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OCHA ROLAC prepares for another active Atlantic hurricane season amid the COVID-19 pandemic

01 Jun 2021


The Nicaraguan coast after Hurricane Eta in November 2020. © WFP/Oscar Duarte

By Anthony Prassoulis, Information & Advocacy Unit, OCHA ROLAC

What is expected to be yet another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start with the formation of subtropical storm Ana on 22 May. This marks the seventh consecutive year that the first-named storm has formed before the official start of the hurricane season on 1 June.

While this year’s hurricane season is unlikely to match the record-shattering, frenzied pace of 2020, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects it will still churn out 13-20 named storms in the Atlantic, with 6-10 of those storms potentially becoming hurricanes, including 3-5 major hurricanes of category 3 strength or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Rapidly intensifying storms driven by climate change are predicted to become a more common phenomenon in the Atlantic basin. 2020’s record-tying 10 rapidly-intensifying storms – classified by maximum sustained winds increasing by at least 35mph in 24 hours – provide ominous evidence of this dangerous trend. Hurricane Iota, the strongest to ever make landfall in Nicaragua, saw its windspeeds increase by 70mph over 24 hours as it entered the record books as the latest forming category 5 storm ever.

Between 2016 and 2020, 27.1 million people were affected by storm- and flood-induced disasters in Central America and the Caribbean, a more than sixfold increase compared with the previous five years (2011-2015). In the Caribbean, total damages caused by hydrometeorological disasters have increased by more than 6,000 per cent, jumping from US$1.5 billion between 2011 and 2015 to a whopping $89.6 billion between 2016 and 2020.

If the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Not only was 2020 the most active season on record, but it was also one of the longest. The season got off to quick start, with two tropical storms forming before 1 June, and it closed out with back-to-back major hurricanes Eta and Iota in November when the season is usually winding down. These storms affected more than 8.6 million people and caused upwards of $6.3 billion in total damages across the subregion.

But it is not enough to just expect the unexpected. We need to be prepared and ready to respond. In a multi-hazard environment, coordinated operational readiness will be indispensable in mitigating the potentially devasting human and socioeconomic costs of an active hurricane season.

Affected communities are still reeling from recent emergencies in both subregions, including the eruption of La Soufrière volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and in northern Central American countries hit hard by Eta and Iota last year, leaving vulnerable populations more exposed at the worst possible time.

Flooding after Hurricane Eta in Honduras in November 2020. © Water Mission

The OCHA Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (ROLAC) and its Humanitarian Advisory Teams (HATs) in Central America and the Caribbean are working closely with national disaster management authorities and humanitarian partners to bolster operational readiness before the peak of the hurricane season.

HATs are working to update preparedness baseline data and contingency plans to reflect the new threats and vulnerabilities brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies. ROLAC has launched a series of preparedness webinars to ensure that the humanitarian community is equipped with the necessary tools needed to effectively coordinate response efforts and mobilize donor funding to address humanitarian needs.

In the Caribbean, OCHA’s recently established HAT embedded in the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office for Barbados and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States continues to work closely with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) to strengthen joint assessments, coordination and information management to enhance the response capacity of the Regional Response Mechanism.

In 2020, the roll-out of the ROLAC’s Who does What, Where, When and for Whom (345W) online system in response to COVID-19 and hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America proved to be critical in coordinating sector-based activities and identifying critical response gaps. ROLAC continues to promote the 345W as a common coordination and reporting platform for the humanitarian community to use in emergencies, ensuring that synergies are more easily identified to promote better targeted and more efficient humanitarian action.

Jeremie, Les Cayes, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. © UN MINUSTAH/Logan Abassi

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly complicated emergency response operations in the region. Last year, the response to hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America afforded us valuable lessons on how to harmonize physical and remote response modalities amid the pandemic.

In addition, the response to the La Soufrière volcano eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines highlighted the potential logistics challenges and restrictions on humanitarian access that COVID-19 protocols may pose for response efforts during the hurricane season. These lessons learned will certainly inform response planning in 2021.

In this challenging context, early engagement of local response actors and motivating people to get vaccinated will be critical to mitigate health risks and to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian actors in emergencies, enabling them to reach those people most in need with life-saving humanitarian assistance. This reaffirms the importance of promoting greater localization in preparedness and response efforts with the aim of meaningfully engaging local actors in humanitarian action.