WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION by Colville L. Petty (First published in The Anguillian newspaper on 24th September 2004.)

By anguillian October 9, 2017 11:39


These days all the talk is about hurricanes so called, it has been said, after an Arawakan word for “big wind” or “evil spirit”. This season these big winds have been coming off the Atlantic coast of West Africa like bullets out of a machine gun. Rapidly and with deadly force. Praise God, Anguilla has been spared, over the last five years, of their onslaught. It is as if we deserve a break.

We have suffered much from hurricanes throughout the ages. The extent of the damage caused is not fully documented but our history tells us that in 1822 a hurricane devastated the island and drought and famine followed – and that a hurricane in 1837 caused serious damage to housing. Serious damage was also caused to housing by a hurricane in 1898.

With respect to the 20th century, one of the earliest hurricanes to strike Anguilla passed over the island on 16th September 1922. Several houses were destroyed and some £50 was spent on relief work. Two years later, in late August 1924, Anguilla was spared the full fury of a hurricane affecting the neighbouring islands. But there was considerable flooding and schools were closed for two days. Although there was no direct hit, our people were left to mourn the loss of nine of their fellowmen who perished when two of their boats, the Edith Amy (owned by Jeffrey Fleming), and the Cedar Branch, sank in the Basseterre harbour in St Kitts when the hurricane struck that island.

Our people were in mourning again in mid-September 1928, when one of their vessels, the Speed, on its way to Anguilla from St Kitts, was lost in a hurricane. All on board, including the captain, Robert Carter, and three brothers, Francis Gumbs, Geoffrey Gumbs and Toaly Gumbs (all from Rey Hill), perished. Like the 1924 hurricane, Anguilla got no direct hit but there was some flooding which resulted in the loss of food crops and livestock.

After the 1920s, Anguilla seemed to have had a reprieve from hurricanes. The reprieve ended on 31st August 1950 when the island was pounded heavily by 120 mph winds from Hurricane Dog. (Incidentally, 1950 was the first time that tropical storms and hurricanes were given names. “The first names were selected from the World War II phonetic alphabet consisting of Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog . . . ” (http://books.google.com.ai/books). Hurricanes were given female names in 1953 and since 1979 male and female names have been used alternately.)

Hurricane Dog gave Anguilla a real mauling. It destroyed or severely damaged 411 houses out of a total of 1,185. Several of them were of the wattle and daub type (with roofs made of thatch). At West End the Methodist Chapel, which was also used as the primary school for children of that area, was destroyed. Dog also destroyed the island’s shipping fleet and caused considerable loss of food crops and livestock.

With assistance from the British Government, the Government in St Kitts provided Anguilla with 55 new one-room wooden houses, each measuring 9 ft by 13 ft, for the poorer families. The houses were most inadequate. For example, “there was an elderly man who lived with his twelve children in one” of them. Some people were provided with complete roof units which were pre-fabricated at the Public Works Department and then erected on site by its workmen. The roof units included uprights but the owners had to find wattle for the sides and wood for the doors and windows.

There was no assistance for persons who had lost their boats so John Connor resorted to writing directly to the House of Commons in London (14th December 1951) for help, but without success.

Before Anguilla had fully recovered from Hurricane Dog, and while its people were still rebuilding, it was struck by Hurricane Alice, during the morning of Sunday 2nd January 1955. There was something unusual about Alice, a category 1 hurricane. It developed around 31st December 1954, just east of the Lesser Antilles, and was the latest Atlantic hurricane in any year. A hurricane at that time of year was unheard of. It was contrary to a popular hurricane rhyme which went like:
June too soon
July standby
August come it must
September remember
October all over.

Because Alice came in January it caught our people completely off guard. There was not the slightest warning. It struck while most of them were in church. While they were singing, How Great Thou Art and When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, their homes were battered by the winds of Alice. About 626 houses were either damaged or destroyed. Nine Government buildings, including the one at Crocus Hill which housed the Court House, Prison, Post Office and Treasury, were destroyed or badly damaged. Some 50% of the peas crop and 20% of the corn crop were wiped out. Damage to shipping was extensive. The boat owners had no time to secure their vessels. Many of them, including the Excelsior Hodge, Betsy R, Rose Millicent, Bells of St. Mary, Lilly Belle, Fessidore, Advent Herald, Linda Lake and the Eudora Edwards, were either lost or badly damaged.

Alice (1955) came five years after Dog (1950), and five years after Alice came the fearsome Hurricane Donna, on Sunday 4th September 1960, with 125 mph winds. It swept across Anguilla leaving much damage, distress and bereavement in its wake. Four persons were killed instantly: George Carty, Margaret Hodge and Elizabeth St John and her two-year-old granddaughter, Lilian Fleming. A fifth person died later in St Kitts as a result of injuries sustained. A total of 250 persons received minor injuries. Some 500 houses were destroyed and over 1,000 people were left homeless. Donna wiped out the island’s entire merchant fleet comprising some 14 schooners (including the Rose Millicent, loaded with sugar) and sloops. Only the Ilva Primrose at Road Bay and the Betsy R at Forest Bay remained afloat. At Sandy Hill, the Linda was smashed to pieces.

I recall very vividly the night of the hurricane: I was dressed in a long frock and slept on some old clothes on the floor of Ta Margaret’s house in Mount Fortune. Because the house was built on concrete pillars, and had a wooden floor, I felt every gust of wind that came through the crevices between the floorboards. Every time there was a gust the sheet, covering the old clothes on which I slept, flew up around my body and then fell down until another gust came along.

Hurricane Donna was a very bitter experience for the Anguillian people who had to rely heavily on relief supplies of food, clothing and medicine from overseas for several weeks. The central government in St Kitts sent supplies on the MV Rippon. And we also got some help from Trinidad which sent one of its coastguard vessels, the Sea Hawk, to assist us. Eventually several one-room relief houses were built for the poor. Anguilla took several years to recover from the destruction caused by Donna.

It was after Donna that there was a revolution in building technology in Anguilla. Many of the wooden houses (covered with shingles or galvanise) were replaced with concrete houses. The gable end and tray roofs were replaced with flat roofs of concrete. Not aesthetically pleasing, but strong.

The new houses were put to their first test on 3rd September 1979 when Frederic, a category 1 hurricane, passed over the island causing minimal damage to housing but considerable loss of food crops and livestock. Some 800 to 1,000 animals were destroyed.

Five years later, on 8th November 1984, Hurricane Klaus passed some distance west of Anguilla but its strong winds, and the resultant storm surge, caused extensive damage to the island’s merchant fleet at Road Bay and Blowing Point. At Road Bay, the largest of the vessels, the MV Sarah, sank in the middle harbour, while the legendary MV Warspite was swept ashore and laid to rest near the old wooden jetty. Several smaller boats were beached at both of the aforementioned ports. The cost of the destruction caused by Klaus, mainly to shipping and the fishing industry, was estimated at EC$2.1 million.
Both Klaus and Frederic were relatively minor hurricanes. As a matter of fact since Donna, in 1960, Anguilla was spared the wrath of any major hurricane for thirty-five years. The calm ended on 5th September 1995 when Hurricane Luis, with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph, gave it a most vicious battering. To quote from Delphine Richardson’s poem Hurricane Luis:

. . . Outside I could hear the angry waves
Crashing against the battered shore . . .
And in the morn when he was gone
Our land was a mere rubble
Stubble . . .

Damage to homes and other buildings was extensive. So too was the damage to livestock, plant life and shipping. All of the boats in Road Bay, except one, were washed ashore. Public utilities were severely disrupted. Actually, the island was without electricity for several months. Luis was one of the worst hurricane in Anguilla’s recorded history. Estimates of damage were put at EC$149.3 million.

The latter half of the 1990s saw an upsurge in hurricane activity affecting Anguilla. A few days after Luis, Anguilla was brushed by Hurricane Marilyn, on 18th September 1995, as it made its way to the Virgin Islands where it caused much havoc. All we got was one day of heavy rain. Then on 8th July 1996, as we continued our rebuilding following Luis, Anguilla was lashed by 80 mph winds from Hurricane Bertha which passed over the island.

Damage from Bertha was minimal. Damage was also minimal, except for some beach erosion, when Hurricane Erika (winds 85 mph) passed north of us on 6th September 1997, and when Hurricane Georges (winds 110 mph) passed to the south on 21st September 1998.

The 1990s had plenty more in store for us. On 20th October 1999, Hurricane Jose (with 100 mph winds) walked over us causing substantial flooding. As if that was not enough, up came Lenny on 18th November 1999. It flooded bottoms (low-lying areas) in The Valley, Welches, East End, Mount Fortune and elsewhere like crazy. The flooding was the worst in the island’s recorded history. In East End, some of the houses, bordering the pond near its main road, were almost covered by floodwaters that took about eight weeks to go away. Elsewhere people had to flee their homes and seek refuge. With wind gusts of more than 100 mph, Lenny had settled over Anguilla and wreaked havoc all across the island. Beach erosion was extensive and our tourism infrastructure was extensively damaged.

Less than a year later, on 2nd August 2000, another hurricane, Debby, struck our island with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph but caused little damage. Sometimes we are lucky. And sometimes we are not lucky.

It is clear from the foregoing brief history of hurricanes, which have affected us over the centuries, that hurricanes mean death and destruction. They are essentially weapons of mass destruction. My fear of them heightened in the aftermath of Lenny. I recall seeing Sandy Ground cut in two and our beaches badly brutalised. I also recall seeing some of our hotels, especially those located on strips of land between pond and sea, almost surrounded by sea – almost cut off from the rest of the island. And I fear that in time to come hurricanes will go with most of them.

Hurricanes are weapons of mass destruction. They cause greatest damage where we are weakest: on our beaches on which our economy sits. Estimates of direct and indirect damage caused by Lenny were in the region of EC$177.8 milllion. Of that amount some $135 million was in respect of the tourism sector. If we are to continue to have an economy – if we are to continue to feed ourselves – then we have to give urgent attention to the implementation of programmes and measures to protect our beaches and also coral reefs. Actually, our reefs are our first line of defence against hurricanes. They provide natural barriers that protect our beaches and coastline. They are natural underwater walls or breakwaters.

It was the absence of reefs across several of our beaches, and the nudity of our beaches themselves, that have opened them up to the kind of destruction caused by Lenny. In this regard, we are not without blame. We have been the architects of our own destruction. A lot of the damage caused by Lenny was precipitated by us – was of our own-making. We have being destroying our beaches, and coastal areas, through the indiscriminate mining of sand and removal of sand dunes. Our planning with respect to the utilisation and protection of our beach resources has been dreadfully flawed over many years.

Right now we are hearing that Hurricane Ivan has left Grenada without an economy. We should take warning because we could suffer similar fate if a category 4 or 5 hurricane was to strike us. Our economy, as I have just mentioned, is located on our beaches and when the beaches go our economy goes. And the beaches are in danger of disappearing if we continue to ignore their degradation and that of our coral reefs.

We need, therefore, to give real serious attention to the rebuilding of our natural environment inclusive of a reforestation programme; a programme for the revival and protection of our beaches; and a programme for the building, restoration and maintenance of our coral reefs. Anguilla’s survival, and that of its people, depends on the sustainability of such programmes. They are critical to our defence against weapons of mass destruction.

By anguillian October 9, 2017 11:39


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