Hurricanes happen every year in the Caribbean. However, this doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting the Caribbean during the hurricane season, as not every island will experience a hurricane. Even when storms do hit, most of the time, there isn’t any significant damage. Even so, it’s essential to be prepared just in case your trip does take place during hurricane season. What follows is some insight on hurricanes, including my own experience with Hurricane Dorian, as well as tips for traveling to the Caribbean during hurricane season.
Enormous hurricane over the Atlantic. Photo Credit: © harvepino via 123RF.com.
What is a Hurricane?
The term hurricane comes from Hurakan, an ancient Mayan word for the god of wind, storm, and fire. This makes sense since hurricanes are essentially giant vortexes of destructive power. They’re classified as tropical cyclones or tropical depressions, depending on their intensity. Still, they all start as warm-weather thunderstorms called tropical waves that form off of Africa’s western coast between June and November each year.
Tropical waves strengthen over time as they cross the Atlantic Ocean towards Central America, picking up more energy (and moisture) along their path. They sometimes even produce torrential rains—which can be dangerous in areas that don’t see much rain—but only 3% of tropical waves ever develop into hurricanes.
A hurricane begins when two conditions are met: winds must reach 39 miles per hour, and atmospheric pressure within the storm must drop at least 24 millibars within 24 hours. When both coincide, it leads to rising air pressure inside the eye of the storm, creating more wind speeds until, eventually, its maximum sustained winds reach 74 miles per hour. These major hurricanes are so intense because once rising air pressure stops increasing wind speeds further inside its eye, rising air pressure on either side of it becomes what causes its outermost part to climb higher into space.
Hurricanes do not all follow the same track once they reach their destination because of differing wind speeds around their eyewall (the strongest part of a hurricane). The term “cone of uncertainty,” also known as the “cone of concern” or “cone of death,” is often used by meteorologists to show how wide an area may get hit when trying to predict hurricane tracks.
According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, hurricanes fall into five categories. These include:
- Category 1 Hurricane: 74-95 mph sustained winds
- Category 2 Hurricane: 96-110 mph sustained winds
- Category 3 Hurricane: 111-129 mph sustained winds
- Category 4 Hurricane: 130-156 mph sustained winds
- Category 5 Hurricane: 157+ mph or higher sustained winds
Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale showing categories, damage force, and wind speed in miles per hour. Photo Credit: © Udaix via 123RF.com.
Category three through five hurricanes are typically considered significant as the damage is often extensive to catastrophic. However, hurricanes don’t start off being major. Hurricanes usually start small and can often take days and even weeks to develop fully. Also, there can be more than one hurricane at the same time. Thus, each tropical cyclone is given a different name by the World Meteorological Organization to avoid confusion.
For hurricanes forming in the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Atlantic, the World Meteorological Organization has six lists of twenty-one names (a mix of male and female names) in rotation. If a hurricane causes significant damage and loss of lives, the name is retired, like Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria were in 2017. A supplemental list of names is used if more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in a season.
When is the Hurricane Season in the Caribbean?
According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricane season in the Caribbean typically runs from June to November and includes major tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and its surrounding areas. The majority of storms form in either June or August, and September and October are considered peak months for hurricane activity. Some years, there are little to no hurricanes, but on average, there are 6.4 hurricanes per year.
Most hurricanes that occur in the Caribbean do not affect all the islands. For example, Hurricane Dorian, a category 5 Atlantic hurricane that made landfall on September 1st, 2019, caused catastrophic damage in The Bahamas. But remember, The Bahamas stretches for 760 miles and includes 2,400 cays and 700 coral islands.
Most of the population in The Bahamas live on sixteen main islands, including New Providence, with the capital city of Nassau. During Hurricane Dorian, most of the $3.4 billion damage to property, businesses, and infrastructure was limited to the Abaco Islands and the Grand Bahama, upper islands both close to Florida. Sadly, 74 people died, and about 245 people are still missing, all presumed dead.
Map of The Bahamas with capital Nassau, important cities and places. Photo Credit: © Peter Hermes Furian via 123RF.com.
But as destructive as Hurricane Dorian was, with sustained winds of 185 mph, it did not affect most of the islands in The Bahamas and elsewhere in the Caribbean. It did not affect nearby Cuba and the Turks & Caicos Islands. Heck, when Hurricane Dorian was making landfall in The Bahamas, I was 1,331 miles away in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines attending the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development. In the middle of the conference, a hurricane watch was issued, and we joined locals at the grocery store to stock up on supplies.
While Hurricane Dorian passed over Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, I stayed in my room at the Beachcombers Hotel watching the news. I chatted with family and friends via social media while snacking on various local fruits. Thankfully, the storm passed with minimal damage, and the conference continued, followed by an exploration of a few islands in The Grenadines, including stops at Palm Island and Union Island.
On the way back to London from the conference, I spent half a day in Barbados, which is 1,420 miles away from The Bahamas. While driving around the island, including a stop at Oistins Fish Market for lunch, it was evident that there was little to no damage in Barbados from Hurricane Dorian. Not surprising, as Barbados is far away from The Bahamas and was not in the path of the storm.
Path for Hurricane Dorian over The Bahamas, September 2019. Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Where to vacation in the Caribbean during Hurricane Season?
So do I recommend taking a vacation to the Caribbean during hurricane season? Yes! The Caribbean region spans over one million square miles of the Caribbean Sea, and most islands are typically not affected during the hurricane season. But I would recommend taking a vacation to Caribbean islands below the hurricane belt. This includes southern Caribbean destinations like Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, collectively known as the ABC islands. They are less likely to be affected by hurricanes.
Located off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is on the outer edge of the Caribbean hurricane belt. Thus, while it does experience tropical cyclones, they are typically low-grade, and the damage is often minimal. Such was the case when Hurricane Felix in 2007 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 passed nearby. Temperatures in Aruba are typically a steady 80 degrees, accompanied by a refreshing sea breeze that keeps you cool. Aruba is an excellent location for tourists who enjoy snorkeling and diving, as there are several shipwrecks, some sunk intentionally to create artificial reefs. Major wrecks to explore include the California Wreck, a 100-year-old wreck that used to bring fruits the Antilla Wreck, a large German WWII freighter.
Bonaire is also located off the coast of Venezuela, and direct hits are also uncommon during the hurricane season. Its summer weather is a steady 80 degrees. Rainfall is at its peak between September and October, and this stunning island features one of the most magnificent and accessible coral reefs in the Caribbean. Bonaire is home to the Bonaire National Marine Park, where divers and snorkelers will have the time of their lives exploring numerous snorkeling sites. Other exciting locations of this fantastic island include volcanic rock formations, salt ponds, isolated natural beaches, and mangrove forests.
Just like Aruba and Bonaire, the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao doesn’t suffer the wrath of hurricane season. It also features similar weather conditions and has lots of history and culture to offer to tourists. For tourists looking to explore the island off-beach, there are many museums, galleries, and cafes in the downtown Pietermaai District. Adventurous tourists will enjoy exploring Curacao’s unique rocky peaks, caves, and numerous hiking trails.
In addition to the ABC islands, other destinations in the Caribbean to consider during the Atlantic hurricane season are Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad & Tobago.
Located in the southeastern Caribbean Sea, the last two major storms that made landfall on Barbados were Hurricane Tomas in 2010 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Both passed with minimal damage. With Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Barbados is known for its reliable sunshine and great weather. During June and October, it typically has light rainfall. Along with numerous white sand beaches, there are numerous cultural attractions to explore, including Mount Gay distillery, the birthplace of rum.
The last major hurricanes to hit Grenada were Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 in September 2004, and Hurricane Emily in July 2005. Both caused a tremendous amount of damage, but Grenada has since rebounded. Its main attractions are its white sandy beaches, waterfalls, and rainforest, including Grand Etang National Park & Forest Reserve. So too, are its rum distilleries, chocolate factories, and diving spots, including Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park. Nearby sister islands Carriacou and Petite Martinique, part of The Grenadines, are off the beaten track and a throwback to how the Caribbean used to be!
Trinidad and Tobago:
The last time a notable hurricane hit the dual-island nation of Trinidad & Tobago was over 50 years ago. Trinidad is less touristy than most other Caribbean destinations due to its focus on its oil and gas sector, and the main attraction is Trinidad Carnival, held the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The smaller and more touristy of the two islands is Tobago, with crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, and lush rainforest. Trinidad and Tobago are great locations for a Caribbean vacation, and with their fabulous weather and low-hurricane potential, you do not need to worry about the hurricane season.
Beyond the above, you can, of course, still visit any of the other Caribbean destinations during the hurricane season. Remember, the Caribbean region is vast, and even neighboring islands are sometimes hundreds, if not thousands, of miles apart. That said, I would recommend following the tips below to ensure that you remain safe while in the Caribbean during hurricane season.
Caribbean political map with capitals, national borders, important cities rivers, and lakes. Photo Credit: © Peter Hermes Furian via 123RF.com.
Tips for Planning a Trip during Caribbean Hurricane Season
Once you’ve decided on which Caribbean destination to visit during the hurricane season, the next step is to prepare yourself for the rare chance of a major hurricane. Again, most hurricane seasons pass without a major storm. However, as Mother Nature can be unpredictable, you need to make sure you are adequately prepared.
Below are some tips for planning a trip during the Caribbean hurricane season. Also, guidance is given on what to do if you are in the Caribbean during a major hurricane.
Before the trip:
- Renew passport if less than six months valid. Also, make sure that one or more of your credit cards are up-to-date and won’t expire while on the trip.
- Research and book a hotel built to withstand Category 4 or 5 sustained winds. Now, most hotels won’t have this information on their website, so once you’ve narrowed down where you’d like to stay, phone or email to get confirmation. If the rooms are mainly in older historic buildings and cannot withstand category 4 or 5 hurricanes, make sure that there is a hurricane shelter on the grounds or nearby.
- Purchase travel insurance from a company like World Nomads, which offers hurricane coverage. Here, you want to make sure that travel insurance will help:
o If your departure or return is delayed, rescheduled, or canceled due to a hurricane.
o If you can’t reach or stay at your hotel or resort due to a hurricane.
o If your personal belongings get damaged or lost in a hurricane.
o If you’ve been injured and need medical assistance.
- Download one of the hurricane tracker apps like Storm Radar, from the Weather Channel. Storm Radar provides historical as well as up-to-date information on tropical storms and hurricanes. The data is from sources like the National Hurricane Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
- Pack an emergency first aid kit. Along with basic medical supplies (antiseptic wipes, bandages, gauze, small scissors, aspirin, etc.), include a copy of your medical and travel insurance along with a list of your emergency phone numbers in a sealable waterproof bag. Also, stash away a few hundred dollars, separate from your vacation money. If ATMs go down, this will be good for purchasing food and other basic supplies.
- Pack a charger for your phone, one that is durable, waterproof, and shockproof. Ideally, the phone charger should be able to provide three to six charges for your phone.
- Pack a light rain jacket, at least two pairs of moisture-wicking socks, and one pair of waterproof shoes — these could be sneakers or hiking boots.
- Travel with a water repellant or waterproof backpack to put important papers, the first aid kit, medicine, and other necessary supplies.
While on the trip – before the hurricane makes landfall:
- If a hurricane starts brewing while on your Caribbean vacation, keep an eye on the weather via the hurricane Tracker app; also, tune in to local news via radio or TV.
- If the hurricane is expected to increase to Category 4 or 5 and make landfall on your chosen island, consider departing early. No, it is not ideal to shorten your Caribbean vacation, but resources will be limited if things turn for the worse. Also, the airport may close due to damage which will further delay your departure.
- If you cannot depart early, purchase a 3-day supply of non-perishable food and snacks for your room, also a few large bottles of water. The hotel will provide food, but you want to have your own supplies if things turn for the worse.
- Confirm with hotel staff where guests will be sheltered if hurricane winds increase. Depending on the hotel structure, it could be your room or a large ballroom or area that is windowless.
- If guidance is to stay in your room and your room is on the ground level, ask to move to the second or third floor if there is a higher level so as to avoid flooding.
- Charge all your electronics, including your phone, laptop, tablet, camera, etc. Most hotels have backup generators, but if the hurricane is intense, these sometimes fail, so you want to make sure that you start at 100% with all devices.
While on the trip – after the hurricane makes landfall:
- Comply with all instructions given by hotel staff. Thus, if you are advised to stay in your room or move to the sheltered area, do so without hesitation.
- Pack up your suitcase and place the majority of your personal possessions in the bathroom as this is often the only room without windows.
- Stay clear of all windows, which ideally should be boarded up.
- Do not go outside to look around once a hurricane has made landfall. Hurricane winds range from 74 to 200+ mph, so they are pretty strong, and it is easy to get injured or even killed by flying objects.
- Unplug your phone, laptop, etc. If the electricity goes out, use your electronic devices sparing as it may be hours or even days before fully restored. Thus, tell your family and friends that you will provide updates at specific intervals via email, text, or preferred social media channels.
- Instead of watching CNN or The Weather Channel, tune in to local TV or radio station. You will get more up-to-date information on what is happening around you.
- Again, stay in your room or the hurricane shelter until given the all-clear.
While on the trip – after the hurricane ends:
- If the damage is extensive and you are asked to relocate or evacuate, heed the advice. Don’t fuss about your possessions, in particular your clothing. Leave, if necessary, with just your backpack filled with important papers, medicine, phones, etc.
- Wear your waterproof shoes when out and about after the hurricane. As tempting as it may be to wear your sandals and flip-flops, the ground will not be fully cleared of debris, so you want to keep your feet adequately covered to prevent injuries.
- Be patient with the hospitality staff you encounter, including those working at the hotel and airport. Remember, not only are they dealing with the pressures of assisting tourists such as yourself with now limited resources, they are most likely quietly worrying about their own family, friends, plus their homes. Thus, as frustrating as it may get, be kind and compassionate to the frontline staff.
These are but a few of the tips to follow to ensure that your visit to the Caribbean during the hurricane season is a safe one. And remember, most hurricanes will pass over the region with minimal damage. So, fear not. Plan your trip to the Caribbean during the hurricane keeping in mind the guidance above. It is also worth pointing out that hotel prices are typically lower during the hurricane season, and so depending on dates, there are many deals on offer.