Hurricane Lenny 1989

In the last 110 years that detailed records have been kept, the Caribbean has never experienced a tropical cyclone like Lenny. There have been two late-season tropical storms, one in 1909 and tropical storm Klaus in 1984, that followed a northeastwards path across the Caribbean. What made Lenny unique was the fact that not only was it a late-season hurricane that tracked from west to east, but also that it almost reached Catastrophic Category 5 status on Wednesday afternoon, November 17th, 1999 when it was approximately 50 miles due south of Road Town, Tortola and battering St. Croix.

While the Caribbean Weather Center in downtown Road recorded a maximum gust of only 55mph, at Cable & Wireless’ facility approximately 1500ft up at Chalwell two maximum gusts of 185mph and sustained winds well in excess of 100mph were reported for more than 3 hours from midday onwards.

Hurricane Lenny was the 12th tropical storm, eighth hurricane, and fifth major hurricane in the 1999 Atlantic hurricane season. Lenny was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded in November.Lenny brought more heavy rains to areas in the Leeward Islands that had been affected by Hurricane Jose just one month earlier, and brought more damage to areas struck by Hurricane Georges the previous year.
A broad area of low pressure formed in the southwestern Caribbean Sea on November 8. It drifted northward, slowly organizing with warm water temperatures and little upper-level shear. On November 13, the disturbance organized enough to be classified as Tropical Depression Sixteen, 300 nautical miles west-southwest of Kingston, Jamaica. Conditions continued to favour development, and the depression became Tropical Storm Lenny on the 14th.

Lenny headed east-southeastward, its motion in part due to the southern portion of a deep-layer trough over the western Atlantic. On November 15, Lenny intensified to hurricane strength while south of Jamaica, and reached Category 2 strength later that day. However, the small inner core was disrupted by environmental changes, and Lenny weakened back to a poorly-organized Category 1.

Its inner core re-established itself on November 16, and Lenny rapidly intensified to a 155 mph Category 4 hurricane over the northeastern Caribbean just before making landfall at St. Croix on the 17th. A ridge to the east and a ridge to the north forced the hurricane to drift over the Windward Islands on the 17th through the 19th. Upwelling steadily weakened Lenny as it turned east-southeastward over Saint Martin, Anguilla, Saint-Barthélemy, and Antigua on November 18 and November 19. As it left the islands, upper level shear and cooler waters weakened Lenny, first to a tropical storm on November 19, then a tropical depression in the open Atlantic on the 21st. It turned to the northeast, and dissipated on November 23 in the open Atlantic.

Property Damage in the Virgin Islands

Hurricane Lenny first made landfall on Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands. The unprotected southwest side of the island suffered hours of heavy rain accumulating to 8 inches, 155 mph winds, intense waves, and a 15 foot storm surge. Strong winds and the rainfall impacted the agricultural sector, while many boats on the north side of the island either sank or washed ashore. Though damage was heavy, it was not extreme, and no deaths were reported.

With a normal east to west moving hurricanes, the strongest winds are usually experienced in the NW segment of the system. With a “reverse” hurricane like Lenny, the strongest winds were in the SE quadrant and since Lenny tracked south of the Virgin Islands, the BVI was spared the full wrath of Lenny. When Lenny was some 80 miles southeast of the BVI, the trough that had been to the east of the Leewards had closed and Lenny met instead weak high pressure which caused it to stall and meander back and forth between St. Maarten and St. Bart’s. It was this meandering over a 24 hour period that brought extensive destruction to St. Maarten and Anguilla.

Lenny later hit Saint Martin, Anguilla, Saint-Barthélemy, and Antigua while drifting through the Leeward Islands. Torrential rainfall was reported in these islands, with a maximum of 27.56 inches on St. Martin. The flooding led to mudslides, contributing to the destruction of numerous houses. Extensive storm surge, strong winds, and 12 foot waves caused significant beach erosion on their west coasts, the side rarely affected by a landfalling hurricane.

Due to its large circulation, Lenny also affected Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Barbuda, Martinique, and Montserrat. 20 foot waves pounded the islands, resulting in damaged buildings. Heavy rain and strong winds contributed to 6 deaths among these islands.

In Dominica, for example, hotels along the island’s west coast experienced major damage, with 35% loss of the banana crop and 40% of coastal roads washed out. 95% of the crops in Barbuda were destroyed, while 65% of the island was flooded.

Losses to the British Virgin Islands

The estimate of total damage and losses to economy as a result of the passing of hurricane Lenny was $22,053,963 or about 3.1% of gross domestic product or national income. This suggested that from an estimated gross domestic product of $721,317,895, Hurricane Lenny cost the economy, 11.32 days of production to recover the losses, which occurred in only 8 hours.

The estimate of losses to the economy suggests 24.4% or $5.4m in productivity losses, 25.3% or $5.6m in damage to and destruction of assets, 37.1% or $8.2m in losses due to interruptions to businesses and 13.2% or $2.9m in lost wages and salaries to workers.

According to estimates, damage to assets in the goods producing sectors amounted to 8.6% and 91.4% in the services producing sectors. In the goods producing sectors there were losses of $485,000 in the agriculture and fishing sectors. The estimate of damage in this area was taken directly from the Assessment Reports of the BVI’s Office of Disaster Preparedness.

Business interruption losses in the services sectors added up to 92.0% or $7.29m of the $10.86m of the total. Losses in the services producing sectors of tourism, financial and distribution amounted to $6.05m or 80.3% of total losses due to closure of businesses.

Lost wages and salaries to employees amounted to $2.9m or 13.2% of total losses to all institutions of the economy. As expected, we estimated lost wages and salaries to be concentrated in the tourism (39.5%) and financial services (33.9%). Lost wages in the government was rather small even though it is the second largest employer. This is so because most employees in government and elsewhere are paid during a hurricane.