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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mayan Hurricane Preparedness

The legacies of Atlantic tropical cyclones span many cultures and thousands of years. Early evidence of these storms predates extant weather records. Geologists believe that layers of sediment at the bottom of a lake in Alabama were brought there from the nearby Gulf of Mexico by storm surges associated with intense hurricanes that occurred as much as 3,000 years ago (Liu and Fearn 1993). Similarly, sediment cores from the Florida west coast indicate exceptional freshwater floods during strong hurricanes more than a thousand years ago (Davis et al. 1989).

Perhaps the first human record of Atlantic tropical cyclones appears in Mayan hieroglyphics (Konrad 1985). By customarily building their major settlements away from the hurricane-prone coastline, the Mayans practiced a method of disaster mitigation (Konrad 1985) that, if rigorously applied today, would reduce the potential for devastation along coastal areas (e.g., Pilkey et al. 1984; Sheets 1990).

Many storms left important marks on regional history. In 1609, a fleet of ships carrying settlers from England to Virginia was struck by a hurricane. Some of the ships were damaged and part of the fleet grounded at Bermuda (The Encyclopedia Americana 1994). The passengers became Bermuda's first inhabitants and their stories helped inspire Shakespeare's writing of The Tempest (Carpenter and Carpenter 1993).

In several incidents, tropical cyclones destroyed otherwise invincible colonial armadas (Millas 1968; Hughes 1987). The French lost their bid to control the Atlantic coast of North America when a 1565 hurricane dispersed their fleet, allowing the Spanish to capture France's Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. In 1640, a hurricane partially destroyed a large Dutch fleet apparently poised to attack Havana. Another naval disaster occurred in 1666 to Lord Willoughby (the British Governor of Barbados) and his fleet of seventeen ships and nearly 2,000 troops. The fleet was caught in a hurricane near the Lesser Antilles. Only a few vessels were ever heard from again and the French captured some of the survivors. According to Sugg (1968), the 1640 and 1666 events secured, more or less, control of Cuba by the Spaniards and Guadeloupe by the French. More than two centuries later, commenting on the Spanish-American War, President McKinley declared that he feared a hurricane more than the Spanish Navy (Dunn 1971). McKinley's concern translated to a revamped United States hurricane warning service, forerunner of today's National Hurricane Center (NHC).

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