Natural Disasters in Cuba: Catastrophes of the Past and Risks of the Future
Cuba is a much sought-after tourist destination. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax on its clean beaches, swim in the warm sea, admire the tropical nature and take part in lively festivals. And of course, they should know in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but with the knowledge of its potential, you can prepare for it.
Climate characteristics of Cuba
Cuba is located in a tropical monsoon climate zone. It is characterised by a dry and wet season and a low gradient in temperature across the year.
Therefore, the average winter and summer temperatures on the island vary very little. However, the amount of rainfall is highest in summer. The heaviest rainfall occurs in June and October. It rains almost every afternoon during these months.
During the summer and early autumn, oceanic cyclones begin to form, and they hit the islands and coasts of North America with powerful hurricanes and storms.
Cuba lies in close proximity to the volcanic arc of the Lesser Antilles. But it has no active volcanoes, as the island itself is non-volcanic. However, there are tectonic faults that can cause earthquakes.
Potentially dangerous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Proximity to the sea. Can cause hurricanes, storms, torrential rainfall causing flooding.
- Tropical climate. It can lead to drought and wildfires, or can cause heavy rainfall and flooding.
- Tectonic faults. It can cause crustal movement and earthquakes, including some of the strongest. Earthquakes can be accompanied by a tsunami.
- Proximity of the volcanic arc of the Caribbean Sea. Strong eruptions in the islands of the arc of Antilles can cause ash fall in Cuba.
The importance of studying the history of disasters
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers that may be ahead of you will not only help you choose the right location, but also the time of year when there is the least risk of being caught in the middle of a natural disaster.
For instance, knowing that the summer months in Cuba are not only extremely hot, but also frequent cyclones, causing catastrophic storms and hurricanes with high rainfall, you may wish to travel to the country at a different time of year.
From this article, you will learn a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Cuba in the past.
Cuba is located in a seismically active area, with around 2,000 earthquakes per year. Most of them, however, are so weak that they can only be felt with sensitive instruments and cause no problems for locals or tourists. But Cuba has also had its share of catastrophic earthquakes.
Colonists have recorded tremors over the centuries since the discovery of Cuba by the Spanish, but little information has survived. We can only reliably judge the most powerful ones.
12 June 1766
A major earthquake struck just outside the city of Santiago de Cuba. The magnitude of the tremor was estimated at 7.8. The Morro Castle and Fort La Socala were destroyed in the vicinity of the city. Shocks were felt in Havana and Jamaica. The aftershocks lasted almost two months. As a result of the disaster, 40 people were killed and about 700 were injured.
3 February 1932
Late in the night of February 3, strong tremors again shook the area around the city of Santiago de Cuba. Their intensity was 6.6. About a third of the buildings in the city were destroyed and the rest severely damaged. Even the cathedral was destroyed. Fifteen people were killed and about 400 injured.
28 January 2020
The strongest earthquake of this century occurred on the afternoon of 28 January. Its epicentre was in the Cayman Hollow, north of Jamaica, and the magnitude of the tremor was estimated at 7.7. Jamaica was the hardest hit, but sensitive tremors were felt on the southern coast of Cuba. One house was completely destroyed and about 300 more suffered minor damage.
Because Cuba is an island, there is always the possibility of a tsunami, a killer sea wave. They are almost always triggered by strong earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
For example, a tsunami warning was issued for the region following the 28 January 2020 earthquake. The epicentre of the tremors was in the sea, and a tsunami was likely to form. But this did not happen. The tsunami threat was soon cancelled, and Cuba breathed a sigh of relief.
The island has managed to avoid a tsunami in the last century, but the potential for such an event still exists. After all, Cuba is located in an active seismic and volcanic region.
Storms and hurricanes
It is the hurricanes that hit this tropical island and cause the most catastrophic damage and devastation. It is the region’s most dangerous natural disaster.
Tropical Cyclone Flora struck the south-east of the island. It moved across the country for four days, causing immense destruction and causing significant flooding. During those days, a record 2,500 millimetres of rain fell on the island, destroying homes and roads. A total of 1,750 people were killed, and the total damage exceeded $300 million.
Category 4 hurricane Michelle struck the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of the island. Wind gusts reached 220 kilometres per hour. Ten thousand homes were destroyed, and five people were killed. Total damage amounted to $2 billion.
Category 3 hurricane Charlie strikes the west coast of Cuba. It creates a 4-meter-high surge wave and moves inland. Wind gusts of up to 240 kilometres per hour. As a result, about 70 thousand houses were completely destroyed, sugarcane crops were destroyed, 4 people died. The damage amounted to one billion dollars.
Hurricane Ike hits Holguin Province, causing the worst devastation of this century. It caused a catastrophic wave surge, flooding an area 400 metres inland in some places. Power lines collapsed, roads were washed away and houses were swept away. Seven people were killed, and the total damage exceeded $7 billion.
Category 5 hurricane Irma arrives at the northern coast of Cuba. Wind speeds exceeded 270 kilometres per hour. More than 600 millimetres of rain fell in places, with storm waves reaching 9 metres high. The storm surge penetrated 1.9 kilometres deep into the coast. The storm destroyed 14,000 homes and killed 10 people. Damage totaled $13 billion.
Flooding in Cuba is usually caused by tropical cyclones. Hurricanes not only bring strong winds but also heavy rainfall. Floods can also be caused by surge waves, as happened in 2017 after Hurricane Irma. The storm surge then swept inland, destroying many homes and causing several deaths.
So any storm approaching the island’s shores or passing a little way off could cause severe flooding and be life-threatening.
In June 2022, for example, heavy rainfall flooded parts of Havana, the island’s capital. The rains caused 40 cases of building collapse in the city. One person was killed under the rubble and more than 2,000 were evacuated. The rains were caused by Cyclone Alex, which hit the shores of Mexico in full force, but even catching Cuba by the edge, caused serious damage.
Cuba has no very high mountains, and those that do exist are concentrated in the south of the island, which is least affected by tropical cyclones. But even in the flat north-east there is a risk of landslides, which can cause destruction and loss of life.
In 2017, for example, a major landslide occurred in Camagüey province following the passage of Hurricane Irma. It hit a fishing village after heavy rainfall, but casualties were avoided at the time. Localized landslides were also observed in the island’s capital, Havana.
While summertime floods and hurricanes often hit Cuba, in wintertime forest fires are the country’s main natural disaster. During this period, rainfall is minimal and dry and hot weather is a catalyst for possible fires.
In February 2023, for example, large-scale fires ravaged eastern Cuba. The fire affected forests and plantations and threatened Mensuro-Piloto National Park. A large force was deployed to fight the fire.
The number of forest fires has increased dramatically in recent years, experts say, which is linked to a general warming of the planet’s climate. In January 2023, for example, the number of fires was an order of magnitude higher than in recent years.
Still, the amount of forest fires in Cuba cannot be compared to that in the USA or Mexico, where fires cause maximum damage and are often lethal. On Liberty Island, the fires are fairly localised, mainly concentrated in the eastern part, and do not pose a threat to tourist areas.
The biggest threat to tourists in Cuba is posed by cyclones and hurricanes. Their season is in summer, but the greatest number of storms is recorded from August to October. The storms do maximum damage to infrastructure and cause a lot of inconvenience to holidaymakers. The downpours that accompany hurricanes can lead to severe flooding, which is not conducive to safety either.
Earthquakes pose a potential risk to Cuba. An earthquake could strike at any time and is very difficult to predict. There have been massive earthquakes in neighbouring regions recently, causing loss of life.
Forest fires are small and pose little threat to tourists.
Winter is the safest time of year to visit Cuba. Air and sea temperatures are comfortable enough, and there are no significant cyclones during this time of year.