Hurricane Flora Devastates Haiti and Cuba

Hurricane Flora, the fifth deadliest in Atlantic hurricane history, destroyed a number of islands in the Caribbean Sea, killing more than seven thousand people and causing property damage exceeding one-half billion dollars. The Cuban government instituted a hurricane preparedness program in response to Flora, one that has been lauded as exemplary by the United Nations.

Summary of Event

Prior to the development of Hurricane Flora, there was little indication that the hurricane season of 1963 would be, in any sense, unusual. Five hurricanes and one unnamed tropical storm occurred in August and September, but none was of more than average intensity. One hurricane, Cindy, struck Texas on September 16, causing three deaths and $12.5 million in damage. Sustained winds reached 80 miles per hour. Hurricanes
Flora (hurricane)
[kw]Hurricane Flora Devastates Haiti and Cuba (Oct. 4-8, 1963)
[kw]Flora Devastates Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane (Oct. 4-8, 1963)
[kw]Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane Flora Devastates (Oct. 4-8, 1963)
[kw]Cuba, Hurricane Flora Devastates Haiti and (Oct. 4-8, 1963)
Flora (hurricane)
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[g]Trinidad and Tobago;Oct. 4-8, 1963: Hurricane Flora Devastates Haiti and Cuba[07690]
[c]Disasters;Oct. 4-8, 1963: Hurricane Flora Devastates Haiti and Cuba[07690]

Flora, which was to have a catastrophic impact on a number of islands in the Caribbean Sea, began in the Atlantic Ocean as a disturbance in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, not far from the equator. A tropical depression (with winds less than 40 miles per hour) developed on September 26. The tropical depression moved rapidly in a west-northwest direction through the extreme southern portion of the Caribbean. The quick movement of the storm actually slowed its development and intensification. On September 29, the forward speed of Flora decreased, and on that day it became a tropical storm (with winds of 40 to 74 miles per hour). Rapid intensification began on September 30, and Flora became a hurricane on October 1 (with winds exceeding 75 miles per hour).

The storm moved through the Leeward Islands, first striking the island of Tobago with winds of more than 120 miles per hour and torrential rain. The hurricane continued in a west-northwest direction across the Caribbean Sea and continued to intensify with winds reaching 140 miles per hour. Thousands were killed when the hurricane struck Haiti on October 4. Residents had remained in poorly constructed housing that was destroyed by high winds. In addition, the storm surge devastated coastal communities with high, battering winds. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was far enough from the path of the storm to avoid the full impact. However, an estimated four hundred persons died in flooding there caused by the hurricane’s heavy rains. After leaving Haiti, the hurricane continued on its west-northwest track and struck the eastern portion of Cuba, moving inland near Guantanamo Bay.

Normally hurricanes that strike Cuba moving on a west-northwest track either curve in a northwest direction into the Gulf of Mexico (possibly affecting the United States’ Gulf coast states); continue across the island of Cuba toward the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico; or move in a westerly direction and strike a more southerly portion of Mexico. However, Flora was different. The weather patterns at the time Flora struck eastern Cuba were highly unusual. A high-pressure area located to the north of Cuba and another high-pressure area located just west of Cuba essentially blocked the forward movement of the hurricane. Thus, Flora remained directly over or adjacent to Cuba for four days. Some portions of eastern Cuba received 50 to 75 inches of rain from the slow-moving storm. The impact of high winds and heavy rains was severe. More than seventeen hundred Cubans were killed and agricultural losses, particularly of the sugar cane crop, were extensive. Finally, on October 8, the high-pressure area located to the north of Cuba left the area and the storm moved east-northeast and subsequently northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, passing just south of the Bahama Islands.

While Hurricane Flora remained a major hurricane for the next three days, it did not affect any other land areas and remained a concern only to shipping. On October 12 the hurricane entered the cooler waters of the North Atlantic, causing it to lose both intensity and its tropical characteristics, and Flora became what is known as an extratropical storm.

Because of the large loss of life and property caused by Hurricane Flora, the National Hurricane Center decided to retire the name Flora. Thus, it will never be used for an Atlantic hurricane again.


Flora was the most devastating hurricane ever to hit Tobago. Twenty persons were killed, and approximately 2,750 houses were destroyed and another 3,500 were damaged; the island had only 7,500 homes before the storm.

The effects of the hurricane were so severe that Tobago’s economy was fundamentally changed. The hurricane essentially destroyed the banana, coconut, and cocoa plantations that had sustained the economy for many generations. There was considerable damage also to the tropical rain forest that makes up a large portion of the northern half of the country. Subsequently, many of the plantations were abandoned, and the economy changed from one dependent on cash crop agriculture to one of tourism. Tourism expanded rapidly and has become concentrated in the southwestern portion of the island. This area has large expanses of sandy beaches and resort developments. Ecotourism has developed in the rain forest in the central part of Tobago.

It is estimated that Hurricane Flora was the deadliest hurricane in Haiti’s history. More than five thousand Haitians were killed; however, the exact death toll will never be known. Heavy crop damage also occurred in Haiti, with lesser amounts reported in the Dominican Republic.

Since Flora, there have been hundreds of deaths from several hurricanes that have struck Haiti: Cleo in 1964, Inez in 1966, David in 1979, Georges in 1998, Gordon in 1994, and Jeanne in 2004. The reason Haiti continues to experience large numbers of deaths and property damage from hurricanes is that Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with large numbers of people living in subsistence or poorly constructed housing near or along the coast. Destructive winds and storm surges kill many persons who remain in their homes during hurricane conditions. Moreover, the main source of fuel for cooking is charcoal from burned trees. The poor have chopped down large numbers of trees in forested areas. In 1980, Haiti had about 25 percent of its traditional forests, and by 2004 only 1 percent of those forests remained. Deforestation leaves largely denuded mountain areas through which rainwater moves unimpeded, causing devastating floods. The Dominican Republic, to a lesser extent, experiences the same problem. Thus, flooding remains a major cause of death from hurricanes for those living in the interior sections of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Moreover, the government of Haiti has not established an effective program for moving large numbers of people from vulnerable areas into storm shelters. The National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, has improved its ability to forecast the movement of hurricanes. It is not unusual for hurricane warnings to be issued twenty-four to forty-eight hours before a hurricane strikes a particular area. Large-scale evacuations could greatly reduce the death toll from hurricanes in Haiti.

As indicated, more than seventeen hundred persons lost their lives in Cuba as a result of Hurricane Flora. More than 100,000 head of livestock also were killed. The high human death toll was primarily caused by residents who were reluctant to leave their homes before the storm. This was especially the case for people who lived in areas where floods with the severity of Flora had never occurred.

After experiencing the wrath of Flora, Cuba has conducted large-scale evacuations of residents through its civil defense system during times when hurricanes threatened to strike the island. Cuba also developed a large-scale shelter system. In addition, livestock are evacuated by trucks. The highly developed civil defense system has greatly reduced the loss of life from hurricanes. Only sixteen people died in the six hurricanes that struck Cuba from 1996 to 2002. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan passed through Cuba without causing a single casualty. The same storm killed seventy people in other Caribbean countries and fifty in the United States. In recent years, about one-tenth of the Cuban population has been evacuated to higher and safer areas when hurricane warnings have been issued. The United Nations has praised the Cuban government’s hurricane preparedness as a model for other hurricane-prone countries. Hurricanes
Fl ora (hurricane)

Further Reading

  • Bradford, Marlene, and Robert S. Carmichael, eds. Natural Disasters. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Essays explore the history and impact of natural disasters around the world, including, in volume 2, the devastating effects of hurricanes and other weather phenomena.
  • Emanuel, Kerry. Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Emanuel discusses the science of hurricane formation and popular hurricane myths. The book is richly illustrated with photographs, satellite images, and diagrams.
  • Fitzpatrick, Patrick J. Hurricanes: A Reference Handbook. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005. An updated edition that explores the economic, social, and environmental effects of hurricanes in North America and the Caribbean. Includes a comprehensive introductory essay and a chronology.
  • Larson, Erik. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. New York: Crown, 1999. Discussion of the Galveston (Texas) Hurricane of 1900, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in the United States. The death toll was similar but higher than that of Hurricane Flora.
  • Morris, Neil. Hurricanes and Tornadoes: The Wonders of Our World. Crabtree, 1998. An illustrated examination of the nature and impact of hurricanes and tornadoes. The perspective of this volume is international. Written for general readers.
  • Sheets, Bob, and Jack Williams. Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth. New York: Vintage Press, 2001. Highly detailed look at the history of hurricanes and hurricane forecasting in the United States. Numerous statistical tables on the impact of hurricanes.

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