The `hurricane priest' of Cuba

 

Pope John Paul was wise in the timing of his visit to the Caribbean. Hurricanes are as rare in Cuba in January as they are in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire.

However, during their season from June to November, they are the scourge of the Antilles population. And one of the greatest experts on the subject was a Catholic priest of the last century, a Spanish Jesuit called Father Benito Vines.

Father Vines came to Cuba in 1870, and was horrified at the devastation wrought by these ferocious storms. As director of the meteorological observatory in Havana, he took it upon himself to study their behaviour, thereby easing the lot of the local populace which was often at their mercy.

To give himself a basic reservoir of data, Father Vines began a programme of detailed weather observations which required him personally to take readings every hour from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then, after every major storm he was to be found sifting through the wreckage to get clues to the strength and direction of the wind. He questioned survivors and meticulously recorded every detail.

In five years, Father Vines was the leading hurricane expert of his generation and had discovered that the cloud pattern and the behaviour of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11th, 1875, two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the entire southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved as a result of the timely warning.

A year later, he predicted the path of another violent storm and during the 1880s his hurricane warnings were telegraphed regularly to every island in the Caribbean.

Before he died in 1892, Father Vines had become famous throughout the region as the "hurricane priest". Commercial interests had begun to appreciate the benefits of his work and provided the financial backing which allowed him to establish a network of observing stations - a network which still forms the basis of today's hurricane early-warning system in the Caribbean.

But Father Vines remained a modest man. "For my part," he said, "I am desirous only of being of service, so far as it is rendered possible by my poor health and the limited means at my disposal; nor do I wish for any other recompense after that which I hope for from God, other than to be of use to my brethren and to do my little share for the advancement of science and the good of humanity."