After The Hurricanes: Damage Check

Sunday, Nov. 30, is officially the last day of the 2008 hurricane season. It was a busy year in the U.S. with hurricanes striking Texas and Louisiana. But it was much worse in Cuba.

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The Atlantic hurricane season officially ends today. In the United States, 2008 likely will be remembered as a moderately bad year for storms. But in Cuba, this season will go down as perhaps the worst season ever. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON: Eight hurricanes formed in the North Atlantic and Caribbean this year. Three of them, all major storms, hit Cuba. Alexis Fernandez(ph) was in Baracoa, a city on the eastern tip of Cuba, when Hurricane Ike made landfall on September 7.

Mr. ALEXIS FERNANDEZ (History Teacher): (Through Translator) The waves were as high as top of the buildings, and some of those buildings were five stories high. This in turn started the destruction of homes, people's homes that were along the beach area. Homes that people had worked all their lives for were lost in a matter of minutes.

HAMILTON: Fernandez teaches history at the University in Baracoa. He says more than 6,000 homes were damaged and hundreds destroyed. Ike would go on to scour the entire length of Cuba before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. A couple of weeks earlier, Hurricane Gustav had plowed across the western part of the country. And in early November, Hurricane Paloma struck the central coast near Santa Cruz del Sur. Fernandez says it's been the worst year for hurricanes in his lifetime.

Mr. FERNANDEZ: (Through Translator) In the '60s, we suffered a lot from Hurricane Flora. There were great floods. There were hundreds of deaths. In this series of hurricanes, there's been a lot of economic damage. But in human life, it hasn't been as bad because the state has been able to control and help us evacuate, so that the damage in human lives is minimal.

HAMILTON: The storms did more than $10 billion of damage in Cuba and left tens of thousands homeless. But only a handful of people died. One reason is Cuba's highly organized evacuation system. Another reason is that Cuban meteorologists work closely with their U.S. counterparts to forecast and track storms. Cuba even allows U.S. hurricane hunter aircraft to fly into Cuban airspace. And then there's Cuba's chief hurricane forecaster, Jose Rubiera.

(Soundbite of hurricane forecaster Jose Rubiera on Cuban TV)

HAMILTON: That's Rubiera on Cuban television describing Ike. He's a fixture on Cuban TV anytime a storm is on the way, and viewers pay attention to his warnings. Caribbean nations with less expertise and infrastructure were badly hurt by hurricanes this season. In Haiti, hundreds of people died. In the U.S. this year, hurricanes struck Texas and Louisiana. Hurricane Ike regained much of its strength after passing over Cuba. Then it weakened to a category two storm before making landfall near Galveston, Texas. Even so, Ike killed more than 80 people in the U.S. and caused damage of more than $25 billion. Gerry Bell is the lead seasonal forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says there are several reasons Ike was so dangerous, even though its wind speeds weren't that high.

Dr. GERRY BELL (Meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): The tremendous storm surge, the very long track over water where the hurricane could really, really pile up the water, also the speed of movement of the storm. If it's a slow moving hurricane, it's going to stay over any given area longer and obviously increase the potential for more damage.

HAMILTON: Hurricane Gustav strengthened to a category three storm in the Gulf of Mexico. Officials evacuated New Orleans, and residents feared another Katrina. But Gustav ultimately weakened to a category two storm and veered west of New Orleans. At the start of the hurricane season, Gerry Bell had predicted a busy year. And he was right.

Dr. BELL: We had 16 named storms, eight hurricanes, and five major hurricanes. And that's certainly consistent with what the forecasts were for a lot of activity this season.

HAMILTON: Bell says it's too soon to say much about next year, but he adds that the Atlantic is in a period of high hurricane activity that's likely to continue for another decade or more. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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