St Lucia: Hurricane Allen, 1980
Many of us have followed the recent news of hurricanes as they have wrought havoc and destruction across the Atlantic. Watching the footage brought back memories of my experience of Hurricane Allen in 1980, to date the most powerful hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Basin.
It was the beginning of August 1980 when the plane took off from San Juan, Puerto Rico and my parents and I were en route to St Lucia on the final leg of our holiday.
I remembered our last visit to St Lucia, where my cousin lived, and I was looking forward to the sandy beaches, gently rolling waves of the Caribbean and perhaps another trip on the Rum Runner. But then the captain announced that the hurricane we had been told about was growing in intensity and speed and had altered course for St Lucia; we were to get on the ground as soon as possible and would be taken to shelter at a nearby hotel.
We landed at Vieux Fort and were immediately bundled into buses to take us to the Coconut Bay Beach Resort, which was close to the airport. The three of us were checked into a room on an upper floor, probably the only time I wished I didnít have a sea view.
I took a wander down to the terrace and was surprised at how different the sea was compared to our last visit. The waves were very high and crashing onto the beach; the beach was unapproachable and I decided boogie-boarding was not on the menu. I found staff throwing chairs, loungers and umbrellas into the swimming pools, which puzzled me; they explained that this was to prevent them being turned into dangerous missiles by the high winds.
I returned to our room and joined my parents in waiting for the onslaught to begin. Our windows and curtains had been taped and boarded up to help protect us from the high winds which were now building. We all got comfortable waiting for the oncoming storm, not knowing what to expect. As the wind noise picked up my father drifted off to sleep, while my mother and I sat wide-eyed and not a little scared.
I donít know how long we sat there, but the intensity of the wind was incredible and just kept growing, sounding like a jet engine. We could hear loud crashing and banging sounds as objects were hurled about with great force.
And then there was calm - the eye of the storm was directly over us. My mother and I peeled back the tape holding the curtains and peered through a crack in the shutters. It was eerily quiet, except for the crashing of the high waves. The sea had reached the ground floor below us and there was debris everywhere. My father woke up and we told him what had been happening and how scary it was. He suggested we go to sleep, which he promptly did, but my mother and I were in no state to sleep.
The wind began to pick up and before long we had much of the same, but this time the wind came from the opposite direction. Having a better idea of what to expect we peeked out through the shutters again Ė the sea was raging and thick with white foam; the palm trees were bent double, while some were snapped in half. Debris was flying past, but too quickly to identify; it was difficult to see clearly as everything was a blur as the rain and sea spray blew horizontally past the window.
We heard a loud crack of braking glass nearby and hurriedly taped the curtain and returned to sitting huddled on the bed (discretion is the better part of valour!).
There was a whipping/cracking outside which we deduced was a torn power cable slapping at the outside wall. I wondered if the sea next to our room would be electrified. This time there were incredibly loud crashes and bangs which we later found out were cars being shunted around.
After what seemed an eternity the storm began to abate and there were the first glimmers of light. We waited until it seemed much calmer, and my father had woken up, we then tentatively left the room to explore.
The ground floor was under water but were were able to wade through, along the other shell-shocked residents. The punkahs (ceiling fans) had either been ripped out or the few remaining blades were twisted and bent. Some of the windows were broken and the furniture inside was strewn everywhere in various states of destruction.
The next couple of days settled into a routine of guests taking it in turn to cook up meals and we would queue for our portion, reminiscent of a soup kitchen (while others took turn to clean up afterwards). We had to wash our clothes at night in the sink and put them on, damp (too much humidity in the air) again the next day as our luggage was a distant memory.
Once the sea had calmed down more I ventured along the beach. I came across the concrete beach shower block which had been lifted and thrown a good fifty yards; I could only imagine the power of the wind to achieve this (I later found out that Hurricane Allen was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded with sustained 190 miles per hour winds).
I was interested in the many fish that littered the beach; there were many recognisable types, such as barracuda, Dorado and tuna, but I was particularly intrigued by the very strange fish that had obviously been ripped up from deep waters. There were pink fish and some with big eyes, certainly not very appetising; the beach was littered with debris everywhere, bits of trees, roof sheets and a jumble of timber. I went to the back of the hotel and could see the cars than had been shunted and rolled around; this was the loud noises we had heard during the night.
After a few days it was considered safe to venture further and we were taken out for a ride in a jeep to investigate the Vieux Fort. Nothing I had seen at the hotel had prepared me for the utter devastation. In places the only clue to there having been a building were the foundations, just visible through the debris, the buildings and contents were all gone. We were able to weave our way through some of the streets as people were busily trying to clear a path. It was puzzling to see some buildings still standing, though severely damaged, while the neighbouring ones had completely disappeared. There were people picking through the rubble and I could only imagine what they had been through; I realised how lucky we were to have been in the relative safety of the sturdily built hotel.
Finally the day came when were were able to get a lift to our intended destination near Castries at the northern end of the island.
On the journey we were continually weaving around fallen trees and other obstacles, although it was obvious that great efforts had been made to clear a safe path. On that drive I have a clear picture in my mind of a telephone pole balanced on top of a tree where it had been blown; for some reason that incongruous picture has always stayed in my mind. However, the over-riding image of that time was of the banana plantations, which had been flattened. Mile after mile we saw entire crops which had been completely decimated. My uncle, who we were visiting, was posted in St Lucia with the Commonwealth Development Corporation to help with agriculture and I presumed he would have a very difficult time ahead.
We finally reached my cousinís house, perched on a hillside and overlooking La Toc beach and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had not suffered as much damage as I would have expected. At least my cousin was a similar size to me and I would be able to borrow some clothes.
When we went into Castries it was obvious that it had suffered similarly to Vieux Fort, but by this time the residents had made good inroads to clearing the roads and public spaces. We even found a street market where we were able to buy some basic clothing, toothbrushes, etc.
We were reunited with our luggage just in time for our departure.
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