On September 12, 1988, Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica as a Category 3 storm. About 45 people died. At the time, Gilbert was the most severe hurricane to hit Jamaica since Hurricane Charlie in 1951. The storm caused $4 billion (1988 USD) in damage. Gilbert remained the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history until 2005 when Hurricane Wilma hit the region. Gilbert ravaged the area as a Category 5 storm that caused widespread damage in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Gilbert was the tenth named storm and the third hurricane of the 1988 season. It began as a tropical storm on September 8 off Barbados and reached hurricane status by the 10th.
As it moved toward Jamaica, it first passed Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. It hit Jamaica about nine in the morning of the 12th and pounded the island for hours with intense rains and winds reaching 140 miles per hour. Over a total of nine days, Gilbert was the cause of more than 400 dead and damage estimated at $4 billion in 1988 US currency. Jamaica’s damage represented 38 percent of the total and 50 of the total number of fatalities. Edward Seaga, the Prime Minister of Jamaica at the time, described the storms hardest hit areas as looking “like Hiroshima after the atom bomb.” The hurricane devastated Jamaica’s crops, homes and other buildings, aircraft and roads.
In Kingston and other parts of the country, Hurricane Gilbert brought down power lines, uprooted trees, and sent roofs flying. Some dwellings were unable to withstand the force of the storm and were flattened. Over 100,000 homes were damaged, and the island’s banana crop for the season was totally destroyed. The poultry industry also suffered extensive damage and was nearly wiped out. Hundreds of miles of roads suffered significant damage, and remote parts of the island suffered losses of some 80 percent of homes, many of which lost their roofs.
The night before Gilbert made landfall in Jamaica, several individuals in Kingston continued to party in the city, ignoring warnings about the coming storm from weatherman Roy Forrester, who had previously been wrong in his predictions. With his correct forecasting of Hurricane Gilbert, however, the veteran weatherman proved his worth as Jamaicans woke up to the punishing storm.
Hurricane Gilbert made landfall in Jamaica as a Category 3 storm and then intensified to Category 5 as it moved over the western part of the island. The storm caused extensive flooding, dumping over 32 inches of rain on the island. More than 90 percent of the public health facilities in Jamaica suffered damage from Gilbert,and about 30 percent of the population – some 800,000 people – had to seek shelter outside their homes.
Recovery took several months, as water, electric power, and telephone services were also significantly damaged. A state of emergency lasting one entire month was declared for St. Thomas, St. Catherine, Kingston, and St. Andrew communities.