation of these arcs is due to the tectonic plates under the ocean floor. The volcanic arc of the Lesser Antilles marks the border between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. This arc formed where the Atlantic plate contacts and slides under the Caribbean plate, which in turn is pushed on the other side by the Cocos plate. The latter is responsible for the formation of the Central American arc.

In the arc of the Lesser Antilles there are approximately seventy active volcanoes, but the majority of the volcanic activity occurs in five volcanoes that have produced large eruptions in the past. One of these is the Soufrière Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat. This volcano is currently active at a low level. Despite that fact that volcanic eruptions account for only two percent of natural disasters, an eruption can be extremely dangerous, especially if it occurs in a populated area. In 1995, an eruption of Soufrière Hills destroyed the capital city of Plymouth and forced many of the island’s inhabitants to leave Montserrat.

The danger of a volcano increases when populations settle near its mountainsides. This can occur due to the displacement of residents who, whether in search of work or better living conditions, settle on the volcano’s slopes. This is an example of how danger goes hand in hand with socio-political practices in the region.

Port of Prince after the earthquake, 2010

Port of Prince after the earthquake, 2010

The implications of a volcanic eruption are not just regional. Due to the air currents that cross the Caribbean, volcanic ashes can extend far beyond the area where the volcano is located. This can affect air traffic in the region and beyond and can cause respiratory problems among those who are exposed to the irritants in the ashes, such as sulfur. Because the ashes can travel great distances, the danger from volcanic eruptions, like the danger of hurricanes, is something that the entire region has in common, despite all the social and cultural differences in the Caribbean.

The movements of the tectonic plates that cause volcanoes are also the cause of the seismic activity in the region. In the Caribbean, 80% of earthquakes occur under the ocean and the majority of them are along the edges of the tectonic plates. For example, the island of Puerto Rico is located along the Atlantic fault. The closeness of the fault to the island makes it prone to seismic activity. The island’s high population density means that many people are exposed to this risk, making it advisable that actions are taken to reduce vulnerability.

Unlike hurricanes —and volcanoes to a lesser degree— earthquakes are often local events, the most affected area is the region where the epicenter is located. Given the region’s propensity for seismic movement, the question is not if an earthquake will occur, but when. Earthquakes are not phenomena that can be predicted, when they occur they take the inhabitants of the region by surprise. So how can a region reduce its vulnerability to earthquakes? The effects can be mitigated through construction practices that recognize the risk, for example. Much of the damage done by the earthquake in Haiti in January, 2010, which caused around 230,000 deaths, occurred because many buildings in the Haitian capital collapsed due to the inability of the structures to handle an event of this magnitude. Additionally, the public can be educated about what to do in the event of an earthquake. This will obviously not eliminate the possibility of material or personal losses, but it will help mitigate them.

Because of the seismic activity, the Caribbean is also prone to natural phenomena such as tsunamis. But it is also prone to floods, droughts and landslides that are aggravated by the climate change mentioned above. Regardless of which natural hazards a region is exposed to, however, in general terms, the most impoverished parts of the world are the ones most vulnerable to natural hazards. In fact, the size of the impact of a catastrophic event is not based, as is commonly thought, on how strong the phenomenon is, but on the level of resources a society has to deal with it. Forty percent of the inhabitants in the Caribbean live in poverty and 18% live in conditions of extreme poverty. Additionally, three fourths live in at-risk areas, meaning they may be very vulnerable.

What makes a society prepared to face the danger of a natural hazard? In general terms, building codes can include specifications to make structures more resistant, for example, and take into consideration the specifics of the site, such as whether it is in a flood zone, if measures can be taken to prevent erosion, etc. This can considerably reduce the dangerousness of natural hazards.

Risk management is the name given to these efforts to promote development practices that take into account the natural occurrences the region is exposed to. The Caribbean has seen that failing to take risk management actions is more costly, prolongs conditions of poverty and exposes the area to huge social and economic losses that affect its development. The Caribbean, as a region, is trying to create a variety of efforts to implement environmental policies, develop planning policies, evaluate development models and encourage environmental education. The Sixth Summit of the Americas was recently held in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Environmental issues were a significant part of the agenda. The Caribbean zone is aware of the natural hazards it is exposed to and is taking action, although there is still much work to be done.


Author: Rebeca Campo Malpica
Published: May 20, 2012.

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