A hurricane is no joke

Monday, June 03, 2019

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No one who experienced Hurricane Gilbert's assault on Jamaica in September 1988 will ever want to deal with such a thing again.

When it came ashore, Gilbert wasn't as powerful as a few other storms which have brushed Jamaica since.

The difference with Gilbert was that it didn't brush. It came ashore, in St Thomas in the east and tore through the centre of the island.

Those — particularly in the eastern parishes, St Thomas, Portland, Kingston and St Andrew, as well as St Catherine and Clarendon — who were of an age to be aware, can recall the eerie calm as the 'eye' of the storm passed.

For about an hour after the first phase of the storm, and with the coming of the 'eye', the sound of hammering was everywhere. That sound was like an out of tune orchestra, as desperate householders tried to nail down zinc roofing which had been lifted or blown away.

It was all to no avail. For within minutes of the return of the devilishly powerful winds and lashing rain, roofing and all manner of things were flying through the air.

Mr Lloyd Lovindeer's enduring classic, Wild Gilbert provides a graphic picture.

Then prime minister, Mr Edward Seaga, who flew over the island by helicopter immediately after the storm, likened the scenes of devastation to the Japanese city of Hiroshima which has heen hit by a United States atom bomb in 1945 at the tail end of World War Two.

In Jamaica, immediately after Gilbert, thousands of people found themselves homeless, having to live in emergency shelters — some of those, including schools and churches, had been badly damaged as well.

For a large segment of the population it took months before the return of electricity and running water.

Damage to agriculture was extensive with the banana crop destroyed.

Not just the tangible losses but the damage to the human spirit — with every tree either down or broken — was debilitating.

As it was, at least 45 Jamaicans died as a direct result of Gilbert, and material damage was later estimated at more than US$4 billion.

The eastern and southern sections of the island were hardest hit.

But for the Blue Mountains and the related mountain range running east to west down Jamaica's central spine, which provided significant protection for the north coast, the destruction would have been much worse.

Other storms have caused huge damage and loss of life in Jamaica. Those now in the winter of their years will remember Hurricane Charlie, which was a direct hit in 1951. Young Jamaicans will remember the horror of Hurricane Ivan, which crawled along Jamaica's south coast in 2004 like a malicious old man; and the much stronger, fast-moving Hurricane Dean tracking the same southern path with horrendous effect in 2007.

All of which explains the sense of urgency as officials of the weather and disaster preparedness services called on Jamaicans last week to gear up and prepare properly for the 2019 hurricane season.

Very young Jamaicans have no clear idea of what a hurricane or even a powerful tropical storm can bring. It's the responsibility of older 'heads' to tell them, for the greater good of all.

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