In the months of August and September, North America and the Caribbean were pounded by four devastating hurricanes, which killed some 2,500 people and left over 300,000 homeless.
The year 2004 will go down in history as one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons the region has known – that is, unless this marks the beginning of a trend brought on by global warming, as some scientists have already warned.
Hurricane Charley was the first to hit the Americas, when it slammed into Cuba before making a landfall in Florida on 14 August. Hurricane Frances, a storm the size of Texas, caused the evacuation of nearly 2.5 million people in Florida before it hit the Bahamas on 1 September.
Hurricane Ivan followed as it swept through Grenada on 7 September, leaving death and destruction in its wake before it struck Jamaica, Cuba, the Cayman Islands - and finally Alabama and Florida one week later.
On 16 September, Tropical Storm Jeanne ravaged Haiti, killing some 2,500 people and leaving 200,000 homeless before it continued on its way to batter the Bahamas.
The International Federation responded to these disasters by deploying local, regional and international relief teams, and appealing for US$ 17 million to assist some 175,000 hurricane victims in the six worst affected countries. The majority of the assistance was targeted at Grenada and Haiti, which bore the brunt of the devastation.
International insurance companies have estimated that the total insured losses for the 2004 North Atlantic hurricane season amounted to US$ 25 billion.
Ninety per cent of all buildings in Grenada suffered structural damage as hurricane Ivan battered the island. Most infrastructure was destroyed. It will be months until electricity and communication systems are restored throughout the country.
Two-thirds of the island’s total population of 90,000 received emergency assistance. Yet Cuba suffered only minor damage when Ivan smashed into the northernmost part of the island, despite the fact that it had picked up speed since blasting Grenada, and become a category 5 hurricane.
Some 2,500 people are feared to have been killed in Haiti by the floods and landslides caused by Tropical Storm Jeanne, as it tore through the island of Hispaniola. Still, only 19 people died in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.
Widespread deforestation and urbanisation have made Haiti chronically vulnerable to flooding and mudslides. The result is a far greater loss of life in weather-related disasters than that experienced by the country next door.
Could something have been done to lessen the impact of these disasters? Were there special conditions that led to the formation of these four deadly storms within the space of just one month? Did this happen as a result of climate change?
These are questions that the Red Cross Red Crescent needs to ask and react to.
It is the mandate of the International Federation to respond to disasters, but the organization is equally committed to understanding and addressing vulnerability and risks that people are subjected to, so it can lessen the impact of natural catastrophes.
There is good evidence that disaster reduction measures do help to alleviate human suffering.
In the Caribbean, the Cuban authorities, supported by the national Red Cross, have an excellent emergency preparedness system in place. The Dominican Republic has not exploited its natural resources in the same way as neighbouring Haiti, which only has two per cent of its forest remaining today.
Despite being battered by deadly hurricanes, Cuba and the Dominican Republic did not suffer the same number of casualties as other countries in the region during the 2004 hurricane season.
The Caribbean region boasts well trained Red Cross disaster response teams and risk reduction activities, but more can be done in preparing communities to better protect themselves from the effects of climate change.
Disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe, a trend fuelled by unplanned urbanization and rapid population growth. It is very likely that climate change already contributes to this trend, and communities at risk need to be made aware of the consequences.
All too often it is the poor and marginalized groups of society that are the hardest hit. That is the group the Red Cross Red Crescent is targeting worldwide in their risk reduction programmes.
“The Red Cross and Red Crescent see the increasing social cost of disasters, in terms of lost lives, destroyed livelihoods and setbacks to human development,” says Eva von Oelreich, Head of the International Federation’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Department in Geneva.
“While donor governments are usually quick and generous in post-disaster relief and reconstruction, they dedicate fewer resources to risk reduction which is less tangible and visible. Urgent action is needed to provide more substantial investment in disaster reduction measure,” she adds.
Supporting community resilience to hazards and raising awareness of threats such as extreme weather events and more weather variability is the key to reducing the impact of disasters.
Disaster preparedness and risk reduction is a crucial part of the International Federation’s work, and the effect that climate change can have on vulnerable communities is one of the risk factors that the Red Cross Red Crescent has to be prepared for in the future.
It is the concern of the Red Cross if four deadly hurricanes build up within one month to ravage the same region as a result of climate change.
The scientists who argue that the ferocity and frequency of the hurricanes that battered the Caribbean in 2004 is the result of global warming blame one factor in particular: the unexpectedly warm water that has been building up in the mid-Atlantic and Caribbean Oceans over the past years.
Hurricanes need exactly the right conditions to form, warm water and high water-vapour levels being two of them. Most experts agree that these conditions are in place for the moment, although the scientific community does not see eye to eye on whether climate change is to blame.
But the Red Cross Red Crescent cannot afford to wait for the results of that debate – it must be prepared here and now.