• Alison Kartevold / GistSayn.com

Caribbean Roulette


Survival in the Caribbean is a gamble that requires resilience. From hurricanes to sargassum seaweed, presenting paradise to visitors is a constant struggle against pending natural catastrophe. The ever looming question is, whose number is up next.

With the busiest part of the hurricane season at hand, this episode of Gist Say'n will look back at the impact of last year's historic devastation and examine the recovery and outlook for 2018, then I'll bring you up to date on the newest seasonal threat to the region, sargassum seaweed. Residences of the Caribbean do not bet on if these natural disasters will strike, they gamble on where and how severe they will be.

Caribbean nations must continually play the odds on how nature will impact tourism. With often more than 25 percent of their GDP at stake, these countries and territories can not afford to succumb to nature's wrath but, be it hurricanes or sargassum seaweed there always seems to be something on the horizon to threaten and disrupt the region's bottom line.

It's Bigger Than You Think

In broad terms, the Caribbean is the geographic area south of Florida in the United States, east of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Central America, just north of the top of South America, and is rimmed by the West Indies on the east. There are more than 35 territories and countries in this region and some 7000 islands that many people equate with paradise. The Caribbean covers an area of 1,063,000 square miles (2,754,000 sq km).

To put that in perspective, the distance between Belize, the small Central American country on its western edge, and Barbados, the Caribbean's most eastern nation, is more than 1,900 miles. That is the distance between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Buffalo, New York.

Like any region that relies on nature's bounty, professions there are susceptible to feast or famine. Farmers hoping for rain, but not too much rain, ski resorts that need fresh powder, but no whiteouts, or even cannery workers waiting for full, but sustainable, salmon nets to be pulled in, can all relate to an island nation's need for clear skies, calm seas, and clean beaches.

The region is home to some 38 million people, but tens of millions more come to visit and feed the economy. In the Caribbean Tourism Organization's latest report, Caribbean destinations received an estimated 30.6 million international tourists in 2017. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) puts that number at closer to 47 million. That is ten million more tourists than residents.

To visit paradise and to live there are two very different things. As a tourist you look to be entertained and pampered, to be given a break from the monotony and worries of your daily life. If you live in paradise, odds are your job depends on making tourists happy, while you juggle those monotonous concerns of everyday life. Living in paradise is not without worry.

Winds, Rain, and High Seas

The Atlantic Hurricane season officially runs from June 1st through November 30th. An "average" hurricane season in the North Atlantic consists of eight to 11 tropical storms with five to seven of those that might develop into full-fledged hurricanes. The 2017 hurricane season started early, with the first named storm developing on April 19th, and went through November 5th. There were 18 named storms, and ten of those storms were hurricanes. Nine of the named systems made landfall. It was a catastrophic year.

According to FEMA's After-Action Report, "Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused a combined $265 billion in damage and each ranked among the top five costliest hurricanes on record. As a result, FEMA coordinated large deployments of federal personnel, both before and after the storms’ landfalls, to support response and initial recovery efforts across 270,000 square miles."

FEMA's report examines the agency’s performance during the record-breaking season and states that by the time Harvey, Irma, and Maria blew in, FEMA was already supporting 692 other federally declared disasters. This included its response to historic wildfires in California.

"I’m extremely proud of how FEMA and the whole community performed under extraordinary circumstances,” said FEMA Administrator Brock Long. “We are prepared for the 2018 hurricane season and have already applied lessons learned from last year to improve how we as an emergency management community do business. We are driven by continuous improvement and remain committed to helping people before, during, and after disasters.”

In US territories and beyond, there was, and in some cases, still is a lot of help needed in the Caribbean, but a lot of progress has been made too. Here is a rundown of seven island nations that took the brunt of Irma's and Maria's wrath.

All 16-hundred inhabitants of Barbuda were forced to retreat to its sister island Antigua after Irma made landfall and Jose quickly approached. The 2017 hurricane season left 95 percent of all homes and businesses on Barbuda damaged or destroyed. Thankfully, Antigua remained intact.

Hurricane Maria killed 27 people in Dominica. The Prime Minister, who lost his own home in the hurricane said that there was not a single street untouched by the storm.

Maria also destroyed a third of the Dutch side of St Martin's, with 90 percent damage to everything standing there. However, St Martin's is also one of the islands to make the fastest recovery. Much of the damage there was repaired by March.

Irma left ten dead in Cuba with extensive power outages and road damage.

The British Virgin Islands were struck by both Irma and Maria which severely damaged homes, businesses, and infrastructure, even the ability to communicate across its multiple islands. It took seven days for aid from the U.K. to start arriving in large enough quantities to begin making an impact on islands like Tortola.

The US Virgin Islands did not escape harm either. First Irma devastated St John, St Thomas, and Water Island, and then right after rescue efforts for those islands were set up on St Croix, Maria came by and knocked out 70 percent of the buildings there.

Then, of course, there is Puerto Rico. The official hurricane-related death toll there has been said to be 64, but that number it is likely to rise to at least 1,427 as soon as a new study by the Milken Institute at George Washington University, which was commissioned by Puerto Rico's government, is completed. This US territory had infrastructure problems even before Maria hit, such as an outdated and ill-maintained power grid, and an overburdened healthcare system. Officials also estimate nearly half the homes on the island were built on flood plains and without government permits or professional supervision. The damage was catastrophic.

FEMA admits that it underestimated the pre-existing strains on Puerto Rico's government, which had gone bankrupt four months before the storms, meaning it needed even more help than expected. In the last 11 months, billions of aid have poured in from the federal government.

Though continued local challenges in government agencies make some recovery efforts slow, the people of Puerto Rico, especially those who rely directly on tourism no longer want to be thought of as victims. They have a different message they hope catches on, #CoverTheProgress. With the first anniversary of Maria's destruction at hand, residences in the beachfront community of Punta Santiago want the world to know they are ready for visitors.

Along with remoteness, the fact that most nations in the Caribbean are poor exacerbates recovery efforts. The Bahamas are considered to be the wealthiest stand-alone country in the Caribbean with an average GDP per capita of about $29,000. The nation of Antigua and Barbuda, the one were the entire island of Barbuda had to be evacuated because of hurricane Irma, its GDP per capita is $18,400. That is almost three times less than the United States when using the same system of measurement.

Perception Matters

With tens of billions of aid flowing in from the federal government, there is reason to think that in a few years Puerto Rico could end up being in better shape than before. However, a nation like Antigua and Barbuda, that doesn't have a parent country to turn to must look for outside help. During the first six months of 2018, a relief and recovery project sponsored by the UN and China Aid repaired and replaced the roofs of 302 homes and facilities on Barbuda and strengthened national building code standards in the process.

Upon its completion June 30th, then Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne said, “Thanks to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the People’s Republic of China, the project exceeded all targets and expectations - this is a model that can be replicated in other countries - providing significant help, and stronger resilience against future hurricanes.”

Disaster can be seen as an opportunity for both foreign companies and governments. China is following a course similar to what it has taken in Africa dubbed “neocolonialism,” where it avoids outward political meddling, but uses its money to shape national development to reflect Chinese interests. Poor countries devastated by natural disaster can't afford to turn away from seemingly benevolent benefactors even if their governing styles don't aline. Browne has since been quoted as saying that Beijing is filling a hole left by the west's benign neglect.

A recent report by the World Travel and Tourism Council states:

"The impact of the 2017 hurricane season on the Caribbean’s Travel & Tourism sector was significant, and while the islands which were directly hit were worst affected, other islands which were not in the path of the hurricanes also suffered. A public misconception that the storms struck the entire Caribbean has been damaging to the region."

Based on previous forecasts, the report says that the 2017 hurricane season resulted in a loss of 826,000 visitors that would have generated $741 million and supported some 11,000 jobs. The WTTC's research estimates that the recovery could take four years, and if this is the case, it will cost the Caribbean more than another $3 billion.

Perception is an ongoing challenge to the recovery process. The belief, due to media coverage, that damage was suffered equally across the entire region has caused some visitors to seek alternative vacation destinations. The chair of the Caribbean Tourism Organization said that without exception all CTO travel partners called after the storms and said that 'we have heard the Caribbean is closed.' Frustrated by this misperception, CTO chair, Joy Jibrilu said, "If a storm happens in New York, no one would say, 'I am not going to Toronto.' They just would not, it just does not make sense."

Explore the Alternatives

If you fear your favorite island can't meet your needs, people in the Caribbean would like you to remember, there are thousands of others from which to choose. After a trip this month to Belize, I can tell you first hand, even though it was a record-breaking year for hurricanes, last year's storms did not damage all Caribbean countries. As I mentioned earlier, it's a broader region than you think.

For instance, tourism in Belize is on the rise. Local business owners on Ambergris Caye told me they saw an increase in bookings during and right after last years' hurricanes as people tried to shuffle their prior plans. However, tourism in Belize has been growing steadily on its own merits, at least in part due to increased flight capabilities at the country's international airport, increased capital investments, and a strengthening US economy.

Numbers from the Belize Tourism Board show a steady incline in tourism to Belize every year since 2011. The World Travel and Tourism economic impact report for 2018 says that travel and tourism are expected to attract another 9.2% increase in capital investment in Belize by the end of 2018.

Belize has changed a lot since I first traveled to it in 2006. Admittedly I'm biased, but I love it. With the second longest barrier reef in the world off its coast and more than 200 islands, it is no wonder its people consider themselves to be more Caribbean than Central American. Yet, the mainland also has jungles, and Mayan ruins with more and more eco-tourism opportunities scattered throughout. Perhaps what I enjoy most though, is the fact that people there are still mainly working for themselves and not foreign corporations. They are friendly, industrious and embody the resilience and spirit needed to succeed in a place like the Caribbean.

This Year's Forecast

Good news for all is that on August 9th The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lowered its hurricane season predictions. NOAA now says that El Niño is "much more" likely to develop with enough strength to suppress storm development during the latter part of the season. It says, a combination of cooler sea surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, as well as stronger wind shear with drier air, have helped to suppress storm development so far this summer. However, NOAA cautions that storms can be unpredictable and people in the region should remain ever vigilant.

Just think about that, for six months out of every year the very thing that attracts many of the tourists to come to spend their money on your services might form into a massive storm and blow or flood you right out of existence. So, halfway through the 2018 hurricane season, it is a relief that there have been only five named storms, none of which caused the region serious trouble. However, residents are not yet in the clear. Even if the coming months don't bring big storms to their shores, the water is bringing a golden tide that can also choke out tourism. There is a now new threat you must except to live in the Caribbean.

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another

Sargassum is the latest natural phenomenon that Caribbean nations must battle as an adversary. The golden-brown, free-floating seaweed is currently washing ashore on beaches from Barbados to Cancun. Unsightly, thick blankets of it make beaches impassable for swimmers and boaters, choking coastal marine life, and assaulting the old factory senses of anyone downwind.

The mayor of Cancun says tourism is down 35% due to the seaweed invasion. Piles almost ten feet high are coming ashore along the Yucatan coastline where officials say they've removed more than 104,000 cubic yards of the stuff just between June 22 and July 22. Starting with Barbados back in June, the seaweed has now drifted the more than 2000 miles to Mexico, prompting some officials there to call for it to be declared an international emergency.

Here’s the thing about sargassum, it is a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem that only recently became a cause for a coastal crisis. Tons and tons of it are assaulting beaches in places, that before 2011, it was previously unseen. It reappeared in force in 2015 and is here again in 2018. At first, everyone hoped it was a one-off event, now efforts are underway to understand what is causing it and to determine the best ways to deal with it. Scientists say they don't yet have enough data, because until recently it was best known for just floating about the Sargasso Sea.

The Sargasso Sea is the world’s only sea without coastlines. Instead, major currents determine its boundaries. It is located in the North Atlantic and bound by the Gulf Stream on the west, the North Atlantic Current on the north, the Canary Current on the east, and the North Equatorial Current on the south. It sets out there, mostly clear and calm, like the eye of a hurricane with the currents swirling clockwise about it in a giant oval or ocean gyre. It is 700 miles wide, and 2,000 miles long, and the only point of land located in it is Bermuda at its western edge.

It was first written about by Christopher Columbus when he encountered sargassum in 1492. His Portuguese sailors thought the small air bladders that keep it afloat looked like a grape species they were familiar with and coined the name. These sailors also created the first myths and legends about the Sargasso Sea, precursors to those of the Bermuda Triangle, after the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were stranded for three days in the doldrums there.

In their experience, the sailors knew seaweed to indicate that shallow water and even land must be nearby, so they were fearful of running aground or becoming stuck in the thick patches of the free-floating sargassum. The seaweed itself wasn't a danger, but the area is known for its lack of surface winds that suddenly change with little warning to become gale force storms.

The waters of the Sargasso Sea are clear and scarce on nutrients, similar to a desert, but the sargassum seaweed is like a floating jungle.

Rich in nutrients and microscopic organisms, the sargassum is home to 145 types of invertebrates and 127 kinds of fish. There are ten species endemic to the seaweed. Including a few that have evolved coloring and appendages that look like the sargassum. Along with the permanent residents, migrating populations such as seabirds, whales, turtles, eels, and most of the large sporting fish seek food and shelter among the floating rafts of seaweed along their travels. Some fish lay their eggs within the mats to incubate, and baby turtles use them as a nursery, spending years within these living, ever-shifting oases while they mature.

Traditionally, as small patches of sargassum approach land, reef fish feed on all the inhabitants, then the vegetative part of the weed mixes with the sand to help hold dunes in place. This process has been going on for ages, actually forming the Bermuda stone that built the island of Bermuda.

So What’s the Problem, It’s Natural

The problem isn’t that there is sargassum in open water, the problem is its origin isn't the Sargasso Sea, that it is forming at record levels, and that this unprecedented amount is being carried ashore by currents. When it collects in coves, bays, and on shorelines, it robs the fisheries there of sun and oxygen. When it stacks up on the beach people and even marine life, like turtle hatchlings, struggle to make their way across to the water. Once in shallow waters, the sargassum quickly dies and starts to decompose, it turns the water the color of rust and can promote blooms of harmful bacteria and microbes that can irritate the skin. And did I mention that during this process it smells like sewage? Not at all conducive to tourism.

Raking small amounts of seagrass or weed off of beaches each day is one thing, some resorts have done this for decades, but what is occurring now is on a whole different scale. Barbados had to declare a national crisis and bring in the military to try and help clean it up. Government officials ordered heavy equipment to be brought in to remove the estimated 50,000 tons of seaweed that will wash up on their shores this year. Most don't like this as a long-term solution though. There is too much to bury it in the sand, and too much sand is lost when it's scooped up to transport it off of the beach.

Various countries and resorts are starting to look at water-based options that would allow them to deflect or collect the sargassum while it is still offshore. Containment boom systems and even skimming equipment might be viable solutions in places where the surf isn't too rough, but then the problem remains of what to do with it.

Out of necessity, it seems Barbados is leading a charge to be innovative. Officials there have enlisted the sugar growers on the island to try to retrofit and utilize their loaders and conveyor belts to move the seaweed more efficiently. They are also researching the possibility of harvesting it from the water before it breaks down to use it as a source of bio-methane gas energy, fertilizer, and compost. They hope this, "sea-post" as they are calling it, can be used to grow crops like grapes that they usually have to import. Kirk Humphrey, Minister of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy, says they just need some time to figure out the best solution to deal with what many fear may become a yearly onslaught.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Southern Miami have been researching how to determine the origin of the seaweed and how to track it.

Back in 2011, most assumed that the sargassum was coming from the Sargasso Sea. New research, however, now points to something different. By revising satellite images, scientists at USM's Optical Oceanography Laboratory were able to backtrack previous occurrences and predict the course of this year's bloom.

It started in the spring off the coasts of Africa and South America and then flowed with the current north into the Caribbean, continuing to grow more abundant along the way, until finally it made its way into the Gulf of Mexico and onto the coast of Florida.

Scientists say more research must be done to determine why this is happening, but the proximity of blooms to the mouths of the Gambia river in western Africa and the Amazon river system in South America point to the possibility that runoff high in fertilizer may be at least in part to blame.

Dust high in iron and nutrients blowing off the Sahara desert during its seasonal haze episodes is another possible contributing factor. Then of course changes in currents and water temperatures must also be examined. Those studying the phenomenon say more data must be gathered before a definitive cause can be named. In the meantime, what the people of the Caribbean know is that whether the sargassum comes every year or every few years, they must figure out how to live with it. Just like they live with hurricanes.

So Here’s the Gist

The Caribbean has no choice but to continue to play its own form of Russian roulette with nature. Storms and seaweed will both continue to come to its shores. The hope is that those who do get hit can rebuild stronger and better than before, and if there are viable ways to prevent the severity down the line, they'd be thankful for that as well. The good news for tourists is, the area is big enough that there is always someplace that isn't immediately affected by a storm or waves of seaweed. The final piece is that the people who live there will not give up. They resilient and adaptable. They are also gamblers who genuinely believe that the next spin of the wheel is bound to go their way.

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