Hurricanes in the Caribbean: What You Need to Know

Hurricane Elena in the Gulf of Mexico

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Every year in the Caribbean, hurricanes have the potential to hit land and disrupt vacations. However, you don't need to let the fear of these storms prevent you from taking a trip, even during the height of the Caribbean hurricane season, which stretches from June 1 to November 30.

One of the biggest myths about Caribbean weather is that every hurricane season is unlivable on the islands, but this isn't the case. In fact, decades of data show that the chances of Miami or the Gulf Coast of the U.S. 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. The peak is between August and October. Most Caribbean hurricanes actually begin life as tropical waves or depressions over the eastern Atlantic Ocean—sometimes off the west coast of Africa—following the trade winds west. They gather strength and often reach their peak of power in the Caribbean basin, but storms may occasionally form over the Caribbean itself.

Different Islands, Different Risks

The risk of hurricanes varies widely between the Caribbean islands. In the Dow Jones Island Index, Curacao was ranked as the Caribbean island least likely to be hit by a hurricane, followed by Bonaire, Grand Cayman, Barbados, and Aruba.

Islands of the southernmost Caribbean—such as Aruba, Barbados, Curacao, Bonaire, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago—rarely ever get hit by hurricanes. Likewise, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and other Western Caribbean islands are less likely to be affected by hurricanes than Eastern Caribbean spots like the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Caribbean: Less Risky Than the Gulf Coast

The Atlantic hurricane season affects areas across the eastern and southern coasts of the U.S., the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. But when you compare the likelihood of hurricanes in these areas, the Caribbean is the least dangerous place to travel during the hurricane season, even if you travel in peak 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 averages 12 tropical storms and six hurricanes per year, 2016 through 2019 were all above average seasons. The 2017 hurricane season was one of the most intense, with 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.

Travel Safely During the Hurricane Season

If you do go to the Caribbean during the Atlantic hurricane season, you should still travel with caution—even if the season seems to be relatively quiet. Several advance warnings can 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 particular geographic region is threatened within the next 48 hours. A "tropical storm warning" is given when a storm is expected to hit within 36 hours.

Similarly, a "hurricane watch" is issued when land is expected to be affected within 48 hours, while a "hurricane warning" is set when a designated geographic area is likely to be hit within the coming 36 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, subscribe to local weather alerts and check the forecast before you set off on your trip. You should be able to head to the islands without too much worry about hurricanes or tropical storms.

Predictions for the 2020 Hurricane Season

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center expected an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season for 2020, with about 13 to 19 named storms, six to 10 of which could become hurricanes. Before August 1, a record-setting nine tropical storms had taken place. Also, the category one Hurricane Hanna Isaias hit South Texas and Northeastern Mexico toward the end of July. 

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