Few places in the world are as familiar with hurricanes as the island of Hispaniola. Shared by Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east, Hispaniola isn’t just one of the areas most visited by tropical weather systems. Long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, whose actual birth name was Cristoforo Colombo, the Taíno natives used the word “hurakan” for the vicious storms that pounded the island during summertime. While Haiti may be more notorious for its earthquakes than its hurricanes, the Dominican Republic is at the stormy end of the island. At these latitudes, around 18 to 19 degrees north of the equator, the tropical storm systems travel from east to west. This puts the Punta Cana region on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic squarely in harm’s way.
Hurricanes David (1979) and Georges (1998) provided important learning points. David hit the Dominican portion of the island as a category 5 storm, the most severe class of hurricanes. Wind speeds of 175 mph pounded the island and floods wiped away entire villages. When it was all over, 2,000 residents had died and 70% of the country’s crops were destroyed. Meteorologists observed that the island’s spine of mountains, the Cordillera Central reaching as high as 10,000 feet, was able to weaken the storm considerably.
Hurricane Georges didn’t reach David’s wind speeds, but its 120 mph blast was enough to cause 1.2 billion U.S. dollars damage. Georges’ eye was fitting exactly over the width of the island’s eastern end. This put the Dominican Republic into double trouble. On the northern side, Georges’ northern and northwestern winds were beating the coast all the way from Punta Cana to the Haitian border near Monte Cristi. At the same time, the southern coast of the island was under assault from the storm’s southwestern winds. Improvements in warning technology limited the death toll to 380. But 865,000 people were displaced and 400,000 lost their homes, according to www.reliefweb.int.
It seems like irony that places with such a wealth of natural beauty are haunted by the world’s most powerful storm systems. The Dominican Republic has many miles of beaches with blue ocean water, white sand and palm trees. Farther inland, mountains rise quickly to several thousand feet altitude. In spite of the occasional storm trouble, the country is well worth a visit.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.