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Figure 1: Cyclone Catarina in the South Atlantic ocean, nearing the Brazilian coast in March 2004

Source: NASA Satellite Photo

In 2004, a succession of tropical storms and hurricanes occurred in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and south eastern United States. In addition, the first ever cyclone in the South Atlantic was recorded.

The tropical hurricane season in the North Atlantic normally begins in early June and lasts until the end of November. During the 2004 season, there were at least 15 events of importance (nine hurricanes and six tropical storms). The most severe of them was Ivan (a category 5 hurricane) with wind speeds of up to 250 km/h causing the death of at least 90 people. In August alone, eight cyclones were recorded, which set a new record for the month (the previous record was seven, in both 1933 and in 1995). This was twice the number predicted for 2004.

The environmental, social and economic impact has been severe, especially in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Granada, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. The estimated damage totals at least US$30 billion (US NHC 2004). The human impact was especially serious. When Hurricane Jeanne hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti, more than 2 000 people died due to flooding and other side effects. The direct and indirect impact of Hurricane Ivan on Grenada was estimated at almost US$900 million and the disaster caused a decline in the GNP by an estimated 1.4 per cent compared to 2003 (OECS 2004). Existing vegetation - already weakened by deforestation - was removed from around 90 per cent of wooded areas and river basins. The effects of the hurricane were intensified by housing built in unsuitable sites, poorly built infrastructure and ineffective disaster impact reduction and mitigation measures.

In late March, the South Atlantic experienced the first hurricane observed in 40 years of satellite meteorological surveillance (US NHC 2004). 'Catarina' formed more than 400 km from the South Atlantic Brazilian coast (at about latitude 28° S) and proceeded to the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul with wind speeds of up to 120 km/h. It caused the death of 12 people and damaged or destroyed some 37 400 homes. More than 31 000 people were affected and more than 700 evacuated. Losses in infrastructure were estimated at more than US$340 million, with crop losses estimated at US$34 million (Phillips 2004).

Previously, hurricanes or cyclones of this strength did not occur in the South Atlantic, since the necessary combination of wind and temperature conditions needed to create them were absent. This new event has stimulated research, as some assessments of climate change predict an increased probability of hurricanes. A regional coordination mechanism for forecasting, early warning and tracking is becoming increasingly important, along with capacity building on meteorological and hydrological issues, linked to disaster preparedness and prevention.

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