FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The director of the National Hurricane Center said Friday that Haiti's ability to respond to a tropical storm while still reeling from a January 2010 earthquake remains his top concern for the Atlantic hurricane season.
"I don't feel comfortable that, should there be a direct hit, there would be the capacity to shelter everybody in a safe place," director Bill Read said at the end of the weeklong Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference.
The six-month Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, and U.S. government forecasters expect it to be an above average season.
As many as 18 named tropical storms are expected to develop before the season ends Nov. 30, and three to six of those could strengthen into major hurricanes with top winds of 111 mph or higher, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.
Haiti's extreme deforestation, from decades of over farming and the cutting of trees for charcoal, compounds the flood risk from even weak tropical storms, Read said, and hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still living in tents after the earthquake.
Yvon Jerome, one of two Haitian mayors who joined meteorologists and officials at the conference, said if a hurricane or tropical storm strikes, he can do little for the citizens of his city, Carrefour, a suburb of Haiti's capital. Carrefour has no emergency shelters, poor sanitation, few medical resources and sometimes the only vehicle available for government business is his own, Jerome said.
Before Hurricane Tomas brushed past Haiti as a Category 2 on Nov. 5, killing 35 people, Jerome sent his civilian protection team into camps and neighborhoods with megaphones and trucks rigged with speakers to warn people about the looming storm.
All he could do was urge his citizens to move somewhere safe, and he said he'll have the same message this year: "Don't expect that any authorities will take care of people. If you can do something yourself, do it. If you have somewhere else more safe to go, just go."
He said some of the citizens will refuse to leave. "Some say, 'We don't have anywhere to go, we'll stay right there, and if we have to die, we'll die there," he said.
The 2010 storm season was one of the busiest on record, with 19 named storms, including 12 hurricanes. Several storms hit Mexico and Central America while Tomas caused widespread damage in the eastern Caribbean and parts of Haiti. The U.S. escaped landfall from a major hurricane for the fifth straight year.
Read worried that complacent or cash-strapped coastal residents in the U.S. would fail to heed evacuation orders.
"Local officials are concerned that their citizens may not be paying that much attention," Read said. "An added concern is the still-soft economy and the high price of gas, and will that have an effect on an individual's decision to evacuate?"
National Hurricane Center: www.nhc.noaa.gov