Sun | Feb 23, 2020

Mark Wignall | In memory of a monster

Published:Thursday | September 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM
The scene of fallen trees was repeated many times in St Thomas in the wake of Hurricane Gilbert. Here a number of coconut trees are seen beside the main road in White Horses.

Two days before Hurricane Gilbert ripped up Jamaica from end to end, my two younger brothers and I were out carousing, moving to and fro in the city. It was a Saturday, and the last thing on our minds was a hurricane.

Jamaicans had been able to convince themselves that the island was outside of the hurricane zone as the last direct hit on the island was Charlie in 1951. By the next day, Sunday, September 11, it dawned on us that the threat was real and action had to be taken.

I visited my house in Havendale and figured that all would be well and left to spend 'hurricane time' with one of my brothers who had been going through a traumatic break-up of his marriage. My wife and children would be safe at her parents' slab-roof house in Harbour View.

By Monday, September 12, 1988, at sometime close to midday, I was armed with binoculars and a heightened sense of curiosity but was also consumed with a naivety that told me that a hurricane was something like a spectator sport. I could watch it, comment on its progress, it eventually goes away, and somehow, we will all come out of it unscathed to get on with the remainder of our lives.

How terribly wrong I was. At the relatively high elevation in Forest Hills, it turned out to be hell. As the 30-mile eye wall traversed the first part of the island, I was able to stay at the top of a flight of stairs and watch the first passage of the hurricane. Not knowing that the most devastating winds were in the northeastern quadrant, we laughed it up and thumbed our noses at this so-called hurricane.

During the calm of the eye's passage, my brother's neighbour, who occupied a fancy four-level house, invited us to his house for 'a drink.' His house was about 20 metres down but still on a high elevation from where we could see an expansive view of the city of Kingston.

I kept saying, "We only have about half an hour before it starts again." How wrong I was. Looking down at the vast expanse of the Caribbean, I suddenly saw a black veil slowly lifting, and I said to my brother, "It's time to go".


Hell descended


And then it happened. Hell and a thousand feral hounds wailing in unison descended on us. A huge oak door came under pressure, and four grown men attempted to lock it shut. We were in a kind of pillbox area of the house where the owner had his bar, den and small sleeping area.

As we brought all we could to get the door locked, the wind howled repeatedly, and I shouted, "Let go!" And we all ran. One individual who was not so fast was blown clear across the floor into a concrete wall as the door crashed and broke apart. As the pressure of the wind built up, from my somewhat sheltered space, I beckoned to him to open a window nearby to ease it.

As he touched the window, it blew clean out and the blinding, stinging rain whipped up its horizontal fury. Then, we heard a nightmarish cracking sound. The owner of the house walked from under the covered area and said, "Mr Wignall, mi roof gone ".

It was not until Tuesday morning that we were able to escape from our extended hours in hell to survey the damage of 100,000 houses damaged and 49 lives lost.

We must be prepared now. And so must our neighbours in America as mighty Florence descends on them.

- Mark Wignall is a political and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to and