Some weather experts warn that a hurricane like Mitch, which became a most-powerful Category 5 before regressing to a tropical storm here, is a sure sign that the phenomenon of global warming is already having an impact.
But others dismiss such talk. People have short memories, they say, adding that the real lesson of a devastating storm like Mitch is that a big storm mixed with high poverty levels and disregard for the environment is a deadly mix.
"There have actually been fewer intense hurricanes in the Caribbean than in decades like the '30s, '40s, and '50s," says Richard Pasch, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. As for the role of global warming in hurricane development, he says, "While it's politically correct to talk about it, the hurricane community is actually very divided about it. The fact is the hurricane records don't support it."
Mr. Pasch and others do say that periodic intense hurricanes and tropical storms cause heavy damage - as with Mitch in Central America last week, or tropical storm Javier, which devastated parts of Chiapas in Mexico in October - when extremely heavy rains hit areas of high poverty and high population growth.
"The major problem is that these are poor countries," says Pasch. In a statement from New York, United Nations Development Program administrator James Gustave Speth echoed those words: "Generations of poverty and deforestation for fuel and farms have exposed vast areas of Central America to erosion and washways. When hurricanes strike poor communities, they can be devastating."
At the same time, Pasch says, it's not completely fair to blame devastated countries for not having been better prepared: "The fact is we never do a good job of predicting a hurricane's intensity, because there's still a lot we don't know. Sometimes they develop, and sometimes [with the same conditions] they don't."
And sometimes they park over a country like Honduras and dump unprecedented amounts of rain - and sometimes they don't.