Hurricane Irma’s Impact On Diving & Tourism

Huricane Irma

Given the amount of destruction and the cost in human lives, some people may see it in poor taste to talk about the impact to scuba diving caused by Hurricane Irma. However, tourism in the Caribbean, including scuba diving, provides the jobs that the people need to live. Restoring the tourism industry is critical to getting on the road to recovery.

Hurricane Irma was a category 5 storm downgraded a few times and regain category 5 status. Category 5 is the highest level and at times scientist were saying they need a category 6 to classify her. Those islands hardest hit include Anguilla, Barbuda, Cuba, both the Dutch and French sides of St. Martin, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Hurricane Irma also hit the Continental US, first in the Florida Keys and later as a weakening storm the rest of Florida and much of the US south-east.

While not taking the full force of the hurricane, Saint Kitts and Nevis (A Commonwealth realm), Saba and Sint Eustatius (Netherlands), Turks and Caicos Islands (British Overseas Territory), Bahamas and Puerto Rico (US territory), were also in the path and sustained damage. Puerto Rico is acting as a relief hub and is providing shelter and ongoing transportation to those evacuated from other islands primarily from the Virgin Islands.

Antigua and Barbuda

This small island nation, a Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, is in the middle of the Leeward Islands, part of the Lesser Antilles. Antigua and Barbuda are the two main islands of the nation and there are a few even smaller islands making up the country. The island nation relies heavily on tourism. Barbuda is a rugged lightly populated country, most of the people are fisherman. The tourism industry is small and has no large resorts. Just some small simple hotels and B&B establishments. No wild discos filled with tourist, just local pubs that invite tourist to join with the regulars. Hikers and bird lovers travel the hiking trails taking in the natural beauty of the island. Scuba divers are the main visitors. The diving around the small island is pristine. The island is surrounded by a pristine coral reef. Fringing coral reefs and small barrier reefs along deep trenches make this a diving paradise. Well, that is how it was.

Barbuda was the first location that Hurricane Irma made landfall. The eye of the storm passed over the island at full Category 5 strength. Winds on the island were measured at 250 km/h before the wind measuring device flew apart. In the Caribbean, the winds of a hurricane rotate counterclockwise around the eye. The eye itself is calm. As a hurricane approaches an area, the winds are from a relatively eastern direction. After the eye passes the southern portion of the eyewall passes over and now the winds are in the opposite direction. This change in wind direction can multiply the damage.

Barbuda is now uninhabitable. Irma heavily damaged or destroyed an estimated 95% of the homes and businesses. The vegetation on the island, dead or just plain gone. The airport unusable. The power grid, 100% destroyed. The water plant destroyed. Due to the conditions on the island, the fact that 65% of the people had no shelter at all and another approaching storm, the island’s population has been evacuated to Antigua. There is no estimate when the residents will be allowed to return.

Antigua is only about 45 kilometers away, however, it was not as badly damaged. Its airport is open and none of the hotels needed to be closed. There it is mostly a cleanup operation. Commercial flights have been impacted, as military aircraft are bringing in relief supplies. The image below shows the difference between the two islands.

Tourism on Antigua should be back to normal in a short time.

Barbuda Before and After images from NASA

Anguilla

Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory and was one of the hardest hit. It was also one of the slowest to start to receive aid. The situation there has stabilized and people are starting a recovery effort. The power grid has been heavily damaged. It has been estimated that 90% of government offices and businesses have received damage. A slightly less percentage of homes. However, The number of destroyed buildings is low.

Much of Anguilla tourism is in the luxury market and is seasonal. Few resorts were operational at the time of the hurricane. Most of the resorts are pushing back their seasonal opening, but plan to be open by December. One resort and a number of restaurants received extensive damage or were destroyed and will not reopen this year.

Cuba

Information on the damage in Cuba is still unknown. News reports state that 75% of the country felt the damaging winds as Irma crossed the country as a Category 5 storm. All tourists have been evacuated from the country according to reports. The electric infrastructure has sustained extensive damage and many cities including Havana received severe flooding. Initial reports suggest that it will be six months before Cuba will be able to support tourism and it may be years before the country will be restored to it previous conditions. The tourism areas on the south coast frequent by scuba divers were the least damaged and not subject to the storm surges.  Recently cruise lines sailing from Florida have been making port calls in Havana. The Cuban government has assured the cruise lines that the port of Havana is operational and Havana can support the arrival of cruise ship passengers. The cruise lines have started to sail again to Cuba.

St. Martin / Sint Maarten

This island is half French and half Dutch. The once beautiful island has been laid bare by the storm. Here as in other locations in the direct path of Irma, homes, businesses, and infrastructure stand at over 90% having substantially damaged or destroyed, with a high percentage being destroyed. The king of Netherlands and the French Prime Minister were on the island shortly after rescue efforts started.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before and I’ve seen a lot of natural disasters in my life. I’ve seen a lot of war zones in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” King Willem-Alexander said on the Dutch national network NOS.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters, “In terms of material damage, the four strongest buildings on the island of St. Martin have been destroyed,” which meant that weaker structures likely had been damaged or destroyed.

Relief efforts are in high gear but return to normal will take months. Tourists have been evacuated, and many residents have volunteered to relocated to Europe. Resorts have notified travel agents that they have canceled all reservations to the end of the year. Some resorts have suggested that they may not reopen for at least a year.

The Virgin Islands

Nasa Before and After Images of the Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands contain the US Virgin Islands (USVI) and British Virgin Islands (BVI). Saint Thomas of the USVI is one of the busiest cruise ports in the world. However, A week after Irma hit, the cruise ships arriving were bringing relief supplies and evacuating tourist and other wanting to leave the island. It took a week to clear the airport so that military aircraft could bring in supplies and a limited number of evacuation flights could arrive. At that time, water and food were still in short supply.

The infrastructure is heavily damaged. While adequate supplies of drinking water are available, water for other reasons is not. Water production has ceased. Many homes use rainwater to supplement potable water for secondary reasons. Most homes have been destroyed or at least heavily damaged so these systems are gone as well.

It is too early to predict when the island will be stable enough for the return to normal and tourist to once again arrive. Most of the other Virgin Islands are in a similar situation. Saint Johns was hit as hard as Saint Thomas. Officials there said it will take many months before electric and water services will be restored. There is only a small percentage of homes and businesses left standing. The national park which makes up much of the island is stripped bare. Private boats from Puerto Rico arrived shortly after the storm passed bring relief supplies and taking tourist and residents alike to Puerto Rico. Most residents say they will return but not soon.

Even as the other islands return, the key is Saint Thomas. Many of the other islands receive many of their tourist from Saint Thomas. Sometimes on day tours, others by way of the airport.

The NASA image above shows the impact the storm had on the vegetation on the islands. Most of the vegetation is gone, either stripped away by the winds or killed by the salt. The lushes hillsides will take years if not decades to recover. This will increase the risk of flash flooding and landslides as the bare hills cannot hold back the water.

St Croix was the least impacted of the Virgin Islands and it is rapidly on its way to recovery. The governor of the USVI has suggested that parents look to sending their children to St Croix for schooling, as it is expected to take months to evaluate the safety of any schools still left standing on the other USVI islands.

Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is a narrow archipelago of islands stretching over a hundred miles from the southern tip of mainland Florida. While Irma did pass over the islands, it was not as strong as when it hit Cuba. Information is still vague and some areas are still closed to residents, initial reports suggest that the damage overall is not extensive. A Florida newspaper has images of some of the areas.

It may take a few months, however, the Keys should recover well.

Underwater

Once divers get back in the water, we will start hearing about the impact that Hurricane Irma did to our favorite dive sites. Hurricanes can destroy reefs and flatten shipwrecks. Before I became a diver, I was snorkeling in Grand Cayman. Below me was a new dive site, a ship prepared and scuttled for diving. I vowed to myself, that I would get certified and be like those divers below me exploring the wreck. Four years later, I returned to dive that site. Imagine my disappointment to find out that a hurricane has broken the wreck in two, moved it and flatten one section until it was almost flat.

Will we find our reefs gone? Or perhaps Irma has uncovered some missing Spanish Gallons loaded with treasure. It may sound far-fetched but it has happened more than once.

I read an interesting article on the science behind what happens underwater. The Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science is one of the world’s premier education and research institutions. They posted a blog that explains what is happening under a hurricane.

For now, we can just wait, perhaps send our prayers and donate to relief efforts. For the islands most impacted, it will be a long recovery. When tourism returns we should help the recovery by visiting and diving.