Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How I Survived Hurricane Gilbert, September 12th, 1988

My first real hurricane was Gilbert, before that my sister and I would complain that the weather service was bogus, each time a hurricane was coming and everyone prepared, it almost always managed to miss us in the end. Part of us wanted to experience a hurricane and older people would tell us to stop saying stupid things and be careful what you wish for, yes we experienced loads of bad weather, near misses and close shaves but never a direct hurricane, one for the history books.

I had no idea hurricane Gilbert was coming or even existed because I was having way too much fun and the day before Gilbert was predicted to arrive. I was at home nursing a hangover, I had no clue until about 12 noon on September 11th when I woke up. I heard the weather report on the radio but quickly dismissed it as bogus weather report. The joke at the time was if the weatherman said it was going to rain prepare for sunshine and head to the beach.

Later that day I had an early dinner/lunch and went outside to sit on my verandah with the Sunday paper, aka scandal news. I looked around the neighborhood and everyone was acting strange for a lazy Sunday afternoon, normally you could hear a pin drop. I looked up and out and saw a straight line of airplanes taking off from Norman Manley Airport, I said to myself ...“very strange, they never normally do that”, then later the phone rang. It was my relatives in New York and they were losing their minds, worried sick about the impending doom. It seems we were about to meet our maker, I tried to calm them down but they were not having any of it and was told to stock up and prepare. It was then that I decided to head down to the supermarket in Barbican but by the time I got there the shelves were mostly empty and everyone was running around like the zombie apocalypse was upon us.

On the morning of September 12th I got up to go to work, turned the television on and realized that this was it, that Hurricane Gilbert was in a Jamaica state of mind, that Jamaica’s name was written all over this one and so it was time to batten down the mental hatch. It was then that I realized that the saying “calm before the storm” is so real because I heard none of the usual morning noises from nature.

I think it was between 9:00 am to noon when we were in the thick of it, my first real onslaught from mother nature. I remember the sound of the wind, it was extremely loud, rain was hard and fast as it came down by the bucket load. The wind was powerful and dangerous as the front door strained to resist it, it shake and rattled and I seriously though it would not hold out for much longer as I moved a piece of furniture to brace against it. The trees almost stayed constantly at a 45 degree angle as their roots gripped mother earth most were unsuccessful and made loud noises as they broke and/or uprooted. As I looked out the window it was clear that anything that was not battened down was on the move. Flying missiles everywhere, zinc, wood, pieces of metal all moving in the wind like a leaf from a tree. I saw a dog went flying pass my gate heading down the road, the poor animal's legs were not on the ground. I saw several satellite dishes taking off like flying saucers heading back to their home planets and I saw things move that I seriously thought was firmly connected to Terra Ferma and could never move. By this time the power was gone and my grandma was busy cooking all the meat that would spoil.

I am not sure what time the eye of the hurricane got to my house but when it did it was very calm. The first half of the match was over and Gilbert was scoring goals at will. It was now the 15 minutes half time break and everyone went outside to survey the damages. First to our own property and then to the surrounding area. Destruction was everywhere, trees and light post uprooted, electrical cables dangling, some people had lost their roof and had to move in with their neighbours. Everybody was helping everybody, it was Jamaicans at their very best and it made me proud to see everyone asking everyone else if they were OK.

Hurricane Gilbert
Category: 3
Gusting Wind speed: 130 mph
Eye: 40-miles-wide 
People Killed: 45
Storm Surge: 19ft
Rain: 32 inches 
Cost of Total damage: US$4 billion

Then the winds started picking up again and everyone raced home to prepare for the second half of the match as Gilbert was the first out on the field of play, large and in charge. About one hour into the 100+ mile an hour winds and heavy rain, I heard a huge crash on my roof. I thought this was it, my shingled roof was gone and it was time to move over to the other side of the house with a concrete roof but it was the roof next door that came crashing down and ended up partly on my roof and in our yard taking the apple tree with it.

The morning after was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining and there was hardly any cloud in the blue skies. By this time we had no electricity and had none for the next 3 weeks. Most people had no water for about 2 weeks. So we were forced to harvest water whenever it rained and even when water returned, the pressure was very low and the water very dirty so we had to boil it before we use it. We did not have a lot of food, we had to cook everything that would spoil and all the food trees in the yard was uprooted but later stocked up on can food.

During the hurricane the disgusting animals living in Barbican looted the supermarkets with one report stating that the supermarket manager was beaten up by the very people he served daily. He was saved by soldiers on patrol who fired shots over their heads and chased the vermin's back into their hellhole. Strangely enough the supermarket manager had stayed in the supermarket during the hurricane because he wanted to open quickly afterwards so that people would not go hungry and this is how some repaid him, robbed him and beat him.

Jamaica looked like a war zone, total destruction, houses destroyed, streets blocked, fallen trees and light post, dangling wires, trees without leaves and it was hot. Everything that was anything was in the streets, dead animals all over the place but for me the worst thing throughout all of this was a piece of zinc that got caught on the top of a light post. For two and a half weeks I had to listen to this squeaking sound every time the wind blew, morning noon and night, squeak, squeak, squeak. I thought I was losing my mind, going mental from it and was so happy when the JPS men came to remove it and repair the poles. Nine months later and Jamaica was filled with Gilbert babies.

After Gilbert our diet consisted mainly of Corn Beef aka Bully Beef aka Bully Baff it was the order of the day and we had so much of the stuff that we were beginning to smell of it. Our choices was basically limited to tin food, Corn Beef, Mackerel or Sardines and when things returned to normal I made it my duty not to touch the stuff for over a year. I can still remember my first taste of ice cold water after Gilbert, a friend had gotten light back early and we all used her house as the base for all operations. I drank it slowly, savoring the taste because drinking water from a pipe in the middle of the day in Jamaica means you are drinking hot to warm water…

I must say though I had lots of fun the days, weeks and month after Gilbert. For one thing, I did not return to work for about a month, which pissed off the foreign consultants who came back to work one week later, telling us how they had to carry water into to the company toilets to flush them. Every day was hanging out with friends, playing dominoes, drinking hot beer, Running Boat (impromptu/communal cooking) and playing tennis over Blue cross, on hope road. Just having fun and rolling with whatever life throws at us, that is the Jamaican way.

Would I have rather been somewhere else in another country? Hell no! and miss all this...  This is why I love my Jamaica. Our ability to role with the punches and get back up with a smile on our faces, as we greet each other...."how yu do?... man Gilbert lick mi fi 6 but mi still deh yah" light, no problem, no water no problem, no TV, no problem, we shared what little we had and helped each other out any way we could.

Basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items:
  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Mosquito Destroyer ***
  • Coal Stove 
  • Home Sweet Home lamp
  • Kerosene Oil
  • Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities - Multi-purpose tools
  • Manual can opener for food just in case you lose the corn beef tin key (lol)
  • Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger
  • Prescription medications and glasses
  • Infant formula and diapers
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet (unless you intend to eat the pets)
  • Cash or traveler's checks and change
  • Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper – When diluted, nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use it to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color safe or bleaches with added cleaners.
  • Fire extinguisher - In case the lamp turn over
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children


  1. Hello, my name is Chris and I live in Arizona with my wife and son. I came across your post when I was looking for information on Hurricane Gilbert. Weather is a hobby of mine and I while I was a student intern at the National Weather Service in Ruskin, Florida (Tampa Bay Area) I did a lot of research on hurricanes especially Gilbert. I really enjoyed reading about your experience with Gilbert. Your experience with Hurricane Gilbert is the only first hand account I've ever read with this hurricane. I'm glad you made through one of the most powerful hurricanes ever! It's great that you and your neighbors pulled together and took care of each other - God Bless you and take care...

  2. Hi, I was there in Jamaica for Gilbert. It surely was not an experience to be forgotten. As they say. A September to Remember. It's 29th anniversary is coming up!