Sunday 21 July, 2019

When Hurricane Gilbert came calling in 1988

A street in Kingston in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert.

A street in Kingston in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert.

Thirty seven years after suffering a direct hit from a major hurricane system - Hurricane Charlie in 1951 – another heavy puncher, Hurricane Gilbert not only directly hit Jamaica, but travelled across its entire span.

Gilbert, the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record until it was surpassed in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma, was formed during the 1988 Atlantic hurricane season. It peaked as a Category 5 strength system that produced widespread destruction across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The 10th named storm and third hurricane of the hurricane season, Gilbert matured from a tropical wave on September 8 just east of Barbados, to reach hurricane status two days later.

It then meandered past Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti before marching into eastern Jamaica at about 9:00 am on Monday, September 12. The system would spend hours thereafter mercilessly pounding the island with intense rainfall and wind speeds of up to 140 miles per hour.

Across the region, over a nine-day span, the hurricane claimed over 400 lives and caused approximately $4 billion (1988 USD) in damage. Jamaica accounted for some 30 per cent of that damage, and close to 50 of the fatalities.

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As a result of the extensive damage caused by Gilbert, the World Meteorological Organisation retired the name in the spring of 1989, replacing it with Gordon.

With then Prime Minister, Edward Seaga describing the hardest hit areas near where Gilbert made landfall in eastern Jamaica as looking "like Hiroshima after the atom bomb", the hurricane notably left extensive damage among crops, buildings, houses, roads and small aircraft.

In the city of Kingston, as with much of the remainder of the island, Gilbert’s winds knocked down power lines, uprooted trees, sent roofs ‘migrating’ to other properties, and simply flattened some less sturdy dwellings.

In fact, more than 100,000 houses were reportedly damaged, some to the point of destruction, and the country's banana crop was largely destroyed.

Hundreds of miles of roads and highways were also significantly damaged.

Reconnaissance flights over remote parts of the country reported that about 80 per cent of the homes on the island had lost their roofs.

The poultry industry was also pretty much wiped out, with the overall damage from agricultural losses estimated to have reached $500 million (1988 USD).

For the records, Gilbert was the most destructive storm in the country’s history, and the most severe since Hurricane Charlie came a-calling in 1951. Of note is that, unlike Charlie, Gilbert crossed the entire island.

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Interestingly, on the night before the vicious arrival of Gilbert, on Sunday, September 11, many persons in Kingston were noted to have had quite a good time partying in the city, with many ignoring the forecasting of then ‘poster boy’ weatherman, the veteran Roy Forrester, who had on many previous occasions gotten it wrong with his predictions. Not even his pointed forecast that Tropical Storm Gilbert had strengthened to a category three hurricane heading straight for Jamaica was widely heeded.

But the very affable weatherman would reclaim almost all his lost fans by the following morning when the population awoke to the harsh reality that Forrester was right that time around, and Jamaica was about to be pummeled by Hurricane Gilbert.

Hitting landfall as a category 3 hurricane, the system intensified to reach category 5 by the time it departed western Jamaica.

Among the dreaded consequences of the passage of the hurricane was the locking off of electricity service around mid-day on September 12. It would be many months before many customers again experienced power supplies at home.

Extensive flooding was also reported across the island as Gilbert produced storm surges up to 19 feet high, and dumped more than 32 inches of rain on the country.

In the health sector, over 90 per cent of all the public health facilities suffered damage.

This was while over 800,000 people, approximately 30 per cent of the estimated population then, sought shelters outside of their homes.

Generally, it took several months for water, electricity and telephone services to be restored across the country.

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

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