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Hurricane Matthew Poses a Rare and Dangerous Threat to Jamaica

No hurricane as strong as Matthew has ever made landfall in Jamaica in recorded history.

By Eric Holthaus


Hurricane Dean floods the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, on August 20, 2007. (Photo: Anthony Foster/AFP/Getty Images)

After a bout of rapid intensification, Hurricane Matthew has become the strongest hurricane so far in the Atlantic basin in 2016. It’s now on a course toward landfall in Jamaica on Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Should Matthew stay on its current projected path, it would be a near-worst-case scenario for Jamaica. No hurricane as strong as Matthew has ever made landfall in Jamaica in recorded history.

In preparation for Matthew, Jamaica has activated its National Emergency Operations Center and Prime Minister Andrew Holness convened an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation and urge preparedness. Evan Thompson, the director of Jamaica’s National Meteorological Service, told the Associated Press “we are all on high alert.” As of Friday afternoon, the entire country of Jamaica was placed under a hurricane watch.


(Map: National Hurricane Center)

During the 30 hours between Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, Matthew grew from tropical storm to Category 4 in the Caribbean, with sustained winds growing from 70 to 140 miles per hour. Matthew’s current forecast track from the National Hurricane Center means the storm may greatly threaten Jamaica this weekend, bringing the potential for fresh water flooding from very heavy rainfall in addition to a temporary rise in ocean levels and waves that may top 10 meters (30 feet).

Since complete hurricane records began in the Atlantic in 1851, there have been only four other Category 3 or stronger hurricanes to make landfall in Jamaica. The last was Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 — the most destructive hurricane in Jamaica’s history — which hit Jamaica at a slightly lesser strength than what Matthew was early Friday afternoon. The passage of Hurricane Gilbert also inspired one of the fastest-selling reggae songs ever in Jamaica, and remains the benchmark storm in the country.

If Matthew can maintain its intensity until landfall in Jamaica, it will be the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the island in recorded history.

In the decades since Gilbert, Jamaica has faced economic headwinds and stagnating development. Matthew could pose a serious setback especially if it brings a significant storm surge near the capital of Kingston, which is prone to coastal flooding. Steadily rising seas due to climate change are adding economic and physical risk to tourism-dependent Caribbean countries like Jamaica, and will make the impact from Hurricane Matthew worse.


(Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The last hurricane to hit Jamaica was Sandy in 2012, which caused moderate damage to the area around Kingston. Omar Robinson, the emergency operations coordinator within the Pan-American Disaster Response Unit, an arm of the Red Cross, said personnel and supplies have already been prepositioned to Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in anticipation of Matthew’s landfall.

Matthew’s increasingly dire path toward Jamaica comes as some news coverage has already begun to look ahead to a potential impact in the mainland United States, at least five to seven days away and still very uncertain. Also at serious risk from Matthew is neighboring Haiti, which is still recovering from a catastrophic 2010 earthquake, and eastern parts of Cuba. As of Friday afternoon, the southern coast of Haiti is under a tropical storm watch.