Hurricanes and Haiti: A Tragic History

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
A Tragic History

The catastrophic earthquake of 2010 is only the latest--and worst--natural disaster to devastate the nation of Haiti. Up until the quake, the hurricane season of 2008 was the cruelest natural disaster ever experienced in Haiti. Four storms--Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike--dumped heavy rains on the impoverished nation. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country. Particularly hard-hit was Gonaives, the fourth largest city. According to reliefweb.org, Haiti suffered 793 killed, with 310 missing and another 593 injured. The hurricanes destroyed 22,702 homes and damaged another 84,625. About 800,000 people were affected--8% of Haiti's total population. The flood wiped out 70% of Haiti's crops, resulting in dozens of deaths of children due to malnutrition in the months following the storms. Damage was estimated at over $1 billion, the costliest natural disaster in Haitian history. The damage amounted to over 5% of the country's $17 billion GDP, a staggering blow for a nation so poor.

Figure 1. The flooded city of Gonaives after Hurricane Hanna, September 3, 2008. Image credit: Lambi Fund of Haiti.

The year 2008 was only one of many years hurricane have brought untold misery to Haiti. Hurricane Jeanne of 2004 passed just north of the country as a tropical storm, dumping 13 inches of rains on the nation's northern mountains. The resulting floods killed over 3,000 people, mostly in the town of Gonaives. Jeanne ranks as the 12th deadliest hurricane of all time on the list of the 30 most deadly Atlantic hurricanes. Unfortunately for Haiti, its name appears several times on this list. Hurricane Flora killed over 8,000 people in 1963, making it the 6th most deadly hurricane ever. An unnamed 1935 storm killed over 2,000, and Hurricane Hazel killed over 1,000 in 1954. More recently, Hurricane Gordon killed over 1,000 Haitians in 1994, and in 1998, Hurricane Georges killed over 400 while destroying 80% of all the crops in the country.

Hurricanes Hanna and Georges
Tropical Storm Hanna (right) and Hurricane Gustav (left) on September 1, 2008.

Why does Haiti suffer a seemingly disproportionate number of natural disasters? The answer in that in large part, these are not natural disasters--they are human-caused disasters. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. With oil too expensive for the impoverished nation, charcoal from burnt trees has provided 85% or more of the energy in Haiti for decades. As a result, Haiti's 8 million poor have relentlessly hunted and chopped down huge amounts of forest, leaving denuded mountain slopes that rainwater washes down unimpeded. Back in 1980, Haiti still had 25% of its forests, allowing the nation to withstand heavy rain events like 1987's Category 3 Hurricane Emily, without loss of life. But as of 2004, only 1.4% of Haiti's forests remained. Jeanne and Gordon were not even hurricanes--merely strong tropical storms--when they stuck Haiti, but the almost total lack of tree cover contributed to the devastating floods that killed thousands. And it doesn't even take a tropical storm to devastate Haiti--in May of 2004, three days of heavy rains from a tropical disturbance dumped more than 18 inches of rain in the mountains, triggering floods that killed over 2600 people.

What can be done to reduce these human-worsened natural disasters? Education and poverty eradication are critical to improving things. In addition, reforestation efforts and promotion of alternative fuels are needed. In the past two decades, the U.S. Agency for International Development has planted some 60 million trees, while an estimated 10 to 20 million of these are cut down each year, according to the USAID director in Haiti, David Adams. If you're looking for a promising way to make a charitable donation to help Haitian flood victims, considering sending a check to the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which is very active in promoting reforestation efforts, use of alternative fuels, and infrastructure improvements at a grass-roots level to help avert future flood disasters.

Organizations Active in Haitian Relief Efforts: