Hurricanes in the Caribbean: What You Need to Know

Hurricane Elena in the Gulf of Mexico

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While there are hurricanes every year in the Caribbean that sometimes hit land and disrupt vacations, you should not let the fear of these storms prevent you from taking a Caribbean trip, even during the height of hurricane season.

One of the biggest myths about Caribbean weather is that every hurricane season is unlivable on the islands. Fortunately, this isn't the case. In fact, 100 years of hurricane data show that the chances of Miami or the Gulf Coast of the United States being hit by a hurricane are higher than anywhere in the Caribbean.

Why Hurricanes Hit the Caribbean and East Coast

Hurricanes form around areas of extremely low pressure over warm ocean waters (like those in the Caribbean and South Atlantic) in the summer and fall. Most Caribbean hurricanes actually begin life as tropical waves or depressions over the eastern Atlantic (sometimes off the west coast of Africa) and follow the trade winds west, gathering strength and often reaching their peak of power in the Caribbean basin. But occasionally, storms may also form over the Caribbean itself.

When a tropical depression strengthens to have sustained surface wind speeds of 39 miles per hour around its center, it is designated as a tropical storm and given a name by the World Meteorological Association. The first storm of the season is given a name starting with "A," and naming continues through the alphabet— if you see a Hurricane Zeke, you know it has been a busy hurricane season.

A storm is designated a hurricane (also known as a tropical cyclone) when its sustained surface winds reach a speed of 74 miles per hour. A storm with this wind speed is called a Category 1 hurricane under the Saffir-Simpson scale; storms are rated up to Category 5, which are devastatingly powerful storms with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour or more.

Different Islands, Different Risks

The risk of hurricanes varies widely between Caribbean islands. Bermuda, like Miami, has about a 25 percent annual chance of being affected by a hurricane, and the odds for NassauBahamas, are about 20 percent.

But the islands of the southernmost Caribbean—such as Aruba, Barbados, Curacao, Bonaire, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago—rarely ever get hit by hurricanes. Bonaire, for example, has just a 2.2 percent annual risk of being affected by a hurricane, making your odds about 50-1 against a storm interrupting your vacation.

Likewise, the islands of the Western Caribbean are less likely to be affected by hurricanes than those of the Eastern Caribbean.

The Dow Jones Island Index ranked Curacao as the Caribbean island least likely to be hit by a hurricane, followed by Bonaire, Grand Cayman, Barbados, and Aruba.

Caribbean: Less Risky Than the Gulf Coast

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June to November, usually peaking in September, and affects areas across the eastern and southern coasts of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. However, when you compare the likelihood of hurricanes in these areas, you'll see the Caribbean is the least dangerous place to travel during the hurricane season.

Overall, Caribbean visitors have just a 2 to 3 percent chance of being affected by a hurricane during a one- or two-week trip. Comparatively, New Orleans historically has a 12.5 percent chance of being affected by a hurricane in any year. In fact, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans in 2005, the record number of storms that formed that year did relatively little damage in the Caribbean.

However, some years are wilder than others. For instance, while the Atlantic hurricane season average 14 tropical storms and eight hurricanes per year, the 2017 season had 17 named storms and 10 hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria, which caused catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico and Dominica, and significant damage to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guadeloupe.

Luck plays a role in which islands get hit, and when. But again, the odds strongly favor a storm-free Caribbean vacation, even if you travel in peak hurricane season.

Travel Safely During the Hurricane Season

If you do decide to take a trip to the Caribbean during the Atlantic hurricane season, you should still travel with caution—even if the season seems to be relatively quiet. Fortunately, there are several advance warnings that could save you from getting stuck in the middle of one of these storms during your trip.

Meteorologists tracking Atlantic storms like those that affect the Caribbean issue an official "tropical storm watch" when a tropical storm threatens to impact a particular geographic region within the next 48 hours. A "tropical storm warning" is issued when a storm is expected to hit within 36 hours.

Similarly, a "hurricane watch" is issued when a hurricane is expected to hit land within 48 hours, while a "hurricane warning" is set when a hurricane looks likely to hit a designated geographic area within the coming 24 hours. These advisories are often accompanied by calls for the evacuation of the coastal regions expected to be impacted by the storm, which includes high winds and flooding.

When you're traveling to the Caribbean, be sure to subscribe to local weather alerts and check the forecast before you set off on your trip. Otherwise, you should be able to head to the islands without too much worry about hurricanes or tropical storms.

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