Long before there were televised hurricane updates or Doppler live weather reports, a young Jesuit priest in Cuba was on a mission to predict dangerous weather patterns in order to save lives.
In the late 1800s there was little knowledge of the science behind tropical storms, and Father Benito Viñes was determined to make a change.
Carols Benito José Viñes Martorell (1837-1893) arrived in Havana in 1870 to begin work at the local Jesuit College. Benito had been assigned as the director of the Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at the Real Colegio de Belen (Royal College of Bethlehem). He was shocked when eight months after his arrival a hurricane struck, tearing off the roof to the Observatory’s third story room. Father Viñes began to study tropical storms from every angle possible, beginning with detailed weather observations.
First correct prediction
A strict weather reporting program was soon established, with 10 daily reports being recorded based on his observations of the weather around the clock. These hourly reports included barometric pressure, evaporation, rainfall, temperature, relative humidity, wind direction and speed, and cloud formation. In 1875, just five years after his arrival to Cuba, Viñes made the first-ever accurate prediction of a hurricane on record.
Fr. Viñes’ reputation began to grow with his accuracy in in predicating another large hurricane the following year.
In 1876, at Fr. Viñes’ advice, the local ports were shut down as another monster hurricane approached. The captain of the sailing vessel Liberty refused to heed Fr. Benito’s advice and set of from port. The ship sank, further establishing the the credibility of Father in this field of meteorological research.
That same year a project began to create a network of meteorologic stations throughout the area using runners and messengers on horseback as well as telegraph reports. His weather reports were soon published through the nearby Caribbean Islands, helping save countless lives.
A Cuban scientist
Although born in Catalonia, Spain, Fr. Viñes considered himself a Cuban scientist and took great pride in his adopted country. His years of scientific research yielded two instruments invented to detect hurricane paths. He also published Practical Hints in Regards to the West Indian Hurricanes, which was translated by the US Navy and issued by the United States Hydrographic Office.
At Fr. Benito’s death in 1893, he left behind a staff of well-trained hurricane researchers to carry on his work. The local newspaper, La Lucha, published a special edition in honor of his life’s work.
Renowned as a great scientist in his day, Fr. Viñes was also known to be a man of great prayer and humility. He once said “I am desirous only of being of service … nor do I wish for any other recompense after that which I hope for from God, other than to be of use to my brethren and to do my little share for the advancement of science and the good of humanity.”
Through detailed observation, meticulous record-keeping and a vast amount of research, Fr. Viñes had created and become expert in a new field of science. He was so influential that the first named hurricanes were referred to as Viñesa 1, Viñesa 2, and so on.