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Hurricane Gilbert and its aftermath

Michael
Burke

Thursday, September 13, 2018

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Yesterday marked 30 years since the devastating Hurricane Gilbert ravaged Jamaica from east to west. Since that time we have had some other hurricane disasters but none of the magnitude of Gilbert, with its eye passing over the entire island.

Before Gilbert, the last devastating hurricane to blanket Jamaica was Charlie, 37 years previously, in 1951.

In 1944, when a hurricane struck, the meteorological offices of the world were not yet into the habit of naming hurricanes. Only seven years later, in 1951, after a series of weather reports about hurricanes coming our way but diverting at the last minute, came Charlie.

Many Jamaicans did not take warning of this hurricane seriously and were caught unawares. Worse yet, Hurricane Charlie came at night, and many people were killed by 'flying' sheets of zinc as they darted from pillar to post in search of shelter.

In 1951 many of Jamaica's destitute lived in huts and shanties which made the devastation even worse for them. And since the pleas for underground wiring after the 1944 hurricane were ignored, once again electricity was disrupted in 1951. However, in 1951 most of Jamaica did not yet have electricity, so the disruption of power supplies mainly affected individuals of wealth.

But by the time of Hurricane Gilbert, in 1988, electricity supply was quite extensive in Jamaica. We had grown unaccustomed to life with kerosene lamps and not having air conditioning, fans or refrigerators. By 1988, many offices were built for air conditioning but, at that time, most offices did not yet have private standby electricity plants for emergencies.

It was noticeable that in the years following Hurricane Gilbert some insurance companies went out of existence. Did the paying out of very large sums of money for their client's insurance claims cause bankruptcy? Or did some insurance companies foreclose to give an impression of a depletion of funds so as not to distribute all of it? We might never know.

Hurricane Gilbert was the beginning of the end of Jamaica's banana industry. There was the heavy 'breeze blow' by Hurricane Allen in 1980. Five years later, in 1985, then Deputy Prime Minister Hugh Shearer told farmers that it was time to stop using Hurricane Allen as an excuse for the drop in the production of bananas for export. But at least the industry still existed, even if only limping along by that time.

Our banana farmers, having been frustrated with the gale winds of Hurricane Allen in 1980, got more than a double whammy from Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Many of the banana farmers felt that it did not make sense to continue. Banana trees are easily felled by breeze and it is almost impossible to tie thousands of banana trees to firm objects so that they will not fall in the slightest breeze, let alone a strong hurricane.

The last nail in the coffin of the banana export industry was the advent of refrigerated boats. The shippers no longer needed Jamaican bananas as Jamaica, being closer to England than Central or South America, no longer had the same significance. Boats without refrigeration needed crops that were closer to the point of sale so that the produce would not be rotten by the time they arrived.

But to be fair to the shipping industry, it really could not wait until Jamaica got its banana industry act right again, even if caused by natural disasters, while their points of sale were waiting on the produce. This, in my opinion, is the real reason for the fall of the banana industry, not because Britain removed preferential options. I am not convinced of that when I look at other facts of history.

Jamaica's banana industry began with the decline of sugar after the full emancipation of slavery in 1838. By 1846 a deputation from the sugar barons of Jamaica in England asked Britain to accept a higher price for sugar in the wake of rising costs due to employees' wages rather than the free service of slavery. This met with resistance from England. They simply took sugar from Cuba, where slavery still existed, which meant a lower price for sugar.

Indentured labourers from India and China did not significantly improve production of sugar, so many estate owners turned to bananas while continuing their sugar production on a lesser scale. So Jamaica was not seen by England as an adult son or daughter that could turn to their parents in a time of need. Certainly not with respect to sugar in 1846, when Jamaica was still a colony, or in the 1990s regarding bananas when Jamaica had been politically independent for more than 30 years.

The loss of the banana industry was certainly one factor in the decline of Jamaica's railway service. Much of the banana for export was transported by train to sea ports, especially in St Mary and Portland. Banana exports stopped and this contributed to the non-viability of trains.

There are perhaps only two ways in which a thriving banana industry can return to Jamaica. First, Jamaicans could buy shares in the refrigerated boats and oblige them to buy Jamaica's bananas. Second, with the opening up of the Panama Canal and many boats expected to call at Jamaica's ports, farmers could sell millions of bunches of bananas to them.

Two years after Hurricane Charlie in 1951, the Roman Catholic Church dedicated Jamaica to the Glorious Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1953. Since 1969, hundreds of Roman Catholics make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Morant Bay in August each year to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to plead to Almighty God for protection from natural disasters.

In 1988 the pilgrimage was cancelled due to repairs of the church building in Morant Bay. Some Roman Catholics believe that the passage of Hurricane Gilbert was a consequence of cancelling the pilgrimage that year, but that is not the official position of the church, nor is that a part of Roman Catholic doctrine.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or ekrubm765@yahoo.com.

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