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Caribbean 2017 Hurricane Season: an evidence-based assessment of the Early Warning System

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The 2017 hurricane season in the Caribbean was unprecedented. High-powered, high impact hurricanes, including Irma and Maria, left a path of destruction, infrastructure damage and casualties in more than a dozen territories in the region. Without forecasts and warnings, the tragic loss of life would have been even higher.

Climate change is heating both the seas and the atmosphere. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing the rainfall associated with tropical cyclones, and although climate change is not expected to lead to a greater frequency of tropical cyclones worldwide, it may increase the number of the most powerful ones. Coastal regions, made more vulnerable by development and population expansion, will bear the brunt of increasingly destructive storm surge flooding, fed by sea level rise due to global warming-related glacier melt and ocean thermal expansion.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has a long track record of assisting National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) and regional institutions by providing technical and financial resources and works closely with other early warning stakeholders with a view to reducing the impact of all hydrometeorological hazards. Given the intensity of the 2017 hurricane season and the scale of the impacts, and in light of current climate change projections, WMO initiated a review of the existing early warning systems (EWS) to better understand the region’s urgent needs.

Through the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems (CREWS) Initiative - a partnership for enhancing climate resilience between WMO, the World Bank and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) - the EWS review has been completed.

Together with our CREWS partners, WMO collaborated with the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) as well as the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). These two institutions brought together key actors from the hydro-met and disaster risk reduction communities to critically assess the performance of early warning systems. In addition, a targeted and complementary assessment of gender integration in early warnings was carried out by a regional gender expert.

Findings from the EWS review are presented in this report. These include the need for impact-based forecasting and risk-based warnings, in particular for secondary hazards such as coastal flooding and flash floods. The review also recommends increasing the capacities of and standardizing the operational procedures between NMHSs and disaster risk management institutions. It is also evident that additional efforts need to be undertaken to ensure that early warnings reach those that need them the most in a manner that leads to effective action.
I expect the findings of this report to guide upcoming investments in the region, such as the recently approved CREWS project “Caribbean: Strengthening HydroMeteorological and Early Warning Services”.

At WMO, we remain committed to supporting climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, and together with our partners, we will continue to work towards closing the capacity gap in the provision of weather and climate services.

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas