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Hurricane prepare

Storm Warning

When it comes to hurricanes, being prepared is half the battle

William Lusk Photo

By William Lusk
Program Manager, O.C.E.A.N.S. LLC


Caribbean residents and stakeholders are all too familiar with hurricanes – natural phenomena that ought to be feared and respected because of their awesome power. With sustained winds of at least 64 knots, these storms leave paths of indiscriminate destruction and death.

Each hurricane, despite unique characteristics, comes from the maritime domain and has the potential to cause substantial damage to bridges, navigable waterways, vessels, coasts and port/facility critical infrastructure. The official start date of the 2017 hurricane season is 1 June, so the opportunity for preventative planning is rapidly drawing to a close.

Determining risk

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Port of Cartagena in Colombia has experienced only two hurricanes within a 65 nautical mile radius since modern hurricane tracking began in 1851. By comparison, the Port of Bridgetown in Barbados has experienced 81 hurricanes passing within the same range and timeframe. Although it is reasonable to conclude that a terminal in Barbados is more likely to encounter a storm than one in Colombia, it would be wrong to conclude that the same terminal in Barbados is more at risk merely based on probability alone.

Calculation of risk is not arbitrary; in fact, it is a mathematical formula with three key variables: threat, vulnerability, and consequence. This function holds true for all security threats, both artificial and natural. In a hurricane context, the three risk variables are really asking three questions:

  • Threat: How likely will a hurricane strike you?
  • Vulnerability: How hardened and prepared are you for a hurricane? 
  • Consequence: How resilient are you with minimal financial loss and operational disruption after a storm?

If a hypothetical terminal in Colombia has high vulnerability and consequence, one could easily conclude that it is at significant risk despite the minimal probability of a hurricane hit. It is for this reason that all in the Caribbean community must mitigate hurricane risk through planning.

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Have a plan

The key to mitigating risk is preparedness – to know your area of responsibility and have a plan of action. The recommended course of action for any vessel is to evade at sea if possible. Although ports and facilities have vastly different characteristics, there are several general best practices to follow, including identification and securement of loose items of equipment such as drums, tanks, lumber and dumpsters. Vital records should be wrapped in plastic and placed in a secure area. Employees should be given a time and place to call in and/or meet after the hurricane to assess damage.

Equally as important as planning to mitigate storm damage to your area of responsibility, one must also prepare for the massive post-event humanitarian response which may arrive by sea. Ports may become clogged with well-intentioned vessels and aid workers, but only collaboration and coordination will reduce congestion, allowing supplies to flow where they are needed most. However, collaboration and coordination will succeed best with proper and working communication, making it one of the most valuable post-disaster commodities.

In order to strengthen resiliency, your strongest assets are personal relationships with first responders, the government and the community. As a general rule, a crisis should not be the first time port security personnel introduce themselves to first responders. Rather, have a year-round continuous dialogue so that expectations, responsibilities and trust among all responding parties can work as seamlessly as possible.

Predictions for 2017

Many lessons from the active and above-average 2016 hurricane season should be considered when reviewing plans for the upcoming 2017 season. Although hurricanes usually appear around the start of June, last year was notable because its first storm formed five months early, in January. Fortunately, this storm’s impact was minimal, with damage limited to Bermuda and the Azores.

There were 15 named storms in 2016, with seven of them becoming strong enough to earn the hurricane designation. If there were a single epitome of last year’s hurricane season, it would be Hurricane Matthew, which reached Category 5 with sustained winds of up to 139 knots. The hurricane made landfall in Cuba and Haiti on 4 October, The Bahamas on 6 October and skirted the Floridian coast on 7 October. Some estimates claim that losses from this single storm exceeded 800 deaths and US$15 billion in financial terms.

One of the hardest-hit ports of the Caribbean in the 2016 season was Freeport in The Bahamas, which suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew. According to Greg Miller, senior editor of ‘IHS Fairplay’, several cranes were destroyed, resulting in vessel diversions to unaffected areas such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Cruise traffic was significantly affected as vessels had to contend with widespread port closures in The Bahamas and Florida.

It is too early to accurately predict how active the 2017 hurricane season will be. However, some are watching the central and eastern Pacific Ocean closely, as warm surface temperatures create El Niño conditions that combat hurricane formations in the Atlantic. Although it is rare for El Niño to occur in such close succession (the last was 2015-2016 and was very strong), the Climate Prediction Center does suggest the increasing probability of another iteration in late summer 2017. If the prediction is correct, the second half of 2017’s hurricane season should be relatively quiet.

However, weather coordination meteorologist Al Sandrik at the National Weather Service’s Jacksonville office warns against placing too much faith in 2017 predictions, especially since predictions do not indicate the likelihood of landfall. “What matters is what comes your way, not necessarily the extended range forecast,” he said. “If the Caribbean Basin has a quiet year and only experiences two storms, and both hit Puerto Rico, then Puerto Rico has a very busy hurricane year.”

When asked what is most critical for vessel owners/operators to remember during the hurricane season, Al Sandrik stressed the importance of timely data to make the best decisions possible. “When it comes to forecasts, always ensure that you have the latest information. Hurricane paths and projected tracks can change, so if you’re working off a 12- to 18-hour-old forecast, it may already be obsolete.”

In conclusion

Although mankind cannot reduce the probability of a hurricane making landfall, it does have the power to reduce vulnerability and consequence. Let us all – ports, terminals, vessels, governments, first responders and industries – work together as a community to achieve that goal. In the pursuit of lower risk, have an exercised plan and timely forecasts to lower your vulnerability and consequence. With 1 June rapidly approaching, are you prepared?