MIAMI -- Hurricane preparations for the 1999 season, which began
June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, were well in hand long before the
National Hurricane Center issued its first ominous predictions for
a brutal storm season.
Officials in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and U.S.
coastal regions, particularly Florida, said they are prepared for
the season, which forecasters said will bring nine intense storms,
four of which will be Category 3 or higher.
Category 3 storms have sustained winds of up to 130 mph, and
cause storm surges, flooding and heavy structural damage.
With memories of Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995, Georges
and Mitch last year and lesser storms in between, no one is taking
any chances this year. "Unfortunately, we've had a lot of
experience in this area," said Clement "Cain" Magras, acting
commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands. "Our
infrastructure was rebuilt after the '95 hurricanes; major
electrical and fiber-optic cable lines have been buried to [protect
them from] wind damage, and strict building codes are in effect for
every home and business rebuilt and built within the last three
years," Magras said.
The USVI measures duplicate what has taken place on many
Caribbean islands in the hurricane belt. For example, the Puerto
Rico Tourism Co. is working with the Puerto Rico Hotel &
Tourism Association and the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau on a
crisis management program that details specific steps and
procedures to be followed when a hurricane strikes.
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism recently hosted the third annual
Weather Conference for more than 100 broadcast meteorologists from
North American television stations. The aim of the meeting was to
provide insight into the nature and tracking of Caribbean storms,
island safety procedures, regional geography and the role of the
The Bahamas Hotel Association again is offering a complimentary
insurance policy for vacationers who cannot travel to the Bahamas
due to a hurricane. The policy provides a full refund or a future
stay at the same property.
Visitors already in the Bahamas when a storm hits are charged
the lowest rates possible and offered all possible courtesies, the
hotel association said.
More than 80 small and large properties in the Bahamas offer the
hurricane insurance policy. In addition, regional governments in
the Caribbean are taking disaster preparations seriously.
Jeremy Collymore, head of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency
Response Agency, said the region now is better prepared to deal
with the onslaught of hurricanes and other natural disasters. "We
are seeing an upsurge in governmental investment in disaster
management activities," Collymore said.
"Prime ministers have asked their officials for reports on the
state of preparedness. It is not business as usual," he said.
"Disaster management is no longer seen as simply a sector for donor
aid but as an essential sector for investment," he said.
Collymore reported that 70% of its member countries have
disaster management offices. These include Belize, where there has
been "a transformation of political commitment" since a brush with
Hurricane Mitch last year, he said.
Lucy Valenti, a spokeswoman for the Secretariat for the
Integration of Central American Tourism, based in San Salvador, El
Salvador, said a major problem for the region during Mitch was "the
inability to get information out to the marketplace."
"El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua lack the organization and
budgets to deliver quick answers to the tourism industry during
emergencies," she said.
A United Nations study to address this situation is due for
release in July.
A Civil Protection Committee, established after Hurricane
Gilbert devastated Cancun and Cozumel in 1988, has developed
procedures for evacuation, shelters, supplies and medical services,
according to Marisa Steta, marketing director for the Cancun
Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The committee meets regularly
before and during the hurricane season to augment current
procedures and to ensure that everyone is up to speed," Steta
In the U.S., officials at the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) have recommended the strengthening of building codes
in regions traditionally in the hurricane belt.
James Lee Witt, FEMA director, said the agency does not enforce
codes. "Enforcement is a state and local issue, but we highly
recommend that states take a hard look at their codes," Witt
Florida officials said the state's communities evaluate their
disaster plans on a regular basis. For example, the Monroe Country
(Florida Keys) Tourist Development Council works with the Keys
Emergency Management Office to assist in evacuating visitors in a
The program was successfully tested last September before
Hurricane Georges struck the Lower Keys and Key West. "Typically,
many tourism offices bury their heads in the sand and hope that a
hurricane doesn't hit them," said Harold Wheeler, director of
marketing for the council.
"We want visitors to be comfortable when visiting the Keys, even
during hurricane season, and make them aware that the tourism
council is concerned for their safety."
A number of Web sites are already tracking hurricane
information. These include www.fema.gov/ and www.storm99.com.
Laura Dennis, Carla Hunt, Henry Magenheim, Lori Tenny and
David Wilkening contributed to this report.