Learning from the Past
Published 8th November 2019, 4:39pm
November 8th marks the 87th anniversary of the 32 Storm and the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Paloma. Both of these Hurricanes made landfall in Cayman Brac as category 4 hurricanes but while 109 people lost their lives on Cayman Brac in the ’32 hurricane, there were no fatalities in Hurricane Paloma in 2008.
The difference in the loss of life and the devastation inflicted by each of these hurricanes can only be partially explained by advances in weather forecasting and construction techniques. The main difference between these two hurricanes was the height of the storm surge.
Estimates by eye witnesses of the 32 hurricane in Cayman Brac say the surge was over 30 feet and by comparison, the surge was perhaps as little as 4 feet in Hurricane Paloma.
We do know that after impacting Cayman Brac, the 1932 Hurricane continued north and came ashore in the town of Santa Cruz del Sur in Cuba with a storm surge of over 21 feet. In that small town of 4,800 people - over half (2,870) drowned in the surge. One of the explanations of the variance in the height of the storm surge (which were both documented as category 4 hurricanes) is the size of the hurricanes. We know that the radius of hurricane force winds in Hurricane Paloma was just 7 miles at the closest point of approach on Cayman Brac. It was a very powerful hurricane, but very small and compact so it did not have the capacity to push as much water ashore.
These two hurricanes therefore provide some very important lessons. We should be extremely careful not to judge the threat of a hurricane based on the category alone, because the category (or Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale) is a measurement of wind speed alone, and the wind is not the main threat to life and property – it is the storm surge which causes the greatest loss of life. So we know it is possible for a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane to bring life threatening storm surge not just one of the so called ‘majors’ (Category 3, 4 or 5). Residents who went through Category 4 Hurricane Paloma on November 8th, 2008 should be well aware that every hurricane is different and it is possible that a large Category 2 or Category 3 hurricane could present a much greater threat to life and property than the category 4 event experienced 11 years ago.
The other vital lesson to take away from these two hurricanes is that the 8 to 10 feet of storm surge that residents of Grand Cayman experienced in Hurricane Ivan in 2004 is far from the worst case scenario. It is a well-known fact that persons are inclined to ‘anchor’ to their previous of an extreme event and they cannot conceive of the possibility of anything worse. The 1932 Hurricane provides clear evidence that surge values over twice the height of the ten feet that came ashore in Hurricane Ivan are possible, and therefore all persons should be aware of what sort of threat that poses to their life and property and make sheltering plans that take that into consideration. With Grand Cayman only 7 feet above sea level on average, potentially thousands of people are at significant risk especially those living in single story homes.
1. Source: Tropical Cyclone Report Hurricane Paloma, Michael J. Brennan National Hurricane Center 26 January 2009.
2. The '32 Storm: Eyewitness Accounts and Official Reports of the Worst Natural Disaster in the History of the Cayman Islands, Heather McLaughlin and the Cayman Islands National Archive.
3. Christopher Landsea; et al. (2003). Hurricane Vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean.
5. Image: Hurritrak