St. Lucia - Hurricane Allen, by Peter Jones (1980)

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Twice a week, I used to drive from the capital of St Lucia, Castries, on the north east coast, over the central spine of mountains, to the town of Vieux Fort on the very southern tip. My task was to meet the incoming British Airways flight, liaise with the crew and the staff of the handling agent, LIAT, referee the check-in when necessary and make sure that the flight departed on time with the right documentation and the right numbers of passengers, cargo and airmail.

On one of the few flat parts of the island, just outside Vieux Fort, was the island’s main airport, Hewanorra, which apparently means ‘land of the iguana’ in the language of the Caribs who used to inhabit the island. (I remember some visitors asking me who were this strange couple, Hugh and Nora, and why did I have to visit them so frequently, but that is by the bye.)

One of the very few disadvantages about holidaying, or indeed living, in the Caribbean is that there is a hurricane season lasting usually from August to October. Tropical storms that have their origin off the coast of Africa roll across the mid-Atlantic, gathering momentum as they go. Most go further north and blow themselves out along the Atlantic coast of the USA, but some occasionally pass through the chain of islands known is the Windward Islands, of which St Lucia is one. St Lucia, however, had not been seriously affected for several decades.

In 1980, Hurricane Allen was the first of the year’s hurricanes, hence the boy’s name beginning with the letter ‘A’. It arrived very early in the season, during the night of 3rd August.

Although storm warnings were in force, the storm was not due for a further 10 hours when that day’s St Lucia-bound flight left London, and then it was not clear what route the storm would take and which islands it would affect. A decision was made to operate the flight on the basis that, in the then fairly unlikely event of the hurricane affecting St Lucia, the flight would pass through before the winds began to pick up.

Some three to four hours before the flight was due to arrive, it became evident that the storm was moving faster than expected, and its projected route would take it close to the stretch of water separating the islands of St Vincent and St Lucia, in fact very close to Hewanorra airport. We agreed at this point with our London Operations Control Centre that it would be too risky to land at St Lucia and then perhaps not be able to take off again if the storm struck while the aircraft was on the ground, so it was decided that the aircraft would overfly St Lucia.

By this time, many of the passengers had already checked out of their hotels and were on their way to the airport, a journey in some cases of up to two hours. We did, however, manage to contact some of the hotels before their passengers had left.

Over the next couple of hours it became increasingly evident that this was going to be a full-scale hurricane - and that it was going to pass right across St Lucia. We quickly made arrangements to accommodate any outgoing passengers who arrived at the airport at the nearby Halcyon Days Hotel, a large and solid 3-star establishment that had been built during the very early days of mass tourism. The hotel was to receive an indeterminate number of passengers, check them in quickly, find them some food, and give them a room for the night.

The winds built up quickly and it was soon difficult to stand up. I had to drive into the local town of Vieux Fort for some reason which must have appeared important at the time, and as I drove back between the end of the runway and the eastern edge of the island, boulders the size of footballs were being driven by the wind up from the water’s edge and over the road.

Once in the hotel, we got everybody settled into accommodation, and I found myself sharing a small hotel room with our acting station engineer, his wife and small baby. The howl of the wind turned into a demented shriek, and this ear-splitting noise was to stay with us all night.

As the storm strengthened, the sliding glass door of the hotel room rattled uncontrollably, bowed alarmingly, and threatened to disintegrate altogether. At this point, the four of us were huddled together in the very small bathroom. Then, for a short while, a sudden calm, as the eye of the storm passed over, and just as suddenly the wind resumed its relentless howl as we entered the other side of the storm. The sliding glass door was no longer a problem, but the storm appeared to take an age to pass through, and it was dawn before we again felt reasonably secure.

In the morning it appeared that the hotel had suffered no structural damage and all the guests were safe. However, palm trees lay across the road in many places, there was no telephone, electricity or water, there were pieces of corrugated iron lying around that had blown off roofs, and it was evident that many places on the island would have suffered considerable structural damage.

There was little more I could do at the hotel, and the resumption of some sort of communication with the rest of the island seemed the next priority. I had made the acquaintance of three youngish BA passengers to who this all seemed more of an adventure than an ordeal, and we decided to try to drive over the hills and across the island to the capital, Castries.

Surprisingly, this was not as difficult as it seemed, give or take the removal of a few small trees. What was evident, though, as we made our way over the hills, was that the year’s banana crop had been decimated, and that many of the smaller homes along the way had lost roofs and sometimes more.

We made our way into Castries, where I was able to make contact both with my family and with the British Airways office staff, who were all safe. I remembered, and called on, someone I knew who operated a two-way radio, and within hours I was speaking from a hilltop with my British Airways counterpart in Antigua, and was able to apprise him of the situation so that he could communicate with the rest of the outside world on our behalf. There were about 16 fatalities in all on the island, tragic for those involved, but a relatively small number for such a major storm.

Things returned slowly to normal. The islanders worked really hard to clear rubbish, rebuild vital communication and transport links, and try to restore some kind of normality to their lives. The British, American and French navies sent ships, which provided emergency supplies and technical assistance. The hotels were open again and receiving visitors within four weeks.

The banana crop was indeed destroyed, depriving many of the islanders of their livelihood. However, bananas are fairly quick to mature, and with some outside help, the industry was operating again within a couple of years at something like normal capacity.

On the hill where we lived, power was not restored for three weeks. Food in the freezer was shared among friends; supplies that were surplus were donated to the local hospital.

Inevitably, the hurricane brought its own stories. One concerned an old lady who lived in a little cottage at the top of a hill who decided that the best way to avoid the trauma of the hurricane was to go to bed with a bottle of the local Denros rum. She woke in the morning, still in her cottage, still in her bed, still clutching the bottle of rum, but at the bottom of the hill!

A St Lucian friend of ours was looking after her neighbours’ house, which was rented out from time to time. The morning after the hurricane, and believing the house to be empty, she went round to check for damage. She opened the door with her key, went in and to her surprise found that there were people in the house. “Oh, hello,” she said, “I didn’t know there was anybody staying here. Are you all right?” “Yes, fine thank you, we arrived yesterday,” replied the visitor “but it was really quite windy last night, wasn’t it? Is it always like this?”

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