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May 2002 Vol. 17, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Here Come the Hurricanes

what to do if Omar or Sally comes your way

from the May, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you’re planning a dive trip to Florida or the Caribbean this fall, you might be in for trouble. Researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say that this hurricane season should be busier than an average season, which has eight to eleven named storms, including five to seven hurricanes. Yet their greater concern this year is that there could be three or more major hurricanes (with winds greater than 110 mph), or about double the normal number of intense storms. “There are these incredible robust signals,” said Stanley Goldberg, a NOAA meteorologist .

Goldberg said the seven years since 1995 have seen the most intense hurricane activity in history. In 2001, for instance, seven systems formed in October and November, including Hurricane Iris, which battered Belize in early October, and Hurricane Michelle, which pounded Cuba in early November. While hurricane season runs from June 1 to September 30, “October can be a killer month when you’re in an active era,” Goldberg said. William Gray, a Colorado State University professor who has been making hurricane predictions since 1984, has predicted thirteen named storms, including eight hurricanes, for 2002.

If you happen to be on a Caribbean Island in the path of an oncoming storm, you’re faced with several choices. The most obvious is to evacuate, but that’s not always possible. With everyone trying to leave, planes quickly fill and, as the storm approaches, the planes stop flying. Besides, I doubt that it’s even necessary.

I happened to be on Grand Cayman at the old Tortuga Club during Hurricane Gilbert in 1989. I decided not to leave, hoping for an adventure. I got one. I spent the day before Gilbert in sunny weather with the surf up (way up) helping residents board up. Then I holed up in a community center with another diver from the Tortuga Club (she was a nun who brought a couple of bottles of good cabernet to help us pass the time) and hundreds of East End residents for twenty-four hours, sleeping on the floor, suffering from overflowing toilets, and listening to the 160-mile-an-hour winds hammer the building. But I was safe and dry. I spent the next two days helping residents clean up, while I bedded in the Cayman Diving Lodge and ate cold canned beans. The funky and charming fourteen-room Tortuga Club was destroyed, its place now taken by cold condominiums. And I’ve got a lot of good stories to tell.

“Be aware, and demand to be removed
from harm’s way if the boat, travel, or resort
personnel are not taking enough precautions . ”

As I recollect, the center was something like twenty feet above the high surf line and a few hundred yards inland, with no trees around. Surging water is the biggest threat in a hurricane, with flying debris also a big threat. Get high enough in a sturdy building and my guess is that the likelihood of anything happening to you isn’t much greater than getting whacked on a dive. So don’t get too freaked out if you can’t exit the island.

One problem, however, is that if you’re at a resort and you put your trust in management, you may not rest peacefully. Richard Hill of Central Point, Oregon, tells us about his experience last year on the island of Roatan in the Honduras.

“As Hurricane Iris blew through on October 8, I was uncomfortably close to her full fury while staying at Coco View Resort on Roatan. As the resort personnel prepared for Iris, no one knew what her path would be. However, we were not evacuated from the small, sea-level island. Instead, we were taken to the single-level beach houses (where the floors are about five feet above sea level) that sit about eighty feet from the ocean’s edge. This works out fine if the hurricane is a near miss, as this one was for us. It appears that the resort personnel have gone through these hurricanes enough that they ‘know’ what to expect and they count on a near miss!

“If we had taken the full brunt of this storm, I doubt all of us at Coco View would have survived . A storm surge of ten feet or more would likely have taken us out with no hope of a rescue. Not unlike our safety while we are underwater, we need to take our personal safety above water in our own hands. Be aware, and demand to be removed from harm’s way if the boat, travel, or resort personnel are not taking enough precaut ions . ”

This leads us to live-aboard boats and the Wave Dancer tragedy, which took the lives of twenty souls who stayed aboard, apparently at the captain’s suggestion. News reports said Anthony Zabaneh, the mayor of Placencia, who had, as they say, “local knowledge,” went to the boat three times to ask the divers and the crew to go onto land. Each time they refused. One crew member said she was ordered to stay aboard, otherwise she would lose her job. She left and saved her life .

While the official reports have not been issued and everyone has a point of view about what should have been done, the upshot is that each of us is responsible for his own life. We now have evidence of what a storm surge can do to a boat at anchor. We know that everyone who died in the storm was on the Wave Dancer. And we know that not one local person died on land although thousands of dwellings were destroyed. Keep that in mind if you’re on a live-aboard in a hurricane, the captain suggests you stay aboard, and you need to decide whether to abide.

---Ben Davison

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