On September 12, 1988, with raging winds and intense strength Gilbert charged the little island of Jamaica, leaving death and destruction in its wake. It was detected on September 3, 1988, travelling across the northwestern coast of Africa towards the Caribbean as a tropical wave. However, on September 8, 1998, 400 miles east of Barbados, it began to intensify. By September 10, it had developed into a hurricane and took aim at Jamaica. Hurricane warnings were issued by the meteorological unit, but the people did not anticipate the brute force with which Gilbert would hit.
The hurricane made landfall on the east coast of Jamaica at 10:00 AM on Monday, September 12. With the eye approximately 15 miles in diameter, it commenced its cataclysmic nine hours journey along the spine of the island. Like a feral beast, it trampled fences, uprooted trees, tore down light posts, ripped off rooftops and smashed vehicles; it wreaked havoc on anything in its way.
The University of the West Indies was preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary, but Gilbert derailed the festivities by ravaging the campus. The University Hospital, students and staff housing, classrooms, laboratories and other core facilities were dismantled. The hurricane inflicted approximately $50 million (1988) worth of damage on Mona Campus. The hospital had to close several wards and reduce the number of patients it normally accommodates by almost 50%. For weeks the University was without electricity and water, and the halls of residence were not fit to accommodate students. Consequently, resuming classes was delayed for about four weeks. Like the rest of the country, Mona needed help to get back on its feet.
Organizations locally and internationally made donations to the University and several fundraising initiatives, including a $150 million fundraising concert in New York, were undertaken to finance repairs. The efforts to raise funds were led by a committee put together by Vice-Chancellor Alister McIntyre who had just assumed that position and thereby was then Principal of the Mona Campus. That effort involved both Professor Gerald Lalor, who would become Principal in 1990 and Mr Dennis Lalor, President of the ICWI Group. Those efforts also led to the establishment of the UWI Development & Endowment Fund (UWIDEF) which still spearheads fundraising for the Mona campus.
On Sunday, September 12, 2021, we observed the 32nd anniversary of the ferocious hurricane Gilbert. However, we must also consider the aftermath – the days following – when Jamaicans scrambled to make sense of one of their most traumatic experience as a nation. As seen in the Gleaner articles, it took months for the University to recover, so imagine the wider population, particularly the families of the 45 people who died.
As we reflect on hurricane Gilbert, we would also like to take this opportunity to celebrate overcoming, especially during this pandemic. Again Jamaica is facing a disaster, one that tarries longer than nine hours and continues to bring death and discomfort, but just as we overcame Gilbert, we will overcome COVID-19.
Stay safe! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands and do what you must to protect yourself and those around you.