Remembering Hurricane Luis

Recently, a young man was overheard saying that Hurricane Luis which passed this way in 1995 did nothing to Antigua.

Several reasons came to mind for such a pronouncement. He and his family came through the storm unscathed; he slept through the entire experience, or he was not in the island at the time.

The rest of us who remember Hurricane Luis and the devastation it caused on our island, the economy and our psyche know that the sentiments expressed by this young man has no relationship whatever with the truth.

In early September, Luis a category three hurricane, sat on Antigua & Barbuda and whistled for about two days as it wreaked havoc on the country.

The physical damage was horrendous. Thousands of houses lost their roofs with the resultant loss of furniture and other household items that would have been soaked as a result of the storm. BBC reported that some 75 per cent of homes suffered some kind of damage setting back development more than 10 years.

Months later, and years for some, it was customary to see blue tarpaulin on roofs dotting the landscape, as homeowners sought to acquire funds for repairs.

Those more fortunate might have lost some roof tiles, sheets of galvanize or a verandah, but the majority of houses suffered some kind of leak, forcing residents to spend days mopping up water. The situation was worse for those in low-lying areas who had to contend with mud, muck and slush from dirty, contaminated water.

Thousands of trees were uprooted and blocking roadways. Trees that had taken hundreds of years to mature, young ones and those in-between fell to the ground. Those that remained standing looked brown and bare as if woodcutters had taken chain saws to them and rid them of all their bark.

They resembled what we imagine trees would look like during autumn in countries in the temperate zone.

Before Luis passed, the steeples of St John’s Cathedral were barely visible from the highest point in Golden Grove, but with the destruction of the majority of those huge trees that were part of the landscape they could now be seen.

We cannot forget the severity of beach erosion that took place. The sea claimed the asphalt road at Fort James and dumped bales of sand to the eastern section, forever changing its shoreline.

Darkwood is another beach that was seriously affected by Luis and all of the subsequent hurricanes.

Luis’ impact on the economy was also devastating. Third World Network reported that Antigua & Barbuda saw losses of 4,000 to 7,000 jobs, an estimated 15 to 25 per cent of the workforce.

Thousands among the citizenry had never experienced a hurricane before and looked forward to the storm with apprehension and excitement despite the serious warnings by the meteorologists headed by Philbert Mason, whose name, for some of us, is forever linked with this storm.

But Luis took so long to leave that the one thought that occupied our minds was “when is this going to stop?” Many did not or could not sleep; some slept through the night, while others snatched a nap here and there as they monitored the leaks.

During the daylight hours as Luis continued to pound us, among the things we could see flying were galvanise sheets, roof tiles, water tanks, even garbage bins.

The physical and economic damage was devastating but the psychological impact was worse. It left persons emotionally drained and tramautised.

You would have thought that having passed through Luis that one would have grown accustomed to hurricanes but because of the devastation and trauma you will hear many, especially the more mature among us passionately comment, “I never want to go through that experience again.”

Because of the number of hurricanes that followed Luis in the 1990s, including Marilyn and Lenny, many became hurricane fatigued. They display a don’t-care attitude as if to say, “what will be; will be” and refuse to make any preparations.

But Luis’ effect was not all negative. There was more stringent adherence to obeying the building code among contractors and the construction of outside shutters once again became the norm.

Additionally, the island received assistance from the military forces from Caricom territories to restore electricity, water and telephone services. In some cases this took at least three months.

For some families, it provided an opportunity for bonding as they returned to some of the traditional table games like Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, dominoes, draughts etc that had been gathering dust in their closets and on bookshelves.

For many of us Luis is the yardstick that we use to measure all other hurricanes that pass our way.

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