87th AMS Annual Meeting

Tuesday, 16 January 2007: 4:15 PM
The social justice of weather: hurricane risk management in Latin America and the Caribbean
206A (Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center)
Eric M. Holthaus, Columbia University, New York, NY
Arguably the worst recent natural disaster in the Americas was the impact of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The combination of vulnerability and a powerful storm resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands throughout Central America. Cuba also felt the brunt of a major storm during the 2005 Hurricane season. Dennis, a strong category four hurricane at landfall, was widely considered to be the worst hurricane to hit Cuba in over 40 years. Still, only 16 deaths were recorded, even as the storm later passed directly over Havana, the largest city in the Caribbean. In neighboring Haiti a nation known for its poor record in defending against hurricanes and particularly high human vulnerability, Dennis killed 56 as a weaker storm and without a direct landfall.

What makes a storm of similar strength survivable in one country and devastate another?

This study introduces the Hurricane Vulnerability Index (HVI), a simple statistical model of physical, social, and institutional vulnerabilities that affect countries in Latin America. By comparing vulnerabilities to observed mortality rates in recent hurricane events, assessments of future hurricane mortality risk can be made for each country in the region. Analysis of the HVI shows that social factors (like literacy rate and life expectancy) may influence vulnerability more profoundly than hurricane frequency or intensity. Based on this analysis of the HVI, recommendations are then presented to manage risk in the most vulnerable countries - and to decrease hurricane mortality - primarily through human and social development. Although previous studies have also compiled vulnerability indices for natural hazards such as hurricanes, this is the first study to provide a comprehensive regional vulnerability index in Latin America and the Caribbean that focuses solely on mortality risk from hurricanes.

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