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close this bookDisaster Reports Number 5: Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica, September, 1988 (PAHO-OPS, 1988, 42 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPrologue
View the documentBackground
View the documentThe hurricane and its effects
View the documentThe surveillance system
View the documentRelief shelters
View the documentPreparedness and response
View the documentLessons learned
View the documentAppendix 1
View the documentAppendix 2
View the documentReferences

The hurricane and its effects

At 5.00 a.m. (EST) on Friday September 9, the National Meteorological Service issued the first level of warning, the Hurricane Alert. The Warning was issued on Sunday, September 11 at 3.00 p.m. Collymore [1988] argues that, given the fact that the majority of the island's population had never experienced a major hurricane and the severity of the threat, there was undue conservatism and caution in the nature of the forecasts. The time between the issuing of the Warning and the impact was inadequate for preparation in view of the fact that only three hours of daylight remained. Many felt that preparations could be suspended until the following morning, but work was impossible since storm force winds extended 200 miles in all directions from Gilbert's colossal eye.

The storm made its first landfall on the east coast of Jamaica at 10.00 a.m. on Monday, September 12. As it began its passage over the island the eye measured about 15 miles across. Wind speeds averaging 75 mph gusting to 127 mph, were recorded in the Kingston Metropolitan Area. As the eye exited western Jamaica at 6 p.m., it intensified further (888mb) and was identified as a Category 5 Hurricane, the most severe.

Jamaica's last experience of a direct hit by a hurricane was in 1951—Hurricane Charlie. Hurricane Gilbert differed from Charlie in several respects. Unlike Charlie, Gilbert, in its eight hour rampage, traversed the entire length of the country. Fig. 2 shows the path of the eye across the island. The eye passed over the Kingston Metropolitan Area around noon. Moreover, Gilbert was the largest cyclonic system ever observed in the western hemisphere [Eyre, 1989]. It was also one of the wettest synoptic systems experienced although, fortunately for Jamaica, most of the precipitation generated fell on the sea [Eyre, 1989]. Between 200 and 250 mm of precipitation fell on September 12 and this reached more than 400 mm in central areas. Most of the rain, however, fell between 1.00 p.m. and 7.00 p.m. (EST) after trees had been defoliated and uprooted and so surface wash and soil erosion were widespread [Barker and Miller, 1989].

Figure 2. The track of the eye of Hurricane Gilbert.

The impact of Hurricane Gilbert was devastating on all sectors of the society and the economy. Damage was estimated at US$4 billion, with the damage to agriculture accounting for over 40 percent of this total. Ninety five percent of all health facilities suffered damage. Of the 25 public hospitals only two escaped with minimal damage. Two were destroyed and eleven suffered severe damage. There are 377 Health Centers in the island and more than half of these (55 percent) were severely damaged. The cost of emergency repairs was estimated at US$13 million with roughly 55 percent of this representing the cost of repairs to secondary care facilities. As Fig. 3 shows, the parishes of Kingston/St. Andrew and Hanover sustained the heaviest damage to health facilities.

Figure 3. Cost of repairs to health facilities.

The storage and distribution of domestic water are managed by the National Water Commission. The hurricane damaged over 50 percent of these facilities to a degree which varied from minor to complete destruction. Pipelines, storage tanks, pump and chlorinator houses were all affected. There were instances in which rivers changed their courses, threatening supplies and facilities. The Kingston Metropolitan Area is supplied with water from four water treatment plants and one spring. Only one of the treatment plants-Mona-was fully operational after the storm. This plant, described as the best equipped surface treatment plant in the island [Barrett, 1989], was able to generate its own electricity and supply over 30 percent of the water demand of the city. For the other plants the problems of high turbidity, poor filtration and the lack of stand-by generators in the face of the total loss of power supplies were particularly urgent in view of the fact one, the Hope Treatment Plant, supplied water to the University Hospital.

Although the Ministry of Social Security was responsible for distributing relief supplies, this task, initially, was taken over by the Office of Disaster Preparedness (ODP). Before relief supplies arrived in the island, the ODP had made purchase agreements with several large distributors in the island for the purchase of food for the parishes [Carby, 1989]. The largest of the distributors, however, was looted and supplies drastically cut. Attempts were then made to distribute incoming supplies directly from the support. However, distribution of relief supplies was soon taken out of the hands of the ODP.

The responsibility for distribution was taken over by the Prime Minister's Office and, eventually, by an interdenominational group Project Accord-which was funded by international and local donor agencies. This was seen as one means of avoiding charges of political interference in the distribution of relief supplies. The ODP paid for and organized the clearance of goods from the wharves and airport and the expenses of distribution were borne by Project Accord [Bent, 1989, Carby, 1989].

In addition, supplies received by the government were controlled by the Jamaica Commodity Trading Company. The supplies—food and building—were sold to the distributive sectors. Those in need were issued with food and building stamps with which to purchase the donated items. Much time was spent in implementing these procedures and crucial supplies remained on the wharves, incurring storage fees and plagued by theft [Bent, 1989].

The response from the international community was immediate and large quantities of supplies flooded the country. Daily meetings were coordinated by the UNDP in an effort to coordinate donor response and the needs of the country. This achieved some measure of success [Bullock DuCasse, 1989]. However, it was felt that pre-arranged needs lists would have speeded up the process of acquiring necessary supplies [Bullock DuCasse, 1989].

Moreover, the major part of the relief effort centered around the transportation of goods. The cost of mobilizing distribution was, at times, greater than the value of the goods [Bent, 1989]. A great deal of time was also spent in clearing, documenting and sorting goods. There was a shortage of warehousing facilities in urban areas and a lack in rural areas. Some of the goods sent were inappropriate. There were problems with drugs which required refrigeration. The Project Manager of Operation Accord was of the opinion that it would have been easier to handle cash donations than goods.