The news from Texas has left me stunned and shocked. The damage to the coast from the winds of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding from the relentless rains in Houston and beyond are unimaginable. If you or your loved ones are affected, my thoughts are with you. Be safe.
I always keep an eye to the tropics during hurricane season. I live on the East Coast and impacts here can, and do, happen. We remember Sandy, which caused incredible damage five years ago and even knocked out the power in much of Manhattan (including the offices of Cigar Aficionado magazine) for a week.
The main reason I keep an eye on the weather news during this time of year is because the Cigar Aficionado team covers the cigar industry, much of which is centered in the bullseye of storm country. Hurricanes have wreaked havoc on cigar factories and fields throughout history, again and again.
Key West, Florida, was a leading center of cigarmaking in the United States in the 1800s, when cigars were made in America using tobacco imported from Cuba. Some 62 million cigars were made there in 1876, by 29 factories with 2,100 employees. Hurricanes played a role in ending the Key West cigar trade. The island was hit by back-to-back hurricanes in 1909 and 1910, and the powerful storm in 1919 "destroyed or seriously damaged almost ever cigar factory in town," wrote Dr. Loy Glenn Westfall in his book Key West, Cigar City USA.
Hurricane Mitch, one of the deadliest hurricanes ever, killed nearly 20,000 people in 1998, most of them in Honduras and Nicaragua. While it was a powerful storm at its peak, it stalled—much like Hurricane Harvey—and lingered, soaking Central America with rains. Roads, hills, rain gauges and more were swept away by the relentless water.
Cigar companies lost tobacco fields. Months after the storm I walked on one in Nicaragua, owned by the Padrón family, that had been scoured clean of its topsoil, leaving only rocks behind.
The Royal Jamaica brand was born in Jamaica in 1935. In September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert slammed into Jamaica with 125 mph winds, scouring the island from east to west. It wreaked havoc on the nation's cigar industry, particularly Royal Jamaica. Gilbert destroyed the brand's cigar factory in the capital of Kingston, ruined 1,000 acres of tobacco in neighboring May Pen, and took down 35 tobacco curing barns, each of them filled with freshly harvested leaves. It was a disaster for the brand and forced its relocation to the Dominican Republic. (Today the brand trademark is owned by Altadis USA Inc., but is not being produced at this time.)
The Fuente family of cigarmakers lost curing barns to the savage winds of Hurricane Georges in 1998, a Category-Four storm that caused $1 billion in damage to the Dominican Republic and killed 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 temporarily stopped making OpusX cigars, creating the Arturo Fuente Añejo brand using Connecticut broadleaf wrappers instead.
Cuba has faced storm after storm over the years. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav, packing gusts of up to 200 mph, tore down 3,500 tobacco curing barns, most of them in the Viñales area of western Cuba.
If you're a cigarmaker, you keep an eye on the tropics this time of year. Some of them have their own ways of trying to predict the season.
Rafael Nodal, of Aging Room cigars, told me yesterday about a ritual he performs each year on May 31, the anniversary of his arrival in the United States from Cuba in 1980. He would go to the beach, smoke a cigar and go into the water on that day, first as a celebration. Later, he turned it into a way to gauge the threat of hurricanes.
"I started getting into the water on the beach after the cigar and noticed that sometimes it was warmer or colder than usual. I also noticed that when the water was warmer than usual, we had more storms and hurricanes that season," he says.
Nodal lives in Miami and remembers the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. "What started as my own little celebration ritual has become my own private hurricane season prediction. It has worked well during the last 15 years or so. If the water is cooler on May 31, I expect no hurricane to hit my area. If the water is warm already at that time, it indicates that it will probably be warmer during the summer and that is prime hurricane conditions."
This year, he said, the water was cool, so he feels optimistic that a storm will avoid Florida.
Hirochi Robaina, the Cuban tobacco farmer, learned a similar trick from his legendary grandfather Alejandro. Each year on the first day of fall, he sits at a corner of his porch in the dark to test the weather. "On September 21, at midnight, you have to see how the wind blows," he told me years ago when I visited his farm in Cuba. "If the wind blows from the northeast, it will assure you will have a good year. If the wind is blowing from the south, you have to be careful." He uses that barometer as a test to see if he can plant his crop early. The method tends to guide him well.
Note: The original version of this blog had an incorrect date about the year Key West made 62 million cigars. It was 1876.