The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season had devastating impacts across the Caribbean region (Figure 20.15) and reemphasized the exposure and vulnerabilities of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the region.116 During the unusually active 2017 hurricane season, there were 17 named storms (wind speeds of 39 mph or higher), 9 of which impacted one or more Caribbean SIDS. Twenty-two of the 29 Caribbean SIDS (including islands that are United Nation members and non–U.N. Associate Members of Regional Commissions) were impacted by at least one named storm, and a large number of SIDS experienced catastrophic impacts from major hurricanes (wind speeds of 111 mph or more). Five SIDS were impacted by three storms, 13 by two storms, and 4 by one storm. Eleven SIDS experienced tropical storm force winds (39 mph or higher wind speeds), 11 experienced hurricane force winds (74 mph or higher wind speeds), and 9 experienced direct landfall of a major hurricane.116
Of the 29 SIDS, only 7 were not significantly affected by the 2017 storms: Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Aruba, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, and Curaçao. Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Saint Maarten, and Turks and Caicos were all affected by Saffir–Simpson Category 4 and 5 hurricanes (winds of 130 mph or higher). The impacts and costs, in terms of lives and property damage, during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season are still being calculated. In this age of satellite technology, hurricane warnings are generally timely, and mortality rates during local hurricane passage have been minimized, but post-event mortality numbers can grow quickly due to lack of electrical power, potable water, food, and access to adequate healthcare, among other factors (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1 and 2).116,117 The death toll in Puerto Rico, for example, has been estimated to have grown by a factor of about 1700% in the three months following Maria’s landfall on the island,116 due in part to the lack of electricity and potable water, as well as access to medical facilities and medical care.
The health impacts across the Caribbean SIDS span a large range, including physical injury from wind and water during hurricane passage and during post-event rescue and cleanup efforts, heat-related injury due to loss of access to air conditioning and fans, inability to manage chronic disease due to loss of access to electrical power or medical services, and increased exposure to vector-borne diseases and diseases from contaminated water. Mental health impacts are also notable, as most survivors experience a high degree of psychological trauma during and after hurricane events (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1).116
Critical infrastructure in the region suffered catastrophic damages as a consequence of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. These hurricanes caused the complete failure of Puerto Rico’s power grid118 and the loss of power throughout the USVI. Telecommunication infrastructure suffered major damages in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes, severely disrupting the communication capabilities of both Puerto Rico and the USVI.119 Over 70% of potable water infrastructure was also severely affected in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria’s impacts, primarily from direct damages to infrastructure and loss of electricity.118
Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused catastrophic damage to crops and infrastructure across farms in Puerto Rico and the USVI. In Puerto Rico, losses surpassed $2 billion in crops alone (in 2018 dollars), with damages to infrastructure adding much more to the total.120 In the USVI, farms, ranches, and infrastructure, including government agriculture offices, experienced sizable damages; however, there are no official estimates of the economic value of the losses caused by the storms.
Hurricane Maria caused severe damage to the milk and poultry industries in Puerto Rico. Over $4 million (in 2018 dollars) was lost in the poultry industry due to chicken mortality during the storm or conditions afterward (lack of water, shelter, or feed).120 Similarly, many in the milk industry lost barns, food for cows, or power, leading to an inability to sustain operations.121 Further, due to a lack of electricity, many residents were reluctant to purchase fresh chicken or milk, which affected the markets. Hundreds of thousands of residents are estimated to have left the islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria,122 which is likely to affect the long-term demand for agricultural products.
Based on information in NOAA’s ResponseLink, in the USVI, 479 vessels were displaced, and almost 4,000 orphaned containers, propane cylinders, marine batteries, and other waste from these vessels had to be removed from coastal waters after the hurricanes. In Puerto Rico, 376 vessels were displaced, and approximately 27,000 gallons of waste oil had to be recovered from these vessels and coastal waters after the hurricanes. Coral reefs and other marine habitats suffered impacts from transport of these vessels and associated debris into these habitats, as well as from debris transported in rivers and streams into nearshore waters. Hurricanes Irma and Maria also caused impacts to corals and other marine habitats due to bottom swells and wave action. Coral farms being used to grow Endangered Species Act–listed corals as part of reef restoration efforts were largely lost from sites around Puerto Rico and St. Croix, where they had been in place for years.
NOAA and its local and federal partners have been working on rapid assessments around the islands to determine the extent of damage to marine habitats in order to focus on habitat restoration and recovery efforts. Surveys in Puerto Rico from October to December 2017 looked at 30 high-value reef sites, of which 20 were identified as having moderate to major impacts needing emergency restoration. Damages included large coral heads being overturned or tossed into sand areas where they cannot grow successfully, extensive burial and breakage of corals from waves and storm surge, and physical impacts from grounded vessels and debris. Surveys in waters off Christiansted, St. Croix, found physical impacts to seagrass beds associated with barge and other vessel groundings due to Hurricane Maria. Whether marine habitats impacted by the hurricanes are left to recover naturally or experience some level of restoration, there are potential short-term impacts to ecosystem services such as fisheries and coastal protection while these habitats return to their pre-hurricane state.
The Caribbean lies in a region where the natural climate system acts in a way that compounds the effect that warm ocean temperatures have on hurricanes.123 In particular, when ocean temperatures are unusually warm, other environmental factors that affect hurricanes tend to be optimized. This is not the case for regions along the U.S. mainland coast, where warmer waters tend to cause other factors to inhibit hurricanes.124 There are also disparities between the United States’ resources to respond to local hurricane impacts and those of the Caribbean SIDS. Furthermore, any impacts that may be exacerbated by global and regional climate change tend to disproportionately affect regions that are geographically small and relatively short on resources.125
The challenges of effective disaster response in the U.S. Caribbean region are daunting and formidable.116 The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season provided a window into the vulnerabilities of the region and the difficulties in responding to hurricane impacts. As the response to the 2017 hurricane season continues in the region, sustained dialog among the range of stakeholders whose interests and areas of expertise are involved can improve strategies regarding response actions and coordination of response based on lessons learned in 2017 and 2018.
Figure 20.15: Hurricane Impacts in 2017
Click on “i” symbols for examples and on dots for hurricane data.
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Figure 20.15: In September 2017, the U.S. Caribbean region was impacted by two major hurricanes: Irma (Category 5) and Maria (Categories 4 and 5). This figure shows the hurricanes’ tracks across both the Caribbean and the U.S. Caribbean region, as well as some of the impacts felt throughout the region. Sources: (tropical cyclone tracks) NOAA NCEI and ERT, Inc. Photo credits: (A) Ricardo Burgos; (B) Ernesto Díaz, Puerto Rico DNER; (C) Michael Doig, NOAA; (D) Joel Figuero; (E) Greg Guannel, The University of the Virgin Islands