BOSTON, Oct. 25, 2011 – According to catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide, Hurricane Rina, the 17th named storm and the 6th hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, is on course toward the resort-lined coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The Category 2 storm has caused widespread disruption to cruise itineraries in the Caribbean, and the Mexican government has issued a hurricane warning for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Punta Gruesa to Cancun. Officials have initiated widespread storm preparations. Rina is not expected to affect oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Less than one day after forming as a tropical depression, Rina strengthened to hurricane status yesterday afternoon amidst very warm waters in the Caribbean Sea,” said Dr. Tim Doggett, principal scientist at AIR Worldwide. As of the National Hurricane Center’s 11:00 AM EDT advisory, the center of Rina is located about 285 miles east of Belize City, Belize and 325 miles southeast of Cancun, Mexico, and is moving west-northwest at 3 mph. Rina’s maximum sustained winds are near 105 mph, making it a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. It is a small storm; hurricane force winds currently extend outward just 15 miles from the center.
Rina intensified overnight and is exhibiting a more organized structure as a result of reduced wind shear. The NHC expects Rina to continuing strengthening over the next 24 to 36 hours. It is forecast to be a major hurricane (Category 3, with wind speeds over 110 mph) later tonight.
While Hurricane Rina is not currently directly affecting any landmass, directly in its currently forecast path are the popular tourist destinations of Cozumel Island and Cancun, where there are high concentrations of insured beach resorts, which are typically constructed of reinforced concrete. Smaller commercial structures are predominantly of confined masonry construction. At the currently forecast winds speeds wind speeds, AIR expects limited structural damage to engineered structures in this region, including modern hotels. Wind damage will likely be limited to nonstructural building elements, including windows, wall sidings, and roof coverings.
“Rina is moving slowly as a result of very weak steering currents, but it is expected to pick up speed,” said Dr. Doggett. “The storm is forecast to gradually start turning to the northwest and then to the north over the next two days as a high pressure ridge north of the storm dissipates. As this happens, wind shear is expected to begin to increase, which may weaken the storm prior to landfall.”
Hurricane conditions are expected to begin affecting Mexico’s coast on Thursday morning. At this point, a landfall at Category 3 strength in the northeastern Yucatan (or a very close bypass) is expected by Friday morning. However, the NHC’s cone of uncertainty (which represents a 60-70% confidence in the track) includes possible landfalls farther south near the border of Belize as well much earlier turns to the northeast that would take the storm away from Mexico. Beyond Friday, there is even greater uncertainty in both the track and intensity forecasts. The NHC’s best track has the storm moving into western Cuba on Saturday as a tropical storm. However, some numerical models bring Rina into South Florida early next week (reminiscent of Hurricane Wilma in 2005).
According to AIR, the proportion of residential properties insured in Mexico is currently very low, at less than 10%. Most insured single-family residential homes and apartment buildings on Mexico’s Yucatan coast are made of confined masonry, which performs better than plain masonry under lateral wind loads because of its use of bond beams and columns. AIR expects minor to moderate damage to non-engineered structures, and possibly significant damage to roof and wall components. A large percentage of houses built every year in Mexico, perhaps as high as 50%, are constructed without a building permit. Poorly constructed homes may experience structural damage, and moderate to severe damage is expected to signage, trees, and light metal structures.
If the current NHC forecast is realized, Rina will be the first 2011 Atlantic storm to make landfall in Mexico at hurricane strength. The previous one was Hurricane Karl in 2010. Hurricane Wilma in 2005, also an October storm, struck both Cozumel and Cancun with maximum sustained wind speeds of around 150 mph. Wilma caused billions of dollars in property damage in Mexico (much of which was uninsured), including extensive losses to crops.
The extent of Rina’s damage will largely depend on the storm’s future track and intensity, about which there remains considerable uncertainty. AIR will continue to closely monitor the progress of the storm and will provide updates as warranted by events.