Jamaica, a magnet for storms
By its very geographical location, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, Jamaica lies in the path of tropical storms and hurricanes. And this fair isle has been visited by many of these powerful swirls over the years. These atmospheric phenomena, which occur any time between June 1 and November 30 can cause much destruction and loss of lives. The news of their imminent arrival has always created fear and trembling for a plethora of reasons.
The first arrivals in Jamaica on record took place from September to November 1559, when severe damage was done to Spanish constructions on the island. Many churches were destroyed from 1597 to 1670, including an English fleet that was driven ashore. People were killed, and plantations, houses, ships and crops were devastated in 1678, 1689, 1692, 1713 and 1714.
From the 8th to the 9th of September 1722, Port Royal and Queenstown (now Passage Fort) were destroyed by a 16-foot surge, which also occurred in Kingston Harbour. Fifty vessels were destroyed, and many lives lost; 18 at sea. The hurricanes of September 1730 and 1734 did a lot of damage on land and to shipping, likewise that of October 1744, which killed hundreds on land and sea. Ninety vessels were driven aground in the Kingston Harbour. Port Royal was flooded, and Savanna-la-Mar badly hit.
ATTRACTION TO THE WEST
Western Jamaica, more so Westmoreland, seemed to have offered more attraction for these unstoppable forces, like the one in July 1711, which caused damage amounting to £700,000, and in which many lives were lost. The following year, on August 28, a severe storm in western Jamaica was accompanied by an earthquake. The region was visited in 1766, 1773, and November 1912, among other times.
The most destructive of them all happened in Westmoreland on October 3, 1780. Savanna-la-Mar was totally destroyed by a tsunami. Approximately 300 people died. Over 1,000 deaths occurred in Westmoreland, Hanover and St James, and an epidemic broke out in western Jamaica after the deluge. Much misery was caused by the calamity. Damage, costing £700,000, was done. To assist in relief efforts, England sent £40,000 to the colony.
At the end of 1780, about 15,000 enslaved Africans died as a result of scarcity of provision because of storms, drought and suspension of communication with America. And there was more destruction in August 1781 (over 100 vessels wrecked in Kingston Harbour), July 1782 (Kingston and eastern Jamaica badly affected), July 1784, August 1784, October 1786 (15,000 lives lost), October 1812, August 1813, October 1815, October and November 1818, August 1832, and October 1875.
In the occurrence of August 18-19, 1880, in eastern Jamaica, there was damage to crops, and to the ships and wharves in Kingston. Five people drowned, and Kingston was extensively damaged. The island was not spared also by the storms of June 27 and August 20, 1886, nor by the one in St Mary and Portland on October 29, 1899.
The first major 20th-century hurricane for Jamaica happened on August 11, 1903, mainly on the northeastern coast. The total loss to the colony was estimated at £2,500,000, and about 65 lives were lost. The following year, there was a tropical storm on June 13. In three consecutive years, 1915 (August 12 and 13, September 25-26), 1916 (August 15-16) and 1917 (September 23), hurricanes and a tropical storm destroyed bananas and other crops.
THE DEADLY HURRICANE CHARLIE
More infrastructural damage took place on August 20, 1944, when a hurricane destroyed the coconut industry, many homes and public buildings. But the havoc wreaked by the aforementioned systems paled in comparison to that created by 1951’s Hurricane Charlie, which occurred on August 17. At the time, it was regarded as Jamaica’s deadliest natural disaster of the 20th century.
The Daily Gleaner’s headlines screamed, ‘110 DEAD AS HURRICANE RIPS SOUTH COAST’, ‘Kingston Smashed By Savage Storm’, ‘Morant Bay, Port Royal Wrecked; Horror Night as 125-Mile Winds Rage’, ‘SIXTEEN MILLION POUNDS DAMAGE DONE’, ‘HEAVY HAVOC TO BANANAS; COCONUT LOSSES SEVERE’, ‘Governor Will Launch Hurricane Relief Fund’, ‘Family of 3, Friend, Dead in Port Royal Disaster’. It turned out that the number of deaths was much more than 110, about 25,000 were left homeless, and there were $50 million in damage to crop and properties. Twenty-nine years later, Hurricane Allen (July 1972) brought Charlie’s ferocity to memory.
There were more winds, water and flooding such as those brought by Tropical Depression One (June 12, 1979), and 1980’s Hurricane Allen. The former, the second tropical cyclone of the 1979 Atlantic hurricane season, ravaged and flooded western Jamaica, killing about 40 people. The latter, regarded one of the most powerful to date, did not make landfall in Jamaica, but we felt some of its fury.
Then came the big one, Gilbert, on September 12,1988. Many Jamaican were anticipating a major hurricane for the first time, but it was an islandwide trail of destruction that they saw the morning after. The Category-5 killer eventually became the most costly storm up to that time, causing over US$7 billion in damages. Approximately 45 people were killed, and thousands were accommodated in shelters set up by the Government.
Since ‘Wild Gilbert’, other notable tempests to barrel across the ‘Land of Wood and Water’, or to affect it somehow, were Hurricane Ivan (2004), Hurricane Emily (2005), Hurricane Dean (2007), Tropical Storm Gustav (2008), and Hurricane Sandy (2012). Tropical Storm Grace, which drenched us with her watery presence on Tuesday, August 17, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Charlie, was the latest on a long list of uninvited visitors. Though it was being watched, it caught many people off guard just like some of the ones that arrived unannounced in yesteryear.