Hurricane Gilbert — Memories still linger after 35 years

LLOYD Lovindeer’s iconic song Wild Gilbert gives a masterclass in storytelling, as it chronicles, most comically, the passage and aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert over Jamaica on September 12, 1988.

However, there was nothing comical about the damage and devastation that the Category 3 hurricane left in its wake 35 years ago.

As citizens who experienced the duration and aftermath of the natural disaster recount, it was a scary time, as a thick pall of gloom enveloped the country after Gilbert left.

Some 45 lives were lost and 800,000 people sought shelter as more than 100,000 homes were destroyed and damaged islandwide. In fact, up to January of 1989, some 600 persons were still in hurricane shelters across the island.

The island suffered billions of dollars’ worth of damage, with the agricultural sector the worst affected. The banana and poultry industries, in particular, experienced next-level devastation, as they were obliterated.

At the time, Gilbert, which peaked at Category 5 strength before leaving the island, was the first hurricane to make landfall in Jamaica in 37 years, the previous disaster was Hurricane Charlie in the 1950s.

It still holds the distinction of being one of the most devastating Atlantic hurricanes in history, second only to Hurricane Wilma, which occurred in 2005.

Many persons remember where they were when Gilbert ravaged the island from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm on that fateful day.

They believed that the natural disaster would not directly affect the island, and went about their business as usual, instead of preparing for the then impending hurricane, a move they would regret.

Winsome Brown, a St James resident, was ill-prepared for what was to come. She had given birth to a baby girl hours before Gilbert made landfall and was unaware of the devastation that the island would soon suffer.

“The hospital staff told us we had to leave because they did not know what devastation would happen there. We ended up leaving the hospital without the child doing what she was supposed to do before she left there [pass stool and urine],” she told JIS News.

This was a good move by the hospital, as some 90 per cent of the island’s health facilities were severely impacted by Gilbert’s passing.

Leaving the hospital turned out to be the easiest part of her day, as Brown remembers how treacherous the journey to her Over River Orange home was with her newborn in tow.

As Gilbert drew nearer and nearer, what would normally be a half-hour ride stretched beyond that as the taxi driver who carried Brown and her baby carefully navigated the dangerous roadway.

“The driver had to be dodging rocks and sticks that were falling on the road, but I reached [the area] safely. However, the devastation in the community was already so bad that I couldn’t go to my house, I had to stay at a neighbour’s house for the night,” she says.

Brown added that the aftermath of Gilbert was a time she will never forget, as many of the roofs in her community had blown off.

She also remembers walking from Over River to downtown Montego Bay with a friend, looking at the post-Gilbert damage along the way.

Brown noted that in her community, electricity was out for three months after the hurricane passed.

For her part, Adelphi resident, Pastor Ann-Marie Bulgin Graham, recalled that she left work early that day; however, she had no interest in watching the action indoors.

“I got home safely amid the heavy breeze. During the hurricane I didn’t stay in, I was outside on the street, up and down in the rain and enjoying the breeze, but I was still carefully looking out for the pieces of zinc and branches that were flying past,” she says.

Pastor Graham admitted she knew being outside at that moment was dangerous, but she took the risk.

“I saw zinc flying off people’s roofs, I saw branches flying all over, but I just went through and enjoyed it. I remember the breeze was so terrible that it almost knocked me off my feet and I stood in one place for some time before I could move again,” she said.

After the hurricane had passed, she made a beeline to do some checks at her church nearby. To her horror, the building’s entire roof was gone, which brought her to tears.

Pastor Graham also noted that she was concerned about her sister, who had just given birth and was sent home with her newborn just before the hurricane. Thankfully, all were safe and sound after the hurricane had passed.

Gilbert took 400 lives in the region, including the United States and caused US$10 billion in damage regionally.

Due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Gilbert, the World Meteorological Organization retired its name in 1989.

After Hurricane Gilbert, several measures were put in place to improve the island’s preparedness. This included the rebranding the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Relief Coordination (ODIPERC) in 1993 to the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), under the provisions of the new Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management Act.

The ODPEM instituted the National Zonal Programme so that communities could manage internally for at least 72 hours until outside assistance could reach them following a disaster.

This programme works by dividing the island into clusters of communities called zones, which are further divided into focal points.

The agency also established a National Disaster Committee and revamped the island’s National Disaster Plan.