Sun | Nov 29, 2020

Egerton Chang | Wild, wild, wild Gilbert

Published:Friday | September 15, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Egerton Chang
Residents of Lucea were forced to put back together the pieces that Hurricane Gilbert sent flying when it slammed into Jamaica on September 12, 1988. In this picture, The main street was transformed into a near-endless pile of rubble and roofless buildings.
People examine the streets after Hurricane Gilbert on September 12, 1988.
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I don't know exactly what triggered the gnawing feeling that he was on his way.

But early that Sunday morning, I made sure to pick up Kingsley, a lifelong family friend and jack of all trades. I took him up to the house I had recently bought from Gregory Isaacs to assess what hardware was required.

We searched and searched for one that was open and ended up at Handy Hardware Supplies in Molynes Plaza, one of the precious few that was open that Sunday.

There were around four to five other customers there at minutes to noon when we arrived. I had to seriously question my certainty that he was really coming as the other customers were buying paint and such the like.

No one was buying zinc nails or anything that indicated getting prepared to welcome him.

In addition to zinc nails, I bought a few lengths of lath to help secure the roof and a few feet of flash ban. I also purchased a hand tree saw to cut some large limbs overhanging the house and some rope to help guild them from falling on to the roof, and a roll of masking tape.

 

FELLING TREES

 

Curious passers-by stopped and must have wondered why we were 'limbing' the tree. It took a great deal of effort to ensure the huge branches did not fall on to my roof - or my neighbour's.

We started to nail down the roof a little before 3 p.m. under overcast skies, the sound of Kingsley's hammer seeming to echo in the eerily still afternoon. No other similar sound could be heard.

Finally, at around 4 p.m., the tap-tap sound of a similarly minded soul could be heard in the distance. Ah, at least there were two of us they would be taking to Bellevue.

After securing my house, we headed down to my youngest brother's games of amusement business, Gallery of Games, on Half-Way Tree Road. It was in full swing, jammed with patrons whose only thoughts were their immediate pleasure.

There we used the masking tape to make 'X' across each of the glass panes. Then, we headed up to his home near Abbey Court to secure his town house.

Previously, we had bought some canned food and provisions, and had stored some water, not barely enough to serve us too long, however.

No one could be 'better' prepared to greet Mr Gilbert.

 

Gilbert Cometh

 

By dawn Monday, the winds in Kingston had picked up to tropical storm strength, as by 9-10 a.m., Gilbert's eye, the first hurricane to score a direct hit on Jamaica in 37 years, had breached the eastern tip of the island as a Category Three storm.

Ironically, I was almost drowned as a baby in my crib in the previous such hurricane, Charlie, in 1951.

The rain and the wind pummelled unabated the entire morning. Sandy Park Gully, running on the other side of Kings House Avenue, filled to almost overflowing and roared like a runaway train.

The winds howled like the wolf in that children's story, trying to blow my roof off. Once, twice, the roof creaked.

Airplanes (and roofs) fly as a result of Bernoulli's principle, which says that as air flow speeds up the pressure is lowered. Thus, a wing (roof) generates lift because the air goes faster over the top, creating a region of low pressure above, and thus lift.

Luckily, I remembered to open a few of the windows on the leeward side, thus equalising the pressure. My family must have thought me mad as rain started to pelt in, in squalls. Thereafter, the wind and the roof settled into an uneasy truce.

 

The Eye

 

The eye passed directly overhead near 1 p.m. that Monday, the stillness lasting 10 minutes at most.

Then the winds switched from the opposite direction seemingly more fearsome than before. While, the roof appeared secure, the frequent gusts still drove fear that it might be left blowing in the wind.

By late afternoon, the worst had been over. I was amazed, as by early evening a little ray of sunshine had peeped through for a short period.

By 6 p.m., the eye of Gilbert had exited the western end of Jamaica.

Gilbert could have caused even more extensive damage if it had traversed the island at a slower speed. As it was, the eye of Gilbert had spent less than 10 hours over Jamaica.

Perhaps, I shouldn't be surprised at Jamaica's seeming unprepared state as Edward Seaga, the prime minister at the time, told THE STAR's Akino Ming, published September 12, 2017:

"We didn't have any systems in place to forewarn us of any weather conditions, so it took us by just hearing of what happened in adjoining countries. We didn't know anything about it until it reached the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and that was on the Saturday evening."

The damage to Jamaica was extensive, no part being spared.

We, ignoring all the safety advice, like the curious cat, hit the roads the next morning, picking our way through debris-strewn streets with downed power supply making some impassable. We could not go very far in any direction.

I, being a camera buff in those days, must have taken more than 500 photos (remember in those days, pictures had to be developed, a very costly exercise) of the damage done in the Kingston area. I ventured out further and further in the days and weeks after, as Jamaica and the authorities steadily cleared the roads and JPS repaired the downed power lines.

There was a big hullabaloo, I remember, about JPS not having disaster insurance and the public being asked to pay for their massive repairs through increased electricity rates.

 

The Damage

 

Gilbert's eye measured about 15 miles across with wind speeds gusting to 127mph being recorded in the Kingston Metropolitan Area.

Gilbert devastated all sectors of the society and the economy. Damage was estimated at US$4 billion, with the damage to agriculture accounting for more than 40 per cent of this total.

Forty-five persons reportedly died across the island, and almost all health facilities suffered damage.

Persons, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, sought shelter.

A one-month state of public emergency was declared for St Thomas, St Catherine, and Kingston and St Andrew.

In the end, it took several months for water, electricity, and telephone services to be fully restored across the island.

While there was a lot of gloom, there was a bunch to be thankful for.

The insurance settlements for the most basic of claims were quite generous, in the most part, and were provided devoid of extensive proof requirement, the extreme number of claims making it impractical to do otherwise.

(Thereafter, the average clause that penalised those who underinsured their homes was to be strictly enforced.)

The extensive amount of zinc sheets at extremely low price (like $8 for a 12ft sheet) and other basic construction materials similarly priced, that flooded the island in the weeks and months following, meant one could rebuild without great stress.

Eating bully beef and sardines, and hardough bread, and listening to the radio and Wild Gilbert by Lloyd Lovindeer (which was released within a couple of weeks) on those quiet nights must have brought a lot of families closer together during the ensuing weeks and months.

Few places of entertainment having electricity ensured there wasn't many other things to do.

I still regard those days, with all the adversities, as some of my most memorable.

While not all places of business had electricity restored by December, most of New Kingston certainly had power in time for the muted yet welcome Christmas parties to help brighten our spirits.

- Egerton Chang is a businessman. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and e_rider69@hotmail.com.