Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, given its vulnerability to tropical storms and hurricanes which often devastate coastal communities and cause landslides and floods.

The Atlantic hurricane season began on 1 June 2017. El Niño typically fosters a less active hurricane season, but according to the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, this 2017 hurricane season will be considered to be normal.

El Niño is defined as a warming of the eastern central Pacific waters close to the Equator. El Niño also tends to produce stronger west winds in the tropical Atlantic Ocean that inhibit hurricane growth.

However, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects 11 to 17 named storms, and 5 to 9 hurricanes, of which 2 to 4 would reach category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. This year most storms and hurricanes are expected in September.

A Category 3 or higher according to the Saffir-Simpson Scale is considered a major hurricane. The 1-5 scale estimates potential property damage. When a hurricane reaches category 3 or higher it is considered to be a major hurricane due to its potential loss of human life and material damage.

Walte Cotte, Director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in the Americas, pointed out that “We need to be prepared. Predictions allow us to plan and visualize the resources we would need during an event. Nevertheless, the most important is to make sure that communities are prepared and have the necessary capacities to be the first respondents in the event of an emergency. The IFRC’s approach is to keep the focus at the local level first, and then at national and regional levels. This is the only way to build true resilience that will transform into sustainable human development.”

Review of the 2016 hurricane season

Last year, the Atlantic hurricane season lasted from January to the end of November and presented a combination of destructive hurricanes and climatological peculiarities. The 2016 season featured the highest amount of tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic basin since 2012, producing a total of 15 named storms and 7 hurricanes. According to Dr Phil Klotzbach, hurricane expert at the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, 2016 was the most active season in the Atlantic basin since 2010.

Hurricane Matthew was considered to be the most catastrophic hurricane in the season. Matthew struck Haiti in the Tiburon Peninsula near the city of Les Anglais on 4 October 2016, as a late-season Category 4 hurricane, an event that had not occurred since hurricane Cleo in 1964. It grew stronger until it reached Category 5 by the end of September 2016, becoming the first Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic basin since hurricane Felix at the beginning of September 2007.

Matthew created the biggest humanitarian crisis in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. At least 20 per cent of the land was affected. Worst impacts were reported in the southern departments, mainly in the departments of Grande-Anse and Sud, as well as in Nippes, Sud-Est, Ouest and Nord Ouest.

On the other hand, Hurricane Earl ended a relatively calmed four-year period in the western Caribbean Sea. Earl made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane in Belize on 4 August 2016. But the most devastating impacts were produced when Earl made landfall for the second time as a tropical storm near Veracruz, Mexico, on 5 August. At least 45 people lost their lives in Mexico due to landslides produced by heavy rain. Earl was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in 2016 after Matthew.

The third most serious hurricane in 2016 was Otto. It made landfall in the southwest of Nicaragua on 24 November as a Category 3 hurricane. Otto formed near the Panamanian Atlantic coast and travelled from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean as a tropical cyclone.

Red Cross ready for the season

During the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, the IFRC in the Americas supported local Red Cross Societies in 6 countries to provide assistance to 161,820 people.

In 2016, a total of 936,754 Swiss francs were allocated from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund. International emergency appeals were also launched for a total of 26,094,551 Swiss francs.

With regard to the 2017 hurricane season, constant monitoring of specialized agencies and National Societies in the Americas is carried out by the Panama-based IFRC Department of Disaster and Crisis. This department is able to respond quickly to the emergency needs of around 50,000 families (approximately 250,000 people) if a disaster would occur right now.

On the other hand, the IFRC can quickly release funds from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF), which allows National Societies to acquire immediate relief supplies.

Currently the IFRC has a total of 208 members of Regional Intervention Teams (RIT) in 34 National Societies that can be deployed according to the needs of the emergency.

Red Cross National Societies in the Caribbean, North and Central America are constantly monitoring weather forecasts and disseminating messages to promote community-based preparedness activities with the aim of mitigating the impact of natural events and preparing communities to be the first responders in the event of an emergency. This is the only way to ensure an effective response and prevent human and material losses.