Hurricanes are so important to the history of the Dominican Republic, the term itself has its origins there. The native Taino people called the fierce tropical storms passing through the Caribbean,”hurakans” that is believed to have been derived from the Inca word for their God of Evil. When the Spaniards arrived in the late 15th century, they had never encountered such a fierce and mighty storm so they had no title for it in their own language. Therefore, the native word hurakan, quickly became integrated into the Spanish language. The Taino had no written language so the Spaniards just sounded it out phonetically. The word”hurricane” is the anglicized spelling of the Spanish version of the word.
Historically, September is the most active month followed by August. The peak of the season falls somewhere between late August and early September. However, you should keep in mind that a number of the deadliest Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes have manifested themselves earlier in the season. In other words, it is not possible to predict for sure when the biggest hurricanes of the season will hit.
The Dominican Republic shares the big island of Hispaniola with Haiti. On average, Hispaniola gets a direct hit by a serious hurricane about every 23 years. However, close calls are far more frequent. Hispaniola gets brushed by at least the outer rings of a serious hurricane about every five years. Moreover, it is fairly common for the Dominican Republic to be pounded with tropical storms during the hurricane season. This is why so many people planning a visit to the Dominican Republic are worried about the weather but I will get back to this point later.
The intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean area are classified by the Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale. The evaluations are based on the maximum sustained wind speeds in the wall of the hurricane. This means the average rate of all of the winds averaging a minute or longer. Wind gusts associated with hurricanes which last only a few seconds can, and usually are, even faster in speed. The Saffir-Simpson intensity ratings are meant to serve as a rough guide to the possible wind damage and storm surge (the wall of ocean water the storm pushes inland) a hurricane can deliver. Here are the classifications:
Category 1: wind speed 74-95 mph, storm surge 3-5 ft
It’s important to remember that hurricane strength increases exponentially, not linearly, as you go up the scale by a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane. In other words, a Category 4 hurricane isn’t just 4 times as intense as a Category 1 hurricane, it is about 255 times as intense!
Although it’s important to know about the different kinds of hurricanes, it is also important to realize that it these classes can sometimes be misleading when it comes to the amount of damage they may impose. There are times when a Category 1 hurricane can wreak as much havok as a Category 3 or 4. In these cases, you have to look at other factors besides wind speed. By way of instance, a slow moving Category 1 storm may dump far more water into a place than a fast moving Category 3 hurricane. All this extra water can cause rivers to flood, bridges to topple, dams to break, etc.. The size of the population of an area and how sound the infrastructure is also very important to how much damage a hurricane can cause. If there are a whole lot of people around which weak buildings, a Category 1 or 2 hurricane can be completely devastating.
We should also talk about tropical storms. Tropical storms are defined as well organized storms with an eye which has maximum sustained wind speeds ranging between 39-73 mph — in other words, essentially a baby hurricane. The power of these tropical storms shouldn’t be under-estimated just because they don’t get called a”storm” in modern terminology. Odette is an example of a tropical storm that did considerable damage — in fact, as much as some hurricanes have caused. In 2003, Odette hit the Dominican Republic at 60 mph. As a result, 85 percent of the banana crop was destroyed as well as many other crops. More than 60,000 homes were lost throughout the region and 8 individuals were directly killed by the tropical storm. So, you can see a tropical storm is nothing to sneeze at! Needless to say, when the Taino likely talked about”hurakans,” they did not make such a differentiation between tropical storms and hurricanes because they are really on the same continuum.
The first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492 was made in the month of September, usually the busiest month for hurricanes. But he and his crew enjoyed quite pleasant weather on that first voyage and never encountered a hurricanes. Just think how different history might have been if he had! Now that is one for the alternative novelists to take into account! In Columbus’ second and third voyages that he and his team did encounter hurricanes.In fact, early Spanish colonies on Hispaniola, such as Isabella named after the Queen of Spain, were totally destroyed by hurricanes. However, it was the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus that produced the biggest hurricane recorded in those early years of Spanish conquest but the history books have been lacking in pointing out the importance of this hurricane (see below).
In July of 1502, on his 4th voyage to the New World, Columbus noticed a veil of cirrostratus clouds growing, an oily swell coming from the southeast, and several other signs he took for a storm coming. He sent a message to Ovando, the Spanish Governor of Hispaniola, to warn him not to send out the Spanish fleet of 30 gold boats that were due to depart for Spain. He also asked for permission to dock his ships in Santo Domingo. Ovando was not a fan of Columbus and mocked his request and sent the fleet of 30 Spanish gold ships in their merry way. As they had been traversing the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, 29 of the 30 ships sank, killing everybody on board and dropping the enormous fortune of gold. Columbus and his men rode out the storm on the south side of Hispaniola with the hills to guard against the worst portion of the storm and survived it by the skin of their teeth. Historians believe this hurricane was probably a strong Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane. Some historians called it the”Columbus Hurricane” because he called it.
There have been many terrible hurricanes and fierce tropical storms in the Dominican Republic over the years — far too many to list them all here. However, I’d like to mention a few of the more notable ones.
San Zenon was a Category 4 hurricane which hit the Dominican Republic in 1930. It is widely considered among the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record. It hit Puerto Rico first but the brunt of the damage was to the Dominican Republic. It was a Category 4 which was just under a Category 5 in relation to wind speed with150 mph winds. 2000 people died and it basically leveled Santo Domingo. All communications were lost and there was heavy looting. San Zenon was a really broad hurricane and its aftermath spread out over a 20 mile radius.
Thinking about the path of destruction that San Zenon left reminds me that when the Taino people referred to a”hurakan” that they weren’t just referring to the actual physical event but also the devastation it leaves in its wake. The lost lives, the injuries, the downed trees, the ruined plants, the ruined structures, the flooding… all of this would have been contained from the Taino definition of the word hurricane.
Another hurricane that will never be forgotten in the Dominican Republic was named David. It’s one of the biggest cyclones to be born off the coast of Africa. It was a Category 5 hurricane and it hit August 31, 1979. The wind speed of this devastating hurricane was clocked at a whopping 175 mph!! 70% of all of the crops in the country were destroyed. 200,000 homes were lost. More than 2000 people were killed and every major river in the country was flooded. Entire communities were isolated and the consequences were felt throughout the whole country, even though the southern area was hardest hit.
Another very memorable storm was George which struck September 22, 1998. This one dumped more rain than any other in modern history. Crops were destroyed, pastures for livestock were ruined, and food had to be brought in from outside the nation or the people would have starved.
Sometimes the smaller Category 1 hurricanes can cause a whole lot of harm and hassle if they hit in just the right place. This is definitely true for Jeanne which hit on September 17, 2004. This Category 1 storm affected the very popular tourist area of Punta Cana and other areas on the east shore. Bridges were removed and travel became impossible for some time.
Most tourists to the Dominican Republic aren’t from areas that are hit by hurricanes in order that they may not have a great understanding of what to do when they hear that a hurricane is coming. So, here is some advice on what to do If you are visiting the Dominican Republic during hurricane season. First, you shouldn’t worry too much about hurricanes. Yes, they can be enormous but the probability of a direct hit to your area is extremely low, even in the peak of hurricane season, AND the infrastructure is much better today. In other words, if you are staying at a modern hotel, it is build to withstand hurricanes. Second, do not forget that the resort operators and tour operators have been through hurricanes before and they’re well prepared. They know precisely what to do and they have contingency plans for dealing with every possibility. They also have back up satellite communication devices in case the principal communication goes down as well as plenty of emergency supplies. Therefore, you’ll be safe if you heed their instructions.
The good news about hurricanes is that you get plenty of warning when they are coming, unlike other natural disasters like tornadoes that can hit with hardly any notice. The hotel operators on the Punta Cana coast and south coast of the Dominican Republic are especially well prepared for big weather events. When they get word that a hurricane is coming, and this will happen more than 24 hours in advance, they will execute their hurricane plans immediately. Furthermore, the buildings around the Punta Cana shore are the most modern and hurricane proof of any you’ll find anywhere in the entire Caribbean. They’re built with concrete blocks and steel rods and designed to withstand high speed storm force winds.