Hurricanes are so important to the history of the Dominican Republic, the word itself has its origins there. The native Taino people called the fierce tropical storms passing through the Caribbean, "hurakans" which is believed to have been derived from the Inca word for their God of Evil. When the Spaniards arrived in the late 15th century, they had never encountered such a fierce and mighty storm so they had no name for it in their own vocabulary. Thus, the native word hurakan, quickly became incorporated into the Spanish language. The Taino had no written language so the Spaniards just sounded it out phonetically. The word "hurricane" is the anglicized spelling of the Spanish version of the word.
Hurricane season in the Dominican Republic and in the rest of the Caribbean begins in June and ends in November. Historically, September is the most active month followed by August. The peak of the season usually falls somewhere between late August and early September. However, you should remember that some of the deadliest Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes have manifested themselves earlier in the season. In other words, it is impossible to predict for certain when the biggest hurricanes of the season will hit.
The Dominican Republic shares the large island of Hispaniola with Haiti. On average, Hispaniola gets a direct hit by a serious hurricane about every 23 years. However, close calls are far more frequent. Hispaniola gets brushed by at least the outer bands of a serious hurricane about every 5 years. Moreover, it is quite common for the Dominican Republic to be pounded with tropical storms during the hurricane season. This is why so many folks planning a trip to the Dominican Republic are concerned about the weather but I'll get back to this point later.
The intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean region are classified by the Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale. The ratings are based on the maximum sustained wind speeds in the wall of the hurricane. This means the average speed of all the winds averaging a minute or more. Wind gusts associated with hurricanes which last only a few seconds can, and usually are, even faster in speed. The Saffir-Simpson intensity ratings are meant to serve as a rough guide to the potential wind damage and storm surge (the wall of ocean water the storm pushes inland) a hurricane can bring. Here are the classifications:
Category 1 : wind speed 74-95 mph, storm surge 3-5 feet
Category 2 : wind speed 96-110 mph, storm surge 6-8 feet
Category 3 : wind speed 111-130 mph, storm surge 9-12 feet
Category 4 : wind speed 131-155 mph, storm surge 13-18 feet
Category 5 : wind speed 156+ mph, storm surge 19+ feet
It is important to note that hurricane intensity increases exponentially, not linearly, as you go up the scale from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane. In other words, a Category 4 hurricane is not just 4 times as intense as a Category 1 hurricane, it is about 255 times as intense!
While it is important to know about the different categories of hurricanes, it is also important to realize that it these categories can sometimes be misleading when it comes to the amount of damage they may impose. There are times when a Category 1 hurricane can wreak as much havok as a Category 3 or 4. In these cases, you have to look at other factors besides wind speed. For example, a slow moving Category 1 hurricane may dump far more water into an area than a fast moving Category 3 hurricane. All this extra water can cause rivers to flood, bridges to topple, dams to break, etc. The size of the population of an area and how sound the infrastructure is also very important to how much damage a hurricane can cause. If there are a lot of people around which weak buildings, a Category 1 or 2 hurricane can be totally devastating.
We should also talk about tropical storms. Tropical storms are defined as well organized storms with an eye that has maximum sustained wind speeds ranging between 39-73 mph – in other words, essentially a baby hurricane. The power of these tropical storms should not be under-estimated just because they don't get called a "hurricane" in modern terminology. Odette is an example of a tropical storm that did significant damage – in fact, as much as some hurricanes have caused. In 2003, Odette hit the Dominican Republic at 60 mph. As a result, 85% of the banana crop was destroyed as well as many other crops. More than 60,000 homes were lost across the region and 8 people were directly killed by the tropical storm. So, you can see that a tropical storm is nothing to sneeze at! Of course, when the Taino probably talked about "hurakans," they did not make such a distinction between tropical storms and hurricanes because they are really on the same continuum.
The first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492 was made in the month of September, usually the most active month for hurricanes. However, he and his crew enjoyed a very pleasant weather on that first voyage and never encountered a hurricanes. Just think how different history might have been if he had! Now that's one for the alternative novelists to consider! In Columbus' second and third voyages he and his crew did encounter hurricanes. In fact, early Spanish colonies on Hispaniola, including Isabella named after the Queen of Spain, were totally destroyed by hurricanes. However, it was the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus that produced the biggest hurricane recorded in those early years of Spanish conquest but the history books have been lacking in pointing out the importance of this hurricane (see below).
In July of 1502, on his 4th voyage to the New World, Columbus noticed a veil of cirrostratus clouds developing, an oily swell coming from the southeast, and several other signs that he took for a hurricane approaching. He sent a message to Ovando, the Spanish Governor of Hispaniola, to warn him not to send out the Spanish fleet of 30 gold ships that were due to depart for Spain. He also asked for permission to dock his ships at Santo Domingo. Ovando was not a fan of Columbus and mocked his request and sent the fleet of 30 Spanish gold ships on their merry way. As they were traversing the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, 29 of the 30 ships sank, killing everyone on board and losing the enormous fortune of gold. Santo Domingo and other other Spanish colonies suffered extensive damage. Columbus and his men rode out the storm on the south side of Hispaniola with the mountains to guard against the worst part of the storm and survived it by the skin of their teeth. Historians believe this hurricane was likely a strong Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane. Some historians called it the "Columbus Hurricane" since he predicted it.
There have been many terrible hurricanes and fierce tropical storms in the Dominican Republic over the decades – far too numerous to list them all here. However, I'd like to mention a few of the more noteworthy ones.
San Zenon was a Category 4 hurricane that hit the Dominican Republic in 1930. It is widely considered one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record. It hit Puerto Rico first but the brunt of the damage was to the Dominican Republic. It was a Category 4 that was just under a Category 5 in terms of wind speed with150 mph winds. 2000 people died and it basically leveled Santo Domingo. All communications were lost and there was heavy looting. San Zenon was a very wide hurricane and its aftermath spread out over a 20 mile radius. Everything in sight was devastated. This was before modern hurricane proof buildings so almost every structure in Santo Domingo fell.
Thinking about the path of destruction that San Zenon left behind reminds me that when the Taino people referred to a "hurakan" they were not just referring to the actual physical event but also the devastation that it leaves in its wake. The lost lives, the injuries, the downed trees, the destroyed crops, the destroyed structures, the flooding … all of this would have been included in the Taino definition of the word hurricane. So, to the Taino, a hurricane included the effects of a hurricane that you see after it passes over.
Another hurricane that will never be forgotten in the Dominican Republic was named David. It is one of the largest cyclones to ever be born off the coast of Africa. It was a Category 5 hurricane and it hit August 31, 1979. The wind speed of this devastating hurricane was clocked at a whopping 175 mph !! 70% of all the crops in the country were destroyed. 200,000 homes were lost. More than 2000 people were killed and every major river in the country was flooded. Entire communities were isolated and the effects were felt throughout the entire country, although the southern region was hardest hit.
Another very memorable hurricane was George which hit September 22, 1998. This one dumped more rain than any other in modern history. Crops were destroyed, pastures for livestock were ruined, and food had to be brought in from outside the country or the people would have starved. 380 people were killed and more than 500,000 were injured.
Sometimes the smaller Category 1 hurricanes can cause a lot of damage and inconvenience if they hit in just the right place. This is certainly true for Jeanne which hit on September 17, 2004. This Category 1 hurricane affected the very popular tourist area of Punta Cana and other places on the east coast. Bridges were taken out and travel became impossible for a while.
Most tourists to the Dominican Republic are not from areas which are hit by hurricanes so they may not have a good understanding of what to do when they hear that a hurricane is coming. So, here is some advice on what to do If you are visiting the Dominican Republic during hurricane season. First, you should not worry too much about hurricanes. Yes, they can be tremendous but the odds of a direct hit to your region is very low, even at the peak of hurricane season, AND the infrastructure is much better today. In other words, if you are staying in a modern hotel, it is build to withstand hurricanes. Second, remember that the hotel operators and tour operators have been through hurricanes before and they are well prepared. They know exactly what to do and they have contingency plans for dealing with every possibility. They also have back up satellite communication devices in case the primary communication goes down as well as plenty of emergency supplies. Therefore, you will be safe if you heed their instructions.
The good news about hurricanes is that you get plenty of warning when they are coming, unlike other natural disasters like tornadoes that can hit with very little notice. The hotel operators on the Punta Cana coast and south coast of the Dominican Republic are especially well prepared for big weather events. When they get word that a hurricane is coming, and this will happen more than 24 hours in advance, they will implement their hurricane plans immediately. In addition, the buildings on the Punta Cana coast are the most modern and hurricane proof of any you'll find anywhere in the entire Caribbean. They are built with concrete blocks and steel rods and designed to withstand high speed hurricane force winds.