Monserrat -Oct '89: First impressions

In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated the island of Monserrat in the West Indies. At the time I was living in Victoria, Canada, and working for my good friend John Pickering – a local contractor. John is a member of the Salvation Army and they had asked him to go to Monserrat to head up a relief contingent. He asked if I wanted to go along and, as it sounded like a nice adventure, I went with him

Oct 8/89
West Indies

Hello to Everyone,

Left Victoria 6:30 am Tuesday morning for Vancouver, then on to Toronto—arriving there about 4:30 pm local time. Thought we’d lost one of John’s bags but it was eventually found. The Salvation Army met us at the airport and took us to a training college they have there. Had supper and then met the others—Neil Voce (English—42 yrs); Greg Girrard (from Ontario—26 yrs) and Rob Snellgrove (Toronto—36 yrs). They’re all married, with kids. We had a briefing meeting with a fellow who had been to similar disasters for the Salvation Army and he told us some things to expect. It was then we found out we were going to Montserrat and not St. Kitts as we’d originally been told. Montserrat is about 30—40 miles south of St. Kitts and 38 square miles in area.

The next morning we left Toronto on our way to Miami. We had lots of fun with luggage. John and I had 5 pieces each—including tool boxes that were very heavy. In Miami we had a 3 hour layover. Stepped outside and the heat was stifling--still in our Toronto clothes—but then went back inside and wandered around the air conditioned airport. Left Miami about 2:30 pm and arrived in Antigua about 6 pm—and was it hot! The Salvation Army met us and took us to a hotel in Antigua near the airport, called St. John’s. The hotel had air conditioning, which was a blessing on our first night in the tropics. The restaurant where we ate dinner that night was completely open. It had a roof but no walls or windows. It was quite an experience. While sitting at dinner we saw our first lizard. They have small lizards here—about 6-8 inches long and they crawl all over the walls and eat the bugs. We didn’t see too many of them, so they didn’t bother us.

The next day (Thursday) we went out to the airport and caught a ride on a British air force Hercules plane, loaded to the hilt with cargo and people. We went with 20 plus British electricians who were going to Montserrat to restore electrical power to the island. We had a quick stopover at St. Kitts and then on to our destination. The runway at Montserrat is just long enough for the Herc as long as it’s only 80% loaded—and even then there’s no room for any mistakes or accidents. The captain came and chatted with us at Antigua before takeoff and told us all this. Nice guy! On landing the Hercules stopped itself using reverse thrust on the propellers and then backed itself down the runway to the terminal. We were sitting at the back of the plane and could see all this when they opened the rear cargo door in order to guide the plane backwards. First time I’ve ever been in a plane going in reverse. However, we had landed safely and offloaded our gear. We were met by the Public Works Department (PWD) who were also there to pick up the electricians. We’ve been assigned to the PWD in order to help them according to their needs. The airport is on one side of the island and the town, called Plymouth, is over the mountain, six miles away on the other side. I got to ride on the back of the PWD dump truck that came to carry our baggage. Oh, we were joined by a native fellow, Sidney McKenzie, a captain in the Salvation Army stationed in St. Vincent. He’s originally from Jamaica and came to help us get settled in, etc. The trip over the mountain was quite a ride. The roads are in good condition but narrow and very winding.

It was astonishing to see the devastation everywhere. The force of Hurricane Hugo’s winds were 150-180 m.p.h. and had stripped every last piece of vegetation off the land. The mountains looked like hills with shredded matchsticks stuck in the ground. 90% of the island was hit. The houses are mostly demolished, though a few still stand. I cannot even begin to describe the force that must have been involved. I saw concrete walls blown over and roofs ripped off. The entire Jehovah’s Witness’s church was sheared off at the foundation level and there was not a stick of it left standing, just a concrete foundation 3 feet in the air. (quick editorial side note: about a year later, when I was back in Victoria, I was driving up the Malahat and picked up a hitch hiker. We got to chatting and I told him about my Monserrat trip and it turned out he was an electrician and had worked on the island of Monserrat years before setting up their power lines. He asked me if the Jehovah's Witness's Church was still standing – he'd been there while it was being built. They had built a geodesic dome because they were assured this was the strongest structure that would withstand a hurricane. As I said – there was not a stick left standing of it.) Sheet metal roofing, bent in half , was wrapped around a tree, 20 feet above the ground. Giant trees were toppled over everywhere and the tops of those still standing were frayed to shreds. Apparently the hurricane hit from two directions. It went through first from west to east, then south to north. A double whammy. While clearing out our present quarters we came across some recent photographs of the island in its lush green state—what a difference! The color is slowly coming back to the trees and at least the ground is green again.

We arrived at the Public Works Department in Plymouth and were assigned to a warehouse right across from their yard. It had suffered some damage but was basically okay. We set about cleaning it up, clearing debris out of washrooms, setting up a kitchen and beds, etc. We also got a large metal-framed tent (called ‘the Ark’—manufactured in Washington) that we’re hoping to finish and move into tomorrow. The eventual goal is to build prefabricated houses in the warehouse and take them out to the site. However, at present we have only a few 2X4s to do this with. Apparently the U.S. had promised a shipload of lumber and then backed off at the last minute, sending it to some of the U.S. islands that were also badly damaged. The political mess has left the people here with no supplies to build with and us to sit here twiddling our thumbs. However, it’s too soon to know exactly what’s going to happen. There are a few supplies arriving and we may be going out to help people use existing supplies and old lumber.

We did get a chance on Friday to go swimming. One of the locals who was helping us set up the tent took us to Fon’s beach—with black sand (volcanic) and the most gorgeous warm water. It was like going into a tepid bath, delightful. It was also so salty I could finally float. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to relax and float on my back in the water—I loved it!

Saturday some of us walked through the old town. Very few stores open, so we didn’t get a chance to buy much. The town was also hard hit. It’s been 3 weeks now and it’s amazing how life goes on and how people are rebuilding the community. Today I just took it easy, doing my laundry and relaxing in the sun a bit. I may get a suntan yet this year.

I’m personally holding up quite well. We’re all staying healthy, careful to sterilize our water. We have toilet and shower facilities and, although the food is uninspired (canned ham, Spam, corned beef, beans, rice, macaroni with soda crackers) we haven’t gone hungry yet. The mosquitoes are out in force and I’m covered in bites. Sometimes even the strongest repellant doesn’t seem to work. And it’s hot. We wake up about 6:30-7:00 am and it’s still a bit cool then, but by 10 am it’s a heat wave and continues to get hotter till the afternoon. The sun sets about 7-7:30 and there’s no real twilight. It just gets black very quickly—and I mean black. You need a flashlight to see where you’re going. The skies are clear as a bell and you can see the stars so plainly they seem to pulsate in front of your eyes. From our warehouse we can see the ocean. We’re on a hill about 100 feet above the water. The view is gorgeous both day and night. It must have been a truly beautiful island before the hurricane.

Love to all, Braden

For pictures of the trip click here


October 21/89
West Indies

Hi Everybody,

Two of the group are going home to Toronto today, so I thought I’d go outside with the lizards and write a brief note. We have three small lizards that hang around the doorway to our kitchen where I am sitting. Things are going along fairly well so far, but about 4 days ago I managed to get an ear infection from swimming. Am now on antibiotics and it seems to be getting better. Cramps my swimming, though, and I was just getting into some snorkeling. The water here is gorgeous—clear and warm, with lovely colours of rocks, fish, etc.

We’ve built frames for 9 houses so far and have finally been given 2 sites to put them on. We’re still waiting for materials (cement, plywood, etc) but have just got word a boat from Antigua is in port with building supplies. Will have to wait and see what they brought and how much they will give us.

Like the rest of the West Indies, Montserrat very definitely runs at its own pace. No one is in any rush to do anything. There are all kinds of chiefs but hardly any Indians and the heat makes it very difficult to get much work done.

We usually rise about 6:30 am (daybreak) and work till 1 or 2 in the afternoon. It’s cool in the morning but by 2 pm the heat is oppressive. It’s now 9:30 am and I am cooking in the sun—working on my tan. The sun sets at about 6:30 pm and it gets dark within half an hour--no lingering sunsets or twilights. One moment it’s light and then it’s dark. The nights are quite incredible also. We’ve had full moon the past week and the skies are so clear you can see all the stars. With the full moon it’s like daylight out.

The casual dress here is very hard on my wardrobe. All I ever wear is shorts—and I only brought 2 pair with me. At night when you go outside it’s still warm enough to wear only shorts—marvelous. It’s going to be hard to get used to cold (sic) Victoria and wearing all those clothes again.

Went to a ‘street jump’ last Saturday night. This is where they close off a street for one block and play music through an enormous sound system. I only stayed a short while. It’s quite an experience. It’s also very strange being in a place where you are definitely a minority. The island has a population of about 13,000 people—of which at most 500 are white. It’s different!

That’s about it for now. The guys are ready to leave. I’ll be home the beginning of November if possible. Bye for now

Love, Braden

For pictures of the trip click here


Copyright©2003 Braden Corby