Evil spirits and ill winds

Sunday, June 1, 2003

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Reaching for a pungent potion of solvent, wood sealer and perfume, Olga Santiago Ocana advises how to ward off bad spirits during hurricane season -- and forecasters warn this year's season could be busier than ever.

Sandwiched between bundles of herbs, candles, beads and other paraphernalia of Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion, Santiago tells a client to sprinkle the anti-hurricane elixir around the home.

"Every time there's a hurricane, people rush to buy this," she says in her shop selling charms and potions in a region where hurricanes have shaped the local culture and psyche.

If forecasters are right, she may have her work cut out.

With warmer sea-surface temperatures, forecasters from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict between six and nine hurricanes this Atlantic hurricane season, which begins today and runs through Nov. 30.

More hurricanes this year

Last year, forecasters predicted at least six hurricanes. There were four, with one hitting the U.S. coastline and two lashing the Caribbean.

"This year, the increased activity foreseen in the Atlantic basin should increase the probability 30 percent of U.S. and Caribbean landfall," said Phil Klotzbach, a forecaster at Colorado State University.

The uncertainty hurricane season brings each year has manifested itself in the Caribbean's art and music.

Even the word "hurricane" has Caribbean roots. It comes from the Taino and Arawak Indian belief that the storms were the manifestation of the god Jurakan.

The belief that supernatural beings were responsible for the storms continued long after the Tainos were exterminated by wars and diseases brought by European conquerors.

During the 16th century, as Catholicism spread through the Caribbean, a special church prayer was said pleading for houses to be spared "from the evil spirits and the malignant storms and winds."

The Vatican removed the prayer from the Roman Catholic liturgy when it was modernized in 1965, said Edwin Miner Sola, author of "History of the Hurricanes in Puerto Rico."

Around the same time, U.S. meteorologists started using an alphabetic list of female names for storms, later amended to include men's names.

Centuries before, hurricanes were named for the saint of the day the storm struck, so a storm that ripped through several islands would have multiple names.

Some say the storms have shaped the Caribbean psyche over generations.

In Cuba, hurricanes have helped produce "a sense of instability and unpredictability of life, a philosophy of life, a high tolerance for enduring catastrophes," said Louis A. Perez, a Cuban historian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Cuba has been hit more times than any other island, mostly because it is the largest in the Caribbean.

The islands were battered by a series of deadly hurricanes between 1995 and 2001, but have seen relatively few since. Cuba suffered heavy damage from Isidore and Lily last year, and in 2001 endured even heavier losses from Michelle, which killed 5 on the island and 12 elsewhere in the region.

One of the most deadly hurricanes was Flora in 1963, which killed more than 7,000 people -- mostly in Haiti and Cuba. Hurricane San Ciriaco killed more than 3,000 people in Puerto Rico in 1899.

"First comes the sudden silence and then the sky appears in absolute darkness," says Pedro Mombille Bonilla, a director of the Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities. "It's something we don't talk about much."

Puerto Rican writer Luis Pales Matos, in his poem "The Hurricane," compared the powerful storms to a musician drawing open a "fierce accordion of winds."

The Puerto Rican folk song "Temporal" tells a coming storm to turn away, rather like the nursery rhyme ordering the rain away.

Jimmy Buffet sings of his need for a Bloody Mary in "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season."

A bottle of rum is more in order in the Caribbean, where many islanders hold hurricane fetes, inviting friends over and partying away the hours they're forced to spend enclosed in boarded up homes.

For centuries, hurricanes caught people off-guard. But technology has helped demystify the storms. Now, forecasters can give warnings days ahead of time, allowing people to escape danger, protect property and lay in supplies against shop closures and water and power outages

"I listen to the radio and I watch television for the weather forecast," said Johnny Correa, who lost a house in Hurricane Hugo in 1989. "I also keep water and food supplies."

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