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July 23 Cuba's Hurricane Priest

The Jesuit priest Benito Vines spent decades observing the skies at the Belen Observatory in colonial Cuba. He is now seen as a pioneer in the study of tropical meteorology and a colonial Jesuit priest. He worked at the prestigious Jesuit College of Belen, to which the observatory was attached. Today he died in 1893


Vines was well acquainted with all that was then known about hurricanes, which amounted to very little, often relying on local folklore and indigenous wisdom ato recognise the signs announcing their coming. He devoted his life to finding a way to detect these signs and began routinely issuing weather reports and forecasts to local newspapers. Marconi would invent the radio and apply for a patent a year after his death, so newspaper then was the most efficient way of mass communication. His eerily accurate hurricane forecasts helped save many lives—earning him the nickname “the Hurricane Priest.” And it became his mission to teach the public what he was learning about the weather and he developed the first network of weather observation stations in the Caribbean. This research laid the groundwork for the hurricane warning systems we use today. Modern Doppler radars, capable of detecting the motion of rain droplets in addition to the intensity of the precipitation and was developed only after World War II, when radar operators discovered that weather was causing echoes on their screen, masking potential enemy targets.

The Jesuits had been expelled from Spain multiple times in their history, and in 1868, when regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed, the deposed monarch was obliged to seek refuge with her Bourbon relatives in France. Father Vines was a royalist and so fearful of reprisals he was sent to Cuba, where he arrived in 1870. Soon after arrival he witnessed the devastation wrought by hurricanes and started a programme of detailed weather observations. 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. Soon he discovered that the cloud pattern and the behaviour of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. This allowed to designed the "antilles cyclonoscope", which would allow him to estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane, and to calculate its likely path. Father Vines’ first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11th, 1875 - just two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the entire southern coast of Cuba; many lives were saved as a result of his warning and this is now acknowledged as the first accurate hurricane forecast in history.. His reputation increased and his hurricane warnings were telegraphed on a regular basis to every island in the Caribbean. A year later, he predicted the path of another violent storm, again in September, and the only sea captain who did not heed his warning lost his ship in the Straits of Florida. In time Viñes was able to establish a network of information sources in the Caribbean. his "laws of the hurricanes" (which also explained the structure of these tropical storms) was widely disseminated. The Jesuit Network of Colleges also amplified his work and the college in Manila, The Ateneo de Manila soon started accurately predicting the first Typhoons in Asia.

The College of Belen, where he worked, grew in prestige in Cuba, The elite wanted to send their children there and this was were Fidel Castro and his brother went to school a couple of generations later. Castro excelled in both academics and sports and was voted Belen’s best athlete in 1944, although he would later seize all the church-run schools in Cuba as part of a revolutionary frenzy. As a result he was excommunicated by the Church. Although as Cuba had become progressively isolated after the collapse of Communism in Russia, Castro would famously meet Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope in 2015, the year before his death. The Pope had quietly played a key role in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, and urged the then President Obama and Fidel Castro to continue on their path to reconciliation. In the meeting of 2015, the pope gave Castro a copy of his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, which calls for action to combat global warming, and is an indictment of rich nations’ exploitation of the poor and misuse of the earth’s resources (pod June 18) He also gave him books by the Italian priest Alessandro Pronzato and a Spanish Jesuit Amando Llorente. Fr Llorente had been his teacher at the Colegio de Belen in 1940s but left the country in 1961. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Llorente had recalled how a teenage Fidel – whose father Angel was largely absent from his life – once confided in him “I have no family other than you.” He was apparently referring to the Jesuit priests who were educating him.

Fr Benito Vines became known and much loved throughout the region as "The Hurricane Priest", and when he died today in 1893, the local newspaper, La Lucha, brought out a special edition to describe "The Last Hours and Death of Benito Vines".