JAMAICAN HURRICANE


The morning of 17 August 1951, dawned crisp and clear. It began as a typical Jamaican day. In Kingston there was a slight wind and a few intermittent clouds in an otherwise pristine tropical blue sky; all was beautiful and looking to remain so.

By mid afternoon, all that changed.

The weather became oppressively hot and calm. You could hear a pin drop in the silence. The birds were quiet, with very few on the wing. The sky was empty even of the vultures that soared in normal times. Not a dog barked; the neighbourhood seemed devoid of all animal sounds. Man-made noises like those of passing traffic seemed muted in anticipation. In this silence I could hear people talking in houses several yards away.

Although it was late afternoon, the sea breeze was absent. No leaf on any tree near our small bungalow moved. The heat of Jamaica in August weighed more heavily than normal. I quickly raised a sweat in a short walk to the neighbour’s house to check whether they had any more news. Early that day announcements over the radio warned that Jamaica was in the path of Hurricane Charlie. It was a full-blown storm Category 4 on a scale where 5 is the extreme. It was expected to hit Kingston late that afternoon.

The sky had become a multi coloured display, predominantly of a violent red hue with shades of orange emphasizing the shapes of apparently stationary but towering storm clouds. It was like nothing I had ever seen before or since. The violent colours were like those through an open door of a furnace. Yet despite the threatening scene there was no sign of wind, just unnerving calm and silence.

As the sun set the darkness descended with the rapidity of the tropics. There was no twilight at all. One moment there was the lurid scene of the bright skies of the setting sun amidst the threatening banks of cloud; in the next instance all was complete darkness, apart from the glimmer of the few streetlights along Ardenne and Hope Roads towards Matilda’s Corner.

Then, suddenly, the roaring started. It was like the sound of a huge express train thundering down between embankments. A rapidly rising wind was fighting its way towards us between the Hills to the north of Kingston and the single mountain facing the harbour to the west. Standing outside the front door when the first blast of wind slammed into the house I was virtually thrown to the ground. It was as if I had been pushed by a giant hand. I could barely crawl on my hands and knees such was the strength of the initial gusts. Chaos quickly followed, the rain started coming down in torrents and the noise of the wind and the wildly thrashing trees drowned everything else out. I was hard put to get up off the concrete surface of our small patio, the raging wind even made breathing difficult.

Somehow I managed to open the front door to join Mum inside the house. Here things were better in that it was still dry inside. We had closed all the windows and doors; the awning had been removed and the car, we thought, was well sheltered in the carport at the back of the bungalow. Mum had, with foresight of long experience, filled the bathtub and several large pots and pans with water in case the usual supply failed. She had also laid in some food and a stock of candles and a flashlight.

So we thought we were reasonably well prepared. But we had not anticipated the brutal force and unreasoning violence of the storm. The sound of the wind increased from a sound of rushing and hissing to a screaming and moaning. It whistled through every joint in the windows and doors as it attacked the house seemingly from every quarter. It came in huge unrelenting gusts that shook our refuge to its very foundations.

The rain had become a torrent of water and with every gust of wind it was forced like jets and fountains through every crack and hole it could find in the doors and windows. The louvered windows in the front room were particularly useless; they were no sort of defence against the combined assault of the rain and wind. Water poured into the house and soon it was flowing through at a depth in places of at least six inches on the tiled floors.

Then the electricity failed. The power lines on the main road just fifty yards from the house were wildly thrashing about. I could see the sparks and flashing as the lines made contact with each other. Then there was a great flash as the lines came down. Total blackness encompassed everything with a sudden frightening finality. The candles proved totally useless as the wind kept blowing them out in its rushes through the house. Two small flashlights were the only reliable things we had to see by.

Frequent flashes of lightning provided brief illumination of a scene that became ever more violent and chaotic as the storm raged on. There was no climax, no relief from the storm’s threat and there was apparently nothing more we could do except shelter in the house and hope that it would stay in one piece.

I thought that the car might provide us with a refuge of last resort. An old pre-war Austin she had a stout steel body and was easily accessible through the back door of the bungalow. So I went out to have a look. I timed my exit from the house between gusts, but even then the wind still blew so hard I had great difficulty opening the car door to get inside. After a great struggle I managed to fall into the drivers seat, soaking wet and looking no doubt like a drowned cat.

Every gust of wind shook the old car like a terrier with a rat. The rain lashed the outside of the car. The combined noise of raging wind and falling water made it impossible to hear my mother yelling at me. In the lightning flashes I could just see her frantic face at her bedroom window, mouth open obviously shouting to get me back into the house.

To reassure her I switched on the car headlights. These revealed a scene that has been etched in my memory.

The rain was not falling, it was being driven as sheets of water horizontally; the breadfruit tree opposite had lost all its leaves and heavy fruit. The few branches it had left were bent at impossible right angles in the direction of a pile of debris that had been blown leeward. The debris was piled against the hedge, or at least the remains of the hedge. This once luxurious and healthy hedge was now a skeleton, its leafless branches thrashed wildly by the heavy gusting wind.

I was alarmed to see amongst the debris several sheets of corrugated iron. As I gazed in terrified fascination I saw a large dark shape fly past and land in a crumpled heap on the flooded garden. It was another piece of roofing iron; clearly a nearby house had lost its roof and neighbours were in trouble. What to do? To go outside to find which house was in trouble would have been a highly risky business, made particularly hazardous by the flying debris with the potential to cause serious even terminal injury. Anyhow there was Mum inside the house…. I could not leave her on her own at this juncture.

Whilst deliberating what to do a particularly heavy gust shook the car, lifting one corner leaving it to fall back again with a thump as the gust slackened. This made me wonder about our own roof, was it still there? Ours was made of cedar shingles and seemed even more likely to fail than the neighbour’s of heavy corrugated iron. That thought provided all the incentive I needed to get back into the bungalow.

Back inside I found the flashlight and some steps to get into the attic. There was an access hole in the passageway that made it possible to poke my head above the ceiling to see what was going on. The roof of course was leaking, but what great relief it was to see that it was, by a miracle still all there. I stood on tiptoe at the top of the stepladder using the faint beam of the torch to see what I could. Then to my horror I could see part of the roof at one corner lifting and falling back, as if a giant hand where tearing it from outside to get in. Each time the corner lifted I could see water being blown in to soak the ceiling and find its way into the front room of the house.
Again there was nothing to be done until the wind abated. Our only recourse was to wait. Our last resort was still to find refuge in the car. There could be no question of going across to a neighbour’s house, it was far too dangerous and there was no certainty that they would be able to offer shelter. Anyway, they could be worse off than we were and were in need of help themselves.

So we stayed put and wondered what our fate would be. The storm raged on, there was no lightening of the gloom and the chaos continued unrelenting. Once I thought I heard a dog whining outside, but when I looked for it there was nothing there…just the blasting noise of the wind and driven rain with an occasional crashing sound of something heavier hitting the house.

Eventually at about midnight I sensed that the wind had changed direction. But its speed and the weight of the rain remained unabated. However, shortly after this slight change, everything came to an abrupt halt. The calm that preceded the storm was restored. All was completely still with no wind and no rain. There was just the sound of water dripping everywhere.

Taking advantage of the stillness I shot outside. In the gloom I could just make out the silhouettes of the houses next door. They all seemed to have survived more or less intact. All the trees immediately near us seemed only to have suffered relatively minor damage. I could see the occasional flash of lights in the Crooks’ mansion immediately opposite as well as in the small bungalows built in their grounds. Even the very tall Royal Palm tree next to a favourite Beef Mango tree was still there.

Overhead the sky was absolutely clear – no cloud anywhere; I could see the stars shining with their usual tropical beauty. They seemed close enough to touch so clear and tranquil was the air above. After the trauma of the previous five hours the prevailing peace and the quiet splendour of the sky was quite unearthly. I looked at the scene with awe and a feeling of immense relief.

I thought the worst was over until it dawned on me that we were right at the centre of the hurricane. So my relief was short lived. The respite had been brief. There was no doubt that we were in for another dose of Nature’s chaotic fury.

The eye of Hurricane Charlie actually took about twenty minutes to pass over. With the same suddenness with which it had begun, the wind and the rain came again. Only this time the wind’s direction was from the opposite quarter. It slammed into the house from the front, blowing directly through the gap between the two next-door bungalows that had been built at right angles to each other.

In just a few minutes the wild howling of the wind, the drenching rain and the roar of the storm returned with even greater fury. It was not long before there was the loud crashing, rending sound of a tree falling. Even above the noise of the wind and rain I heard the crunch of its fall as it hit the ground. The crown of the tree rested barely two yards from the front room and I could see the broken fronds and branches thrashing in an orgy of destructive violence as it lay there in ruins. The rain of debris from the fall and the bits flying off the broken tree hit the side of the house like a storm of hail.
Several windows broke under the storm’s renewed assault allowing yet more wind and rain into the already soaking interior of the front room.

During the next few hours many other trees in the neighbourhood came crashing down or lost large branches. The first part of the storm and the drenching rain had softened the ground. Roots that had held trees up right at the beginning could no longer resist the wind that now attacked from the opposite quarter. I was aware of some of this destruction as several of the trees that came down were close by and I heard the thumps as they fell. As the skies began to get lighter with the approach of dawn I could also see much debris and rubbish blown along by the wind.

Gradually, things at last began to get better. In her usual resourceful way Mum brewed some tea and made breakfast. This simple act created a sense of returning sanity and restored flagging and chastened spirits. Fortunately the gas stove had survived without damage, as had her stocks of food. The continued absence of electricity was not an immediate problem.

By 11 in the morning of 18 August the storm had virtually passed beyond Jamaica and was heading now for the Gulf and the coast of Mexico. It left behind a trail of destruction and suffering that was beyond my ability to comprehend. The rain and the wind and rain continued for perhaps another six hours but now amounted to no more than a nuisance for those still with roofs to shelter under. However, for the thousands of folk who had lost their homes in places like Trench Town, Port Royal and Morant Bay the continuance of the rain and wind just added to their misery.

My own knowledge of the disastrous effects of the storm was limited by lack of transport and the need to help clear up the mess at home and our neighbours. The first thing I realized was just how lucky we had been. Apart from the soaking of much of the contents and structure of the house and a few missing cedar roof tiles we were virtually unscathed. Yes, the garden had also been left in ruins, and there was a lot of debris to clear up and got rid of, but that was as nothing compared with people round about.

Our immediate neighbours living in the two bungalows also were incredibly fortunate. The Royal Palm that had come down in the night just after Charlie’s eye had passed us by, had fallen exactly in the gap formed by the right angle between the two houses. This enormous, tall and gracious tree had missed the nearest bungalow where an English couple and their baby were sheltering by just 1 yard.

The house beyond our back fence had lost half its corrugated iron roof. It had obviously been the source of all the bent and distorted sheets of iron lying in the general detritus left by the storm. The occupants were Christian Missionaries and their students who had broken out in songs of thanksgiving when they realized they had survived the catastrophe. I heard their singing accompanied by an out of tune piano during the morning after the storm. It was certainly an uplifting experience. I suspect that they had been singing songs of praise and deliverance throughout most of the storm as well to keep up their spirits. They were that kind of people.

It took nearly a week before the electricity was restored. Two weeks after the storm we still had to boil our water. Typhoid and other waterborne diseases remained a threat.

The Daily Gleaner recommenced publishing four days after the storm. We began then to get details of the destruction Hurricane Charlie had caused outside our immediate ken. Some stories had already been broadcast by Radio Jamaica, but we relied on the Gleaner for wider coverage. Its report on 21 August 1951 provides an example of the news current at the time:

On Friday, August 17, 1951, Hurricane Charlie hit Jamaica, causing great loss of life and severe damage to property, especially in St. Thomas and the Corporate Area of Kingston and lower St. Andrew. The Gleaner of Tuesday, August 21, carried news of a rising death toll and of heavy damage to banana and coconut crops, buildings and services. By then 132 persons were known to have died, 10,000 were homeless in St. Thomas, 12,000 in the Corporate Area and 3,000 elsewhere. Consequently, there was a demand for food and
hardware. Help is on the way.
This morning a food convoy will leave Kingston bound for Spanish Town, Old Harbour and May Pen, taking supplies for distressed persons in those areas. This will augment trade channels, which are in operation and sending out foodstuffs in the normal course.
Further food supplies were sent to Port Royal yesterday.
H.M.S. Bigbury Bay, due to arrive here this morning, will proceed to Morant Bay with a large cargo of food, medical supplies, and technical personnel to augment the assistance already sent to this area in the S.S Lady Huggins, which, leaving Kingston Sunday night, arrived in Morant Bay early yesterday morning with a detachment of police, two doctors and seven nurses on board.

Wherever there has been damage, there is a general rush for basic foodstuffs and for rebuilding. Some dealers are said to have resorted to rationing in an attempt to spread available stocks as widely as possible. During the next few weeks, relief supplies are expected and trading companies are seeking the assistance of Government in speeding up the arrival of expected shipments of foodstuffs such as codfish from Nova Scotia.

The paper also reported that:

125 mph winds hit Kingston harbour, beaching 6 ships, taking 150 lives, and ruining about 20,000 buildings. Losses are estimated at $56million.

Port Royal, the former pirate town, on the Palisados peninsula that protects Kingston Harbour, was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Charlie.

A friend of mine later told me his story. As luck would have it, the hurricane made landfall in the southeast of the island at Morant Bay. The little teacher’s cottage where he lived with his father was on a hill overlooking the sea. It was directly in the hurricane’s path. Predictably it battered the cottage and when the storm hit its frightening peak he sought guidance from his father. The advice given stoically was "Pray my son, Pray"

Unfortunately praying had not helped another English couple serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and billeted at Port Royal. Driven from the destruction of their home they sought shelter under an old stonewall. This survived the first part of the storm but collapsed tragically killing them both shortly after the Charlie’s eye had passed and the raging winds had reappeared from the opposite quarter.

Mum and I were really very lucky indeed to have survived Hurricane Charlie virtually unscathed.


APPENDIX A

Hurricane Charlie (1951)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia;
this article is about the Atlantic hurricane of 1951.

Hurricane Charlie

Category 4 hurricane

 

Formed

August 12 , 1951

Dissipated

August 23 , 1951

Highest winds

135 mph (215 km/h) sustained

Lowest pressure

≤964 mbar (hPa)

Damages

$75 million (1951 USD)
$575.6 million (2005 USD)

Fatalities

252+

Areas affected

Lesser Antilles , Jamaica, Yucatan Peninsula, Mainland Mexico

Part of the
1951 Atlantic hurricane season

Hurricane Charlie was a strong Category 4 hurricane in the 1951 Atlantic hurricane season, causing one of Jamaica's worst hurricane disasters. In all, the hurricane caused 252 casualties and $575.6 million in damage (2005 USD)


Storm History
On August 12, a tropical wave organized into a tropical depression about 930 miles east-southeast of the island of Barbados. It moved to the west-northwest, and slowly organized. Based on Reconaissance Aircraft reports of hurricane force winds in squalls, the depression was upgraded tropical storm status on the 15th to the east of Martinique. While passing through the Lesser Antilles, Charlie quickly intensified, and reached hurricane strength on August 16.
Hurricane Charlie reached 110 mph winds on August 17 as it moved quickly westward across the Caribbean Sea. It made landfall on eastern Jamaica on the night of the 17th and quickly crossed the island, causing torrential damage from winds and rain. After weakening to an 85 mph Category 1 hurricane, Charlie restrengthened over the favorable Western Caribbean, attaining major hurricane status on the 19th. The hurricane peaked at 130 mph (215 km/h) just before hitting near Cozumel on the night of the 20th, and weakened as it crossed the Yucatan Peninsula.
Upon reaching the Gulf of Mexico, Charlie had weakened to a 105 mph hurricane. It remained a Category 2 hurricane while crossing the Gulf of Mexico until 12 hours before landfall. Charlie rapidly intensified, and reached its peak of 135 mph just before hitting Mexico near Tampico on August 22. The storm quickly weakened over land, and dissipated on August 23 in the Mexican province of Tamaulipas.
Impact
When Hurricane Charlie hit the island of Jamaica, it became the worst hurricane disaster in the first half of the 20th century. The island experienced 110 mph winds and with rain amounts peaking at 17 inches in Kingston. Charlie caused around $50 million (1951 USD, $383.8 million 2005 USD) in crop and property damage, 152 deaths, injured 2000, and left 25,000 homeless.
On the Yucatan Peninsula, Charlie destroyed up to 70% of the crops, though no loss of life was reported in the area.
The city of Tampico was spared from extreme damage, though four people died with property damage estimated at a little over a million. Outside the city, Charlie's heavy rain led to bursting dams and flooded rivers, where upward of 100 people died. Property and crop losses were in the millions of dollars.


© Copyright M.& M.M.O.Dealy
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