Five Hurricanes That Changed Cigar History

Five Hurricanes That Changed Cigar History
AP Photo/Claudia Daut
A highway is seen in a flooded area after Hurricane Ike passed Pinar del Rio, Cuba, in September 2008.

Most handmade cigars and fine cigar tobacco are born in the tropics, a region prone to hurricanes. The people who make cigars and grow tobacco are no stranger to these powerful storms, and keep an eye on the weather when one is near. Some of these storms were so severe that they reshaped the very cigar world.

Here are five storms that have played the biggest roles.

Hurricane Georges: The Storm That Created Añejo

Hurricane Georges was a Category 4 storm that hit in 1998 causing more than $1 billion in damage to the Dominican Republic and killing nearly 400 people. That storm took down several tobacco barns on Chateau de la Fuente, where the company grows wrapper leaves for its Fuente Fuente OpusX brand.

With no curing barns to house the tobacco, Fuente feared a shortage of its wrappers, so it temporarily halted production of OpusX. Cigarmaker Carlos Fuente Jr. created the Arturo Fuente Añejo brand using the same filler and binder blend as OpusX, but used Connecticut broadleaf wrapper on the outside. 

Cuba’s 2008 Hurricane Season

Cuba is no stranger to hurricanes, but 2008 was a particularly savage season, with major impacts on its prized western tobacco regions. Three major hurricanes hit Cuba that year, starting with Gustav, which struck as a Category 4 storm on August 30. Gustav slammed into Pinar del Río, flooding fields and ripping down more than 3,400 tobacco curing barns, and damaging more than 1,500 more.

Hurricane Ike struck eight days later as a Category 3 storm, sweeping from east to west. It drenched the island and did even more damage to the fields in Pinar del Río. Two months later, a third storm, Hurricane Paloma, struck in the east.

All in all, the storms caused billions in damages, ruined many tons of stored tobacco (most of it filler) and necessitated the reconstruction of thousands of barns. “We have been living in a hurricane for 50 years, but this is the worst period ever,” said one tobacco farmer the following spring

Hurricane Mitch: 1998

This storm was one of the deadliest on record to hit Central America, but it was rain, not wind, that did the most damage. The storm—a Category 5 at its peak—killed more than 11,000 people, most of them in the cigar-producing countries of Honduras and Nicaragua. The storm swept away soil from tobacco fields, crushed curing barns and destroyed some of the infrastructure in Central America, slowing cigar production. 

Gilbert: The Storm That Changed Jamaica

Jamaica was once a cigar industry powerhouse. Macanudos were rolled there, and so was the Royal Jamaica brand. Both were made with some locally grown tobaccos. That tradition changed in September 1988, when Hurricane Gilbert slammed into Jamaica with a 19-foot storm surge and 125 mile-per-hour winds, sweeping the small island from east to west.

It maimed the nation's cigar industry. The storm destroyed Royal Jamaica’s factory in Kingston, which had stood since 1935, and ruined 1,000 acres of tobacco in nearby May Pen. It was the worst natural disaster to befall Jamaica since the 1907 earthquake that turned Kingston into rubble. Because of Gilbert, the Jamaican tobacco industry was set back several years, production of Royal Jamaica cigars was shifted to the Dominican Republic, and Jamaican tobacco was no longer used in the island's biggest brand, Macanudo.

The Key West Trio: 1909, 1910 and 1919

Key West, Florida, was once the epicenter of American cigar production. In 1890, there were 130 factories in the city, rolling 100 million cigars annually, all by hand. But hurricanes played a role in ending the Key West cigar trade. The island was hit by powerful storms in 1909 and 1910, and then the 1919 Key West Hurricane swept over that city as a Category 4 storm.

The beast "destroyed or seriously damaged almost every cigar factory in town," wrote Dr. Loy Glenn Westfall in his book Key West, Cigar City USA. Key West would never again be a significant player in the cigar world.