Thirty-years on – Jamaicans remember destructive hurricane Gilbert
The first name that usually comes to mind when Jamaicans recall the devastation of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 is reggae singer Lloyd Lovindeer.
That’s because Lovindeer’s song, Wild Gilbert, so felicitously captured the occasion, meticulously blending the agony of the destructive mood of the natural disaster with the auspicious nature of the Jamaican culture.
In addition, there is the fact that the hurricane also destroyed a portion of Dynamic Sounds studio on Bell Road in Kingston, which forced him to delay completing the writing of his song about the disaster, giving him much more time to review the situation, which he used to include nearly all the developments that were worth recording.
“Dynamic Sounds was my recording studio, but it was out of commission and I couldn’t record for three weeks, and in the meantime a number of other people were rushing to put out their record of the events,” Lovindeer told the Jamaica Observerlate Monday night.
“But, I decided to take my time, go around the island as much as I could to see what really happened, so I could write from a real perspective of what did happen,” he said.
“I decided to take my time and write, so it was a good thing that the studio was out and, although it affected the sales at the beginning, they bought out the copies and put it out later and exported to everywhere in the Diaspora,” he boasted.
Lovindeer, however, did not realise how big the song had become across Latin American countries like Nicaragua, which were also affected by Gilbert. Even though the Latin Americans did not understand much of his Jamaican vernacular, they certainly understood the rhythm and the words “wild Gilbert”. The result was that the song spread like a raging fire across the region.
Gilbert was regarded as the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record until it was surpassed in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. It was also one of the largest tropical cyclones ever observed in the Atlantic basin and, at one point, its tropical storm-force winds measured 925 km in diameter.
Weather records available online state that Gilbert was the 10th named storm and third hurricane of the 1988 Atlantic hurricane season. It developed from a tropical wave on September 8 while located 640 km east of Barbados.
Following intensification into a tropical storm the next day, it steadily strengthened as it tracked west-northwestward into the Caribbean Sea.
On September 10, Gilbert attained hurricane intensity and rapidly strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane.
Gilbert made landfall on the east coast of Jamaica at 10:00 am on Monday, September 12, 1988 as a Category 3 hurricane. It later intensified to a Category 5.
The eye measured about 15 miles across as it struck Jamaica. Wind speeds averaging 75 miles per hour, gusting to 127 mph, were recorded in the Kingston Metropolitan Area. As the eye exited western Jamaica at 6:00 pm, it intensified further (888 millibars).
For two days, rain from Gilbert pummelled Jamaica’s 14 parishes, leaving behind 45 bodies and an estimated US$8 million (J$40 billion) in damage.
It devastated all sectors of the society and the economy, especially rural farming communities, with damage to agriculture accounting for more than 40 per cent of the total loss.
Ninety-five per cent of all health facilities suffered damage, and it was estimated that more than 800,000 individuals sought shelter.
A one-month state of public emergency was declared for St Thomas, St Catherine, and Kingston and St Andrew by then Prime Minister Edward Seaga who was already close to the end of his second term as head of the Government.
Tasked with the job of getting Jamaica back on track, Seaga admitted that it was one of his greatest challenges.
“Gilbert was tough. It was a three-month problem,” he admitted.
He said he first heard of the hurricane only hours before it made landfall and immediately made arrangements to address the nation via television. He also met with relief agencies, including the Red Cross.
“I had to advise the people, among other things, that there would be a lull at some time, but that did not mean that the hurricane had passed,” he said then.
During a break a day later, Seaga was able to view the damage close up as we joined him on a tour of the city of Kingston.
The security forces were deployed to help out in rural areas badly damaged by the hurricane. For weeks there was no electricity, very little water and no ice in what was a devastating summer heat.
One of the most cruel blows was that we all missed watching on television, Ben Johnson’s 100 metre gold medal run at the Seoul Olympics.
Johnson was eventually disqualified after he was found guilty of doping. We could not even make a comment because big, bad Hurricane Gilbert saw to it that we missed the Olympics that year. But I do recall that six of the eight finalists in the 100 metres that year were eventually named for doping.