Columns

Sandy, a psychological and infrastructural monster

Mark Wignall

Thursday, November 01, 2012    

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Young people in their early 20s who have never witnessed the direct hit of a hurricane, or even those in their early 30s for whom hurricane Gilbert (September 1988) is a "fun" childhood memory, will have had their baptism of fire (plus howling winds and rain) last Wednesday as hurricane Sandy tore its most destructive path through the eastern part of Jamaica.

As electric power was restored (good job, JPS!) the news began filtering to us of the absolute tragedy that Sandy was as it made its way through the north eastern United States. Although America has more of the resources and political will to rescue itself from the mass destruction that Sandy has been, as badly as we were hit, in relative terms and in the number of human lives lost, it could have been worse for us.

The hurricane forecasters, especially Weather Underground, were almost spot on. As the tropical system formed in the eastern Caribbean and was forecasted to head southwest then just east of north through Jamaica, I was making bets with myself that they were wrong.

No such luck. The first forecasts of Sandy's path prior to it leaving the Caribbean and working its way into the waters of the South Atlantic was for a north-easterly trek. As it rammed into Cuba and the Bahamas the forecast took into consideration a merging weather system in the US and the new path was forecasted to expand the size of Sandy and make it one of the worst systems ever to hit the US mainland.

By that time, not many people were willing to bet that the hurricane forecasters would be wrong.

Here in Jamaica confusion still reigns as to exactly what path Sandy took, in a technical sense. In reality, the many Jamaicans whose houses were flattened, suffered roof damage, or who had their crops destroyed are not really interested if Sandy had an eye, an ear or suffered from foot and mouth disease.

Like most of us they wanted their lives back. Those who were without electric power waited and, like me, six days seemed like an eternity. By that time, the doors of our refrigerators were opened. A few days before that we had to gamble on keeping the once frozen meats as long as possible in the hope that JPS would do its thing in three or so days, or in giving away meat to the less fortunate before it began to go bad.

As I write now, my refrigerator is full of empty.

One reader from St. Mary wrote, "I am an avid reader of your articles. Thank you for clearing some of the confusions I had about Sandy's path. I live in St Mary, about two miles east of Port Maria. My home has a 360 º view and I spent the hours watching Sandy from a back door which opens somewhere between north and south. Sandy's arrival was at 1:45 pm. The wind blew in a steady direction from the north for the full duration of the storm. I closed that back door only when I went to lie down for a few minutes.

"I had nothing to do inside the house but watch the branches being ripped from the pear trees. Plums and breadfruits fell in one direction from the north to south. About 4:45 there was a sudden burst of very strong wind and I figured it was the "las-lick" before the calm. Not very long after my world stood still. Was this the eye? No, in a few minutes the breeze returned from the same direction and I stood by my open door and watched to the end. I was a bit confused and wondered if Sandy had passed. It was the end.

"All of Port Maria's older folk said it was worse than Gilbert, but there was no evidence. Port Maria suffered from the Otrum River which burst its banks and turned Stennett Street into a river. I am still very confused about the behaviour of Sandy. She created her own thing and she has changed the behaviour of what we learnt about the behaviour of storms.

"We are asking you to do some investigations on this town. The business people in this town can take this no more. This river is driving business people away. Please help us. Thank you."

Maybe ex-JLP mayor and MP Bobby Montague, a real St Mary man, can offer us some explanation.

Not far away in St Thomas, another reader had a much different experience. "Please allow me to invite you to visit St Thomas. The effects of Sandy stared around 8.00 am, appeared to stop at approx 2.00 pm after very very heavy winds. It then returned at approx 2.30 in the other direction until about 2.45 am the following morning, it was pretty close to Gilbert, people in the east will tell you it was about the same.

"All our vegetation - especially green breadfruit are 'roasted' on the tree, that is the few that survived it. It was frightening, mi did fraid bad and mi pray like never before - hold the roof father."

So it seems that although Sandy will be with us psychologically for a very long time, we are still unsure exactly what it was "she" did as she tore through us. What we do know is that the island is in no state to withstand another hurricane. With the season on to the end of this month, that is a rather long ask of our people.

Huge numbers of people on the eastern seaboard of the US are now facing their personal apocalypse. Unfortunately there is little we can do to assist them. Early reports are that it will affect our tourism arrivals, and that cannot be good. The possibility exists, though, that having suffered through Sandy, there will be some who will want to flee the shores of the US, come later in the year, if even for a week or two.

The price of breadfruit, bananas, plantains, avocado and tomatoes will be shooting through the roof in another few weeks. Many of our people can hardly afford a loaf of bread, and the breadfruit season, which was in full swing, has now come to a sudden stop.

Candlelight, lamplight (very dangerous on the respiratory system, especially in a small room) and refrigerator door wide open are now behind us. Unlike in the aftermath of Gilbert where power was restored many months afterwards, JPS has pulled through because the damage was much less this time around.

It seems that not many of us were willing to buy into the hurricane forecasters strange tracking of tropical storm Sandy heading south west, slowing, stopping, then heading north through Jamaica. It was too unlikely a track to take too seriously.

Next time around, don't be caught napping or you are likely to experience a frightening nightmare called Sandy.

observemark@gmail.com

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