Remembering Gilbert and the need to be prepared
Damage done by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

But for a spread in this newspaper and reflections by other media houses the 35th anniversary of Hurricane Gilbert passed many Jamaicans by... well, mostly the younger ones who have very little knowledge, if any, of the ruinous nature of tropical cyclones.

Given the effect that Gilbert had on Jamaica, we consider it a duty to highlight, as often as possible, the anniversary of one of the most destructive events in our nation's history.

Older Jamaicans well remember the warnings from weather experts leading up to September 12, 1988 when Gilbert slammed into Jamaica as a Category 3 storm, claiming an estimated 56 lives, pulverising the island's amenities and infrastructure and leaving behind damage put at roughly US$8 million or $40 billion in 1988 dollars.

Gilbert devastated all sectors of the society and the economy, especially rural farming communities, with damage to agriculture accounting for more than 40 per cent of the total loss.

Ninety-five per cent of all health facilities suffered damage, and it was estimated that more than 800,000 individuals sought shelter. A one-month state of public emergency was declared for St Thomas, St Catherine, and Kingston and St Andrew.

Probably the most graphic description of the devastation that Gilbert unleashed on the island was that by then Prime Minister Edward Seaga who, after flying over the country to survey the damage, likened the situation to the utter destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima following the dropping of an atomic bomb by the Americans in 1945 as World War II approached its end.

The scale of Gilbert's destruction lies in the fact that its rampage across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico resulted in 433 deaths and about US$7.1 billion in damage.

Unfortunately, in this region we do not have the luxury of speculating whether hurricanes will hit us. It's just a matter of when. That is why we often use this space to reiterate the importance of preparation, especially when one considers that since 1950 more than 240 hurricanes have hit the region, resulting in massive damage and widespread devastation.

Indeed, the magnitude of the loss is more graphic when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), well above 100 per cent in a few cases. For instance, in Jamaica, Hurricane Gilbert caused damage equivalent to 50 per cent of GDP.

As we have pointed out before, the damage from these disasters is made more acute by the nature and topography of our small islands, most of which are either below sea level or only a few feet above sea level.

Thankfully, local and regional disaster management agencies have, over the years, been doing a good job of making adequate preparations for natural disasters. Also, in recent times, governments have been more receptive to disaster planning, especially because a number of jurisdictions have been seeing the damaging effects of climate change which is contributing to the creation of more powerful storms that can prove catastrophic.

However, we can't emphasise enough the fact that every citizen has a duty to be prepared. That can mean the difference between life and death.

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