(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2019 edition.)
From 1900 to 2017, 197 hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. causing about $2 trillion in damages or roughly $17 billion per year. The insurance industry says hurricanes hitting the U.S. account for about two-thirds of total global catastrophic losses. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 are each estimated to have cost over $125 billion, an astounding amount.
Tropical storms in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific are called hurricanes. Near Japan, they’re called typhoons, and in the Indian Ocean they’re known as cyclones. The Bhola cyclone that hit East Pakistan in 1970 is the deadliest on record, killing approximately 500,000 people. Hurricane Patricia in the northern Pacific had maximum sustained winds of 215 miles per hour in 2015.
In 1995, the Queen Mary 2, while transiting the North Atlantic Ocean, registered wave heights from Hurricane Luis at over 98 feet (30 meters) as the storm surged nearby.
Throughout maritime history ships and mariners have been lost at sea. In October 2015, the M/V El Faro sank during Hurricane Joaquin while sailing from Jacksonville to San Juan with all 33 U.S. crew members lost at sea. More recently, on September 29 of this year, the Bourbon Rhode, which was 1,200 nautical miles off Martinique during Hurricane Lorenzo, sank with a crew of 11.
Chris Landsea is Chief of the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Among other degrees, he has a doctorate in Atmospheric Science from Colorado State University, renowned for its annual hurricane forecasts. Dr. Landsea and his eighteen marine forecasters are constantly updating critical information about weather conditions for the general public, the U.S. Coast Guard (which has no forecasters of its own) and the commercial and pleasure boat sectors as well.
“Today we have incredible technology with radars and satellites watching every square mile of the ocean, twenty-four hours a day,” he says. “We also have hurricane hunters from the U.S. Air Force and NOAA to measure wind structure and peaks, and we employ computerized models as well, which all project the path of hurricanes being watched.”
What they can’t do is prevent hurricanes from wreaking havoc on anything in their path.
On September 1, 2019 Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Abaco Islands with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (295 kph). The next day Dorian’s eye moved over Grand Bahama and drifted across the island with storm surges up to 25 feet as it dropped about three feet of unrelenting rain.
While the official death toll to date is 61, the reality is that thousands are still missing. Meanwhile, 13,000 homes in the Bahamas suffered damage or were destroyed with about 100,000 people left homeless.
Hurricane Dorian knocked out power and communications while contaminating water supplies and destroying sewage systems. In the Abacos, Marsh Harbour and its airport were under water for days, and the shantytown of mostly poor Haitian immigrants was completely destroyed. The initial estimates have property damage at more than $8 billion.
Enter Resolve Marine, a global salvage operation in South Florida, which has a base in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island. While most of its team evacuated, some stayed because they wanted to be onsite to help open the ports and airports and provide humanitarian assistance. But no one anticipated Dorian’s stalling over the islands for three days with hurricane force winds rotating counter-clockwise like a washing machine.
“We are an emergency-response company with a high tolerance for risk,” says Joseph “Joey” Farrell III, Resolve’s Director of Business Development. “Our crews immediately surveyed the damage and explained what was needed because everything that was not a steel box had been torn open.”
With vast amounts of the infrastructure destroyed, the Resolve team surveyed the ports and set up a pipeline to get water and other supplies to the people and hospitals. It brought in reverse-osmosis units and deployed trucks with water bladders, transporting about 5,000 gallons of water a day.
Mission Resolve, the company’s nonprofit arm founded by Joey’s father and CEO Joe Farrell Jr., had humanitarian operations on the ground within days. It was also able to gather donations to assist in paying the transportation costs for shipping aid to the Bahamas.
Resolve began working with companies like SEACOR Island Lines, which has transported cargoes throughout the Caribbean for more than 25 years. Realizing that large vessels could not get into harbors because they were still being surveyed for damage, Island Lines used its specialized shallow-draft landing craft to deliver cargoes to the various islands. SEACOR also provided $250,000 in immediate financial aid and in-kind logistics to help jumpstart the recovery.
“Our company has robust hurricane plans as we deal with storms every year,” explains CEO Dan Thorogood. “After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, we had a lot of leftover generators and emergency rolling equipment that we quickly delivered to the Bahamas. Our first task is to rebuild the logistics chain as soon as possible.”
In the aftermath of Dorian’s leaving the islands, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy as well as a number of European disaster response groups arrived and began clearing roads and rebuilding bridges and recovering dead bodies. Royal Caribbean Lines sent the M/V Mariner, which provided more than 20,000 meals a day, while Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s M/V Grand Celebration transported 1,400 survivors to West Palm Beach, Florida.
Carnival Cruise Line donated $1 million for medical supplies. Disney Cruise Line gave $1 million in relief funds, and Norwegian Cruise Line used its ships to bring supplies and food, which were distributed by FEMA. The South Florida governments of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties sent coordinated supplies by air and sea and worked closely with USAID. The Bahamian government, which was unable to respond in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, is now back in control and beginning the task of rebuilding.
It’s appropriate here to mention Marc Bush, a long-time Resolve employee, who recently died of cancer. Bush understood that salvors like Joe Farrell, Jr. worked in emergencies around the world and brought comfort and care to survivors. Upon his death, Bush left his 401(k) plan and life insurance proceeds to Farrell, who used the funds to buy six forklifts and ten pallet jacks for Mission Resolve, which in turn loaned them to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) of Grand Bahama. Farrell said he was honored and humbled by the generosity of Marc Bush, as well we should all be.
Today, SEACOR Island Lines is transporting 20-30 RVs at a time to Marsh Harbour as there are no habitable buildings left. Meanwhile, the effort to rebuild will take years, but the chambers of commerce and charitable entities and corporations are all pitching in.
Tropical storms will continue to kill thousands of people and remain highly destructive to coastlines around the world. Chris Landsea says if Dorian had made landfall in South Florida, which seemed highly likely at one point, it would have been catastrophic in terms of economic damage and deaths.
Landsea and a group of experts recently published a paper in Nature Sustainability titled “Normalized Hurricane Damage in the Continental United States, 1900 – 2017.” The analysis concluded that the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 was the most costly, which in 2017 dollars would be about $244 billion. The hurricane devasted the city of Miami, brought the 1920s Florida land boom to a halt and initiated the onset of the Great Depression in the region.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. Commonwealth with a population of about three million, is still recovering two years after Hurricane Maria ravaged every corner of the island. Tens of thousands of people are still living under weathered, leaky tarps. Areas of the island were without electricity for months while some areas did not have power for more than a year.
Last year, Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to hit the continental U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The storm had sustained winds of 165 mph and basically wiped out the town of Mexico Beach, Florida. It did major damage to Panama City and nearby Tyndall Air Force base, which had all its buildings damaged as well as many fighter jets, which will have to be replaced at a cost of about $6 billion.
Panama City is also home to Eastern Shipbuilding. In 2016, Eastern was awarded a $10.5 billion contract to build up to 25 U.S. Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Cutters. This October, in a “limited extraordinary contract relief” for the shipbuilder, the Department of Homeland Security provided that the contract be reconfigured due to higher labor costs and shortages caused by Hurricane Michael.
Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service are working with the Star Center in Dania Beach, Florida and MITAGS in Linthicum Heights, Maryland as well as many other maritime stakeholders to ensure that ships and mariners are getting the latest and best forecasts available. “Interacting with maritime instructors is important because they are training the next generation of mariners,” says Landsea.
Getting mariners the best forecast possible to help them stay out of harm’s way is now an integral part of weather instruction at maritime academies and navigational schools around the world. It won’t prevent another hurricane from striking, but it may prevent another El Faro from happening.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.