COLUMN – Hurricane Ivan ten years later

EMERGENCY911 block-1Hurricane Ivan was a large, long-lived hurricane that came off the Cape Verde coast that caused widespread damage throughout the Caribbean and United States. It was the ninth named storm, the sixth hurricane and the fourth major hurricane of the 2004 hurricane season. It formed in early September, and reached Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. It became the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded.

At its peak in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Ivan was the size of the state of Texas, and in turn spawned 120 tornadoes across the eastern United States.

Gulf Shores Before and After from NASA space images · Ivan's life seen from NASA space images.
Gulf Shores Before and After from NASA space images · Ivan’s life seen from NASA space images.

According to reports issued by the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Ivan caused heavy damage to Jamaica as a Category 4 storm and then the Cayman Islands and the western tip of Cuba as a Category 5 storm. After peaking in strength, the hurricane moved north-north-west across the Gulf of Mexico to strike Florida as a Category 3 storm, wreaking havoc and misery and destruction in its wake.

Ivan dropped heavy rains on the south-eastern United States as it progressed north-east and east through the eastern United States. Records released by American state and federal governments showed that the system had caused an estimated US$18 billion in damages to the United States, making it the fifth costliest hurricane ever to strike America.

Back in the Caribbean, having just passed Barbados, Hurricane Ivan rolled directly over Grenada on September 7, 2004, killing over 30 people as a Category 3 hurricane. Once more, in less than 20 years, this beautiful tranquil island paradise would be faced with the tragedy and misery of death and destruction. The Grenada capital St George’s looked more like a debris field than a waterfront city. Shorefront businesses were helpless in withstanding the severely pounding waves.

The country’s physical infrastructure had taken the brunt of Hurricane Ivan’s fury. Immediate damage assessment reports revealed that one in every ten houses had experienced moderate to severe roof damage. One in every five had experienced severe roof damage to near total roof loss.

Schools, major government facilities and buildings had received severe damage. The roof of its recently completed sports facility was now spread all across its athletics track.

Several notable historic buildings were tragically destroyed. The residence of the prime minister, without a roof, could offer no protection for its contents. The Parliament Building, once the country’s seat of government was now a shell, its roof shredded, and rain flooding its interior. Precious historic artefacts and Parliament’s legislative documents were now littering the streets.

The system also caused extensive damage to the prison, prompting the escape of its inmates and further increasing the stress levels of a nigh panicking society. The island, according to Caribbean disaster officials and the Grenada government, suffered “total devastation”.

This once green mountainous island now looked beaten and burnt, as almost every tree on the island, still standing on any hillside had been stripped of its leaves. For a while, the Caribbean region held its breath as Grenada had now been completely isolated from the rest of the world. Its power and communications systems were comprehensively disrupted islandwide –– a stark reminder of another nationwide traumatic moment in its history, occurring 21 years before.

One government official said, in a media interview in the days that followed, that at least 85 per cent of the island was devastated. Financial estimates of the surveyed damages totalled US$815 million. Immediately following the hurricane’s passage, though often anticipated but never a welcomed result of a disaster, extensive looting was reported within the city limits and surrounding areas. This issue further strained the resources of law enforcement services, as the country struggled to come to grips with the widespread devastation that now faced its government and people.

Comprehensive recovery would begin in earnest once the immediate humanitarian needs of the population had been met. However, the country’s first priority was the identification of buildings among those that had withstood the hurricane which could now be used as emergency shelters. The majority of school buildings normally designated as shelters were now uninhabitable; therefore large structurally sound commercial buildings, offered as temporary alternatives by the private sector, were pressed into service as emergency shelters.

In the days that followed, the international community and Caribbean countries not affected by the massive hurricane began shipping emergency supplies and deploying a workforce, including law enforcement personnel, to the island to assist with the initial response, rescue and preliminary recovery. Weeks later, the effects of Hurricane Ivan could still be seen, as business struggled to reopen, and homeowners faced an uncertain reality of the next step in rebuilding. Tons of debris, now separated into piles of sorted garbage and smashed dreams, were being readied for the landfills –– which they were likely to overwhelm.

However, as with any other country faced with a catastrophic disaster scenario, Grenada began the long process of recovery. The government out of necessity would divert its capital financial resources to fund the rebuilding of its infrastructure. Schools would have to be reopened, medical and health care facilities rebuilt, and government’s mandate to provide service to its people fulfilled –– and the prison repaired and functioning.

The technical and financial strength of the international community and the insurance industry would support the return of businesses . . . and insurance-funded homeowners would once more ironically rebuild on the same location that still had evidence of Ivan’s visit. In time, everyone would rebuild and the cycle of life would continue.

Ten years later, the tranquillity has returned. The trees filled with leaves offer no hint of what happened ten years ago. Point Salines Airport, once the logistic hub for response and recovery and now renamed the Maurice Bishop International Airport, caters to commercial jets filled with tourists and businesspeople –– and not C130 military transport aircraft filled with cargo and support personnel.

The business community again competes with the rest of the region for its share of the local and regional market. Homeowners speak of Ivan as a bad memory, hoping and praying that it will never happen again. Children born after the passage of the hurricane have no tangible memory of its impact, only the vivid stories of the parents.

There are still a few stark reminders of the power of Hurricane Ivan: the Parliament Building still stands without its roof, as do The Presbyterian Church and the St  George’s Parish Church overlooking the city. All the while church management and parishioners continue to raise funds to rebuild.

A government official remarked that while, politically, mistakes may have been made during the recovery phase, the government as a whole was able to put aside any and all trivia to respond to the needs of a country.

Could there be another Ivan? The answer is yes. Will it take a similar path? It is quite possible; and it could be just as destructive. Has complacency once again taken the place of preparedness? Unfortunately, in the opinion of the government, it has. Fortunately, it is not as widespread as before Ivan’s visit.

One national with vivid memories of all of the country’s tragedies said Ivan’s visit was another reminder of the tenuous hold people have on life –– here today, and gone tomorrow. He suggested Grenadians needed to release their frantic grip on material possessions of life, and instead enjoy just being alive and healthy.

“The materials things will come and go.”


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