Monday 19 August, 2019

Seaga administration deserves 'A1' grade for Gilbert response - Henry

Then Prime Minister Edward Seaga speaks to reporters after accepting the first shipment of US-provided supplies, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert's passage across Jamaica in 1988. (PHOTO: PICRYL)

Then Prime Minister Edward Seaga speaks to reporters after accepting the first shipment of US-provided supplies, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert's passage across Jamaica in 1988. (PHOTO: PICRYL)

When Hurricane Gilbert took direct aim at Jamaica after forming in the Atlantic some 30 years ago today, a young Mike Henry was a Minister of State in the Edward Seaga-led Government.

When Gilbert slammed into the country on the morning of Monday, September 12, 1988 it was at category three strength, packing winds of up to 130 miles per hour. It would leave in its wake at least 45 dead, flattened farms and 80 per cent of buildings without their roofs. Large parts of the country were without water and electricity for several months.

Gilbert made landfall at Morant Point in the East and trekked across the entire length and breadth of the country before exiting at Negril Point.

Loss was estimated at US$700 million.

The day after hitting Jamaica, Gilbert quickly strengthened to a category five hurricane before hitting Mexico with equally devastating consequences.

Mike Henry

Now 30 years later, a member of the Edward Seaga-led Government at the time, Henry recounts both his and the administration’s efforts and experiences, in dealing with the ferocious storm.

The longstanding Member of Parliament for Central Clarendon told Loop News: “The most important approach that was taken by the then Prime Minister, Edward Phillip George Seaga who quickly grasped the whole thing was that he decided that there should be one central location from which, like a marshall, he would direct all the issues that had to be addressed…in preparation and anticipation of what turned out to be the worst storm we have ever had.

“And correspondingly also, how to not only prevent (limit the damage) but then how to recover after a storm,” Henry added.

With Jamaica not being significantly impacted by a major storm for many years, Henry noted that it was the Government’s responsibility to alert the population to the threats posed by the hurricane that had taken dead aim at the country and was fast approaching.

 “Preparation began (on the Sunday) by alerting the public at large, taking it very seriously, lining up all the issues that needed to be addressed and in that context I thought what he (Seaga) did was perhaps the most magnificent job in relation to directing the issues,” said Henry.

Part of the Government’s response was calling for outside help, in particular from the United States. The assistance offered was instrumental in getting the electricity grid back up and running. It would take a full three months for electricity to be fully restored to the country.

Henry also lauded Seaga for anticipating what would happen after the hurricane in terms of what it is that would be needed, what would be done and structuring the country’s response accordingly. In this regard, Jamaica House played a key role.

Henry told Loop News that “all Members of Parliament, all the political persons were called together in one approach and Jamaica House became the central point from which he (Seaga) directed and coordinated a unified approach.”

The former State Minister, who is currently a Minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister, said every Member of Parliament was on the road from the very early stages.

“This was to ensure that the people were being looked after, taken to shelters, that food and distribution was planned and coordinated.

“It’s one of those things you would have to live through overall to be able to fully appreciate the magnificent job that I think the then Prime Minister and Government had put in place,” Henry emphasised.

He acknowledged the cooperation of the then Opposition “and everyone in recognizing that Gilbert was a threat to the country.” That, he said, was an important element in the recovery process.

“I’m happy to have been part of it in terms of memory, not in terms of the damage that was done,” Henry said. He stated that those memories will live with him for a long time.

On a personal level, Henry recalled that both his home and office suffered damage.

“I lived through it. I remembered looking outside and seeing debris flying around. I think one person had his head cut off by a sheet of zinc that was flying around.

“So the memory was frightening in terms of it overall, but then with the experience …you had to rise to the occasion and you had to be more concerned about your neighbor even more so than yourself in those circumstances, especially being a Member of Parliament out there at the time.”

When asked to give the Government a grade for its performance, especially in the aftermath of the storm, Henry said “A1”.

“One of the most important elements was that the aftermath was handled so brilliantly in the sense that we really wondered if we really had the damage that the hurricane wrought…the fact that we could recover so quickly,” Henry told Loop News.

However, Henry expressed concern about the potential damage should a similar storm hit Jamaica today.  

“I think that what we have to do is hope that we don’t have anything as bad as (Gilbert) because I think the damage could be greater now because we have denuded our hills etc,” Henry said.

“I think the movement of water is going to be more damaging than it has been in the past should we have the misfortune of being hit with another Gilbert type hurricane,” he added.

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