Monday, February 19, 2018

Remembering Hurricane Alma

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the passing of Hurricane Alma. This is a forgotten event in Trinidad because the brunt of the storm passed through thinly populated, agricultural areas. But to those who experienced it, it is unforgettable.

On the afternoon of the day before, we were suddenly informed a hurricane was on course for Trinidad. People were sceptical because these things usually miss. But this one didn’t.

Rain began to fall around 6.30 a.m. and the wind steadily grew until, by 8.30, outside was a horizontal melee of rain, leaves, small branches and, later, galvanized sheets. My mother dutifully opened the windows on the opposite side of the house from the wind—as she was told to do to protect the roof. And indeed, our roof held. Most roofs in the village, though, lost at least some galvanized sheets and some were retrieved from our yard after the storm.

Checking the Internet, I note there is only a single report—from a Hurricane Hunter flight on August 13—of an eye in Alma. Well, I can attest Alma had an eye. It passed directly over Gran Couva, overcast but utterly still and eerily silent.

To my memory, it lasted a few minutes—long enough to walk outside to survey the damage, the yard and driveways being choked with fallen treetops and branches and debris. And to listen to the radio (you couldn’t hear anything during the roar of the storm itself) to be told to keep calm, that the storm had not reached Trinidad yet but was expected shortly.

Also from the Internet, I read “gusts reached 91 miles per hour (147 kilometres per hour) at Savonetta”. Presumably from the anemometer at Federation Chemicals. The story I heard at the time—from at least two separate sources—was the anemometer at Fedchem was rated at 100 miles per hour and that gusts from Alma were consistently over-ranging the instrument, estimated at 105 or 110 miles per hour. I never heard a figure for sustained winds.

Trees fell all over, blocking the roads in and out. They began to be cleared almost as soon as the storm had passed, but it was still several days before you could drive any distance east. The surrounding cocoa estates were devastated. The top of virtually every immortelle tree had broken and fallen onto the cocoa trees below. It took months to clear the damage. 

The road to the west being cleared by evening (mostly sugar cane, hence far fewer trees), we went to Port of Spain for ice. (All the utilities were out and would be for two to three weeks.) It became apparent there was no damage north of Chaguanas.

All of the people we spoke to in Port of Spain assumed the hurricane had missed or fizzled out. They had had drizzle and a “couple gusts of wind” and that was it. In the popular imagination and the official line, no hurricane took place.

In 1933, the oil companies that were directly affected took the lead in publicising the seriousness of that year’s hurricane. And maybe the government we had in 1933 was a little more concerned than the one we had in 1974. In 1974, we got incompetence, denial and a slow response. I wonder if things would be any different if—God forbid—we were to have another hurricane.

Robert de Verteuil

Gran Couva