I’ve received many emails and phone calls from potential Cuba travelers about Hurricane Matthew, and about hurricanes in general. The eye of Matthew just passed through the 40-mile windward passage between Cuba and Haiti, and is heading north towards the east cost of Florida. In Haiti, much destruction and over a hundred deaths have been reported. In Cuba, there was damage in the eastern part of the island, but no deaths so far.
Here are some important points about Caribbean hurricanes. They usually develop in the tropical North Atlantic along a line 15 degrees N between the Cape Verde Islands off the African Coast and the Caribbean Sea, north of the South American continent. Hurricanes in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise and usually move northward. With regards to winds, the eye of the hurricane is the key. You may notice weather maps that show a hurricane a thousand miles across, but the severe winds occur around the eye, which is a region of mostly calm weather about 20-50 miles across.
Unlike with tornados and earthquakes, hurricanes usually offer an advance warning of 2-4 days, but you should pay close attention to the weather and note changes in direction. Many times rising water and storm surges cause much more widespread damage than from the winds around the eye. Both eastern Cuba and Haiti are mountainous, so it is not especially difficult to move to higher elevations inland to escape rising waters due to a storm surge. (However, large runoff from rainfall can make rivers rise rapidly.) But much of the east coast of Florida is as flat as a pancake. A storm surge of 5-7 feet would cause probably cause billions of dollars in damages and many deaths as the water moves many miles inland. As I write this, Matthew is heading north through The Bahamas east of Miami and is predicted to run along the central Florida coast on up into Georgia and the Carolinas and even states further north. One of the most significant things to watch for is the speed of the forward progress of Matthew. A fast-moving Category 3 hurricane may not cause as much damage as a slow-moving Category 1, because slow-moving hurricanes can drop many more amounts of rainfall over the same area.
Historically, the number of Caribbean Hurricanes decrease after October, and the 6-month hurricane season officially ends November 30. If you decide to visit a particular part of Cuba for a week at the peak of next year’s hurricane season (early September), the odds are just one in a hundred that a hurricane will significantly disrupt your plans.
I’ve visited Cuba several times at the peak of hurricane season during the last decade without worry. In August 2005, I spent 2 weeks at a Cuban oceanfront research station while monitoring Hurricane Katrina as its eye passed just a couple hundred miles to the north on its way to Miami, and onward to New Orleans. All we noticed was a slight increase in winds, and especially colorful sunsets. Today, unless a hurricane had already formed and was heading for Havana, I personally wouldn’t change my plans to visit Cuba.