Hurricane Season is Upon Us – An American Retiree in Jamaica

It’s that time of the year again! Hurricane season runs from the 1st of June until the 30th of November. Like death and taxes, it is inevitable. These tropical storms vary in number and strength from year to year but they are a sure bet to happen. Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes are easier to predict even though not all forecasts are accurate. In the nine years I’ve lived in Jamaica, I have experienced everything from low pressure disturbances which later became hurricanes to full blown hurricanes.

Disaster Preparedness is a year round function of the local government. All the media are involved in getting the word out to the vast number of citizens and visitors on the island. The intensity of the information reaches its peak prior to the start of the season and continues until the season is over.

“Be Prepared” is the boy scout motto and certainly applies when it comes to hurricanes. As a former boy scout, I have used this motto in countless experiences throughout my life which has saved me in untold circumstances. A piece of advice I got from a Jamaican builder long ago is not to plant trees close to the house that a strong wind could topple onto the house. In my case, the advice came too late as all the trees in my yard were there when I bought the house. The next best thing to do is to keep them cut as low as possible to minimize any damage should the trees fall. It is also easier to pick the fruit from the shorter trees.

The first hurricane to hit Jamaica after I arrived was Ivan in 2004. As it drew closer my preparedness mode turned into high gear. All the tree trimming and securing of loose items in the yard had been completed days before. Now it was time to concentrate on my needs should I be without public services for a prolonged period of time. I had read with great interest the effects of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 which traveled directly over the island from one end to the other causing massive damage in its wake.

Water is my biggest worry even though I have a 2000 gallon reserve tank on which to draw. Still, I wasn’t sure that would be enough considering the amount of water needed to flush toilets. I had acquired five 5 gallon buckets with covers over my first few years which proved to be very important. At the bottom of our community is a large river. Armed with my buckets, I headed to the river to get my toilet water. This proved not to be an easy task as the river bank was steep and the water was running quite fast. Because of all the trouble it took, it was decided that flushing would be “as needed” instead of every time.

Food was the next priority. I have always kept the pantry well stocked with canned goods such as meats and vegetables not to mention boxed milk. What is boxed milk you say? The majority of milk sold in Jamaica is in 1 liter boxes which have an unopened shelf life of up to nine months. Once it is opened it will last up to five days in the box or even longer if stored in a glass jar.

That took care of the non perishables but what about all the food in the refrigerator. That is where my 72 quart cooler plus a smaller one came into play. I was confident all the food would fit in them but how to keep them cold could have been a challenge except that I had saved a number of one pound margarine containers. Each container made one large and slow melting block of ice. That would be enough for a few days but then what? By that time I figured the main roads would be cleared enough to make the 5 mile trek to the ice company in downtown Montego Bay.

Cooking was done by gas with only electricity being missing. Hot water wasn’t a problem because of my solar panel. We had two radios at our disposal, one battery operated boom box and the other in the car which was safely parked in the attached garage.

At last all my preparations were complete. Nothing else to do but wait the arrival of Ivan. And arrive he did! The winds blew and the rains came down in torrents. When the sky finally cleared we had lost electricity, which was actually shut off by the government prior to the start of the storm. The only problem we had in the house was some water downstairs which wasn’t a major concern as there aren’t any thresholds to keep the water in the house, although cleanup was more than a normal floor washing. However, the yard was a mess! All of my 2 dozen or so banana trees were down and one of the coconut trees was, and still is, at a 45 degree angle. But the biggest loss was the breadfruit tree. It actually came down and brushed against the house but didn’t cause any damage. There should have been major damage but the tree had two branches with bends in them like elbows that resembled a boxer in a defensive position. When this very large tree that was too close to the house came down, the elbows of the branches hit first preventing the tree from crashing through the roof. 

Once Ivan had moved on, all that was left to do was clean up the trees and brush and put them out for the special pick up. This came less than a week later complete with a front end loader. Power was out for 4 days which meant I did have to make the trip to the ice company. Another trip was made to the river but power was restored before I had to use any of the newly required water.

The hardest part to overcome was waiting every night on the veranda watching all the surrounding communities get their electricity restored while we sat in darkness. The view I have from that vantage point encompasses two other mountain ranges which is home to a half dozen or so communities. And of course our community was the last to be reconnected.

In analyzing the impact that Ivan had on my life, it was very minimal particularly compared to thousands of other families across the island. My experience was similar to a camping expedition in the wild but with modern conveniences. The thing I missed the most was not having a fan cooling me off when the normal ocean breeze wasn’t there.

The next largest storm was Hurricane Dean in 2007. I went through all the preparations I had made before, fearing worse destruction than we had from Ivan. But the expectations of the weather forecasters was very much diminished. I did lose all of my bananas again but, other than a few small branches scattered around the yard, the storm was quite mild in comparison. That is with the one exception of the electricity being out two days longer than it was with Ivan. But thanks to my ice and that from the ice company I lost only a couple pieces of chicken.

The last storm of any size was Tropical Storm Nicole which later developed into a major hurricane in October, 2010, after it left Jamaica, about the same time as my Wedding Anniversary. Each year we celebrate this happy event at a Sandals resort and that year was no exception. My wife and I spent the entire duration of the storm on the south coast of Jamaica under the expert care of the Sandals Whitehouse staff. Although it rained almost continually, that was the only damper on our special time together. We were grateful that with all the flooding, tree damage, and beach erosion on the property, our anniversary was quite memorable. We were also lucky that the branch of the tree in front of our car fell in the adjoining parking space as noted in the picture.

Our travel back to Montego Bay was anything but normal. Because of the heavy rains associated with the storm, the main road we had to travel once we left the hotel was flooded. One of the managers gracefully volunteered to guide us around the flooding through back roads that otherwise would have left us totally lost. Shortly after that we encountered a detour caused by a rockslide. What an experience this turned out to be! Our only course of action was to follow the cars in front of us and hope they knew where they were going and that they weren’t going to turn off in another direction leaving us stranded. From the time we left the main road the size and condition of the detoured road eroded drastically. What started out as a two lane paved road later became something an off road vehicle would have trouble traversing. One section was nothing but a single lane dirt trail with deep ruts running through foot high grass. As this was the detour for traffic heading in each direction, there was a lot of backing up to areas which would allow passage of vehicles in the opposite direction. It took as long to travel these few miles as it would normally to go from the hotel to our home.

When we arrived home, we found our normal water downstairs but no other damage. We later learned from neighbors that power had been out for 4 days. And because we weren’t home to access the refrigerator we did not lose any food. We were very thankful that we were able to spend the time at Sandals in comfort rather than at our home. 

Hurricanes can be very destructive and disrupting but with the proper preparations and cautions this can be kept to a minimum. So whether you live in Jamaica or any area that can be affected by hurricanes, be prepared. Later….