The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Hurricane Luis

Hurricane Luis

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Governor-General Jaime Saleh and Lt. Governor a.i. Will Johnson on Saba Day 1998 just after hurricane George. Mr. Saleh was here assessing the reconstruction of the island.

By: Will Johnson

There have been so many hurricanes in recent times that you tend to forget the names of some of them. Not hurricane Luis. September 5th 1995. For St. Martin especially this was a very severe hurricane. Not the least of the misery for St. Martin was the fact that it was followed a few days later by hurricane Marilyn to the South.

Luis ravaged St. Martin and besides the financial damage caused it also had political consequences for the island’s future political status. St. Martin had been accustomed to a large measure of autonomy. After the hurricane Holland came to the islands assistance in a massive way. Holland also made it possible for the island authorities to deal directly with them to get projects speedily approved. Under the circumstance there was no other way out. All the islands had experienced how slow things moved when they had to deal with the Central bureaucracy on Curacao. There was no time for the island authorities to deal with this bureaucracy. They had to get the island back up and running in a hurry or else their tourism product, the main industry, would be crippled.

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Even when there are no direct hits by hurricanes flooding can cause quite a bit of damage. This one took place in the nineteen seveties and flooded a large section of the roads in The Bottom.

After the worst was over then Prime Minister Miguel Pourier was advised that St. Martin should deal with the bureaucracy on Curacao. Bad advice to say the least and the foundation was laid for further dissent between the island authorities on St. Martin and the Federal authorities on Curacao.

Saba was pounded in 1998 by hurricane George and then hurricane Lenny came around a year later and spent over thirty hours close to Saba and brought further destruction. Then there were a number of smaller hurricanes in between. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 started the new trend towards many hurricanes. Saba had been touched by hurricane Donna in 1960 but the main structure of that hurricane had been to the North over St. Martin and Anguilla. I was on St. Martin the day before hurricane Donna and came over to Saba with the M.V.”Antilia”. The weather was so calm no one would have thought that a powerful hurricane was on the way. Many years later with hurricane Luis the same thing happened. We took a boat to Saba leaving our son Chris behind who was on his way to go to school, but a few days later he showed back up on Saba as a refugee after having gone through the worst of the hurricane at Pointe Blanche. School would have to wait for a while.

Before that Saba had a hurricane in 1932 and one in 1928. For some strange reason the one in 1932 was called by the locals a cyclone as if that word had been invented on Saba. There were also two deaths in that hurricane and some strange things happened where a house in the village of St. John’s had been lifted up and deposited in The Bottom. In Windwardside on the “Brest Place” in the hurricane of 1890 a man who had built his new house claimed that no hurricane would be able to damage that house of his. That same night a hurricane came and he and his hurricane proof house were lifted up and never seen again. Speculation was that the house with him in it had been deposited at sea on the Saba Bank.

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The view from my home on The Level a few days after the passing of hurricane Luis.

The Great Hurricane of 1772 had devastated the West Indies with thousands of victims. On Saba most of the houses were destroyed including that of one of my great-great-great-great grandfathers Jacob Vlaun. As a result he was forced to live in a cave in the cliff below Hell’s Gate just below the home of Robert Hassell. To this day the cave is known as Vlaun’s cave. I regularly use this information to infuriate people who come to Saba as new settlers and who think that they can drive us off our own island which has been part of our family history for over four hundred years. So this example is just a reminder to those new settlers who are an annoyance to us that we have been here for a long time and our children and their descendants will also point to Vlaun’s cave as a source of last retreat for us when things go bad. In that same hurricane stories handed down to us by our ancestors were that the church doors from the Dutch Reformed church on St. Eustatius had been found around where my house is built on Saba eighteen miles away.

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My backyard in The Level after hurricane Luis. My home is just under two thousand feet and so at this altitude the winds are amplified because of the height.

Hurricane Luis and the others mentioned in the last years have been well documented in advance so that people were aware of the dangers which were on the way. Not that some people paid attention mind you. I remember when hurricane David was approaching the islands that the local radio station on one of the islands to the South most affected was playing music as if they were in the middle of a carnival. Nowadays with all the weather sites on the Internet and on television there should be no excuse for not being prepared. Sometimes we prepare too much and like Danny the system passes us by without even a drop of rain so sorely needed. Few people who are not living in the hurricane zone are aware of the amount of work which is involved in getting prepared for a hurricane and then after it has passed even if there is no damage. Putting up and taking down shutters and clearing up around your property is hard work and the tension of what is to come does not make it any easier for people.

Back in the nineteen fifties in a funeral sermon Father A.L. Cromie of the Anglican Church told his congregation that not everything could be blamed on the works of God. He said you are living on a volcano which can erupt and in the in the worst of the hurricane zone where you can get a hurricane at any time. His advice was seeing that those examples were a danger in themselves, not to add to that danger by reckless driving on these mountainous roads, consuming too much alcohol and taking all kinds of other risks which can shorten your existence here on earth. If he came back now he would surely see a great need to add on to that list of dangers of living on a volcano in the middle of the hurricane belt.

Before the internet and television, radio and all of that our people relied on signs in nature to prepare for a hurricane. It is claimed that the Kalinago Indians (called Caribs by the Europeans) by the movement of the waters could tell days in advance if a hurricane was coming and from which direction. They were more friendly with the French at the time of one of the great hurricanes and they warned them to move their fleet to another location and the British fleet on its way from Barbados heading North lost all of its ships and many of its soldiers as they did not have access to the information the French had and they did not take shelter.

Hurricane Donna damage at Grand Case SXM 3

A house in Grand Case, St. Martin after hurricane Donna, September 4th, 1960.

I can recall as if yesterday sitting with my two grandparents under the sea grape tree next to the church on Hell’s Gate. They were James Horton Simmons and his wife Agnes Johnson. We would be sitting there with my grandfather roasting sweet potatoes and smoked herring on an old coal pot with coals he had burned himself. This story, by the way, also drives the new settlers crazy as they do not have such stories to pass on to those whom they would like to fool as if they belonged here.

Anyway “Horton” who had been born in 1867 had certainly seen his share of hurricanes, but he was the quiet one. The stories came from my grandmother who smoked an old clay pipe from time to time. Horton had a reason to remain quiet as his voice was so loud. Willie Johnson told me once that people farming in the Rendez – Vous thought there was a riot going on in the Windwardside because of all the noise, until someone came up to farm and told them there was no riot. It was my grandfather “Horton” cleaning someone’s yard and was only talking to himself. Once in a dry weather like now he had gone to get water at Spring Bay. The spring had been clogged up somehow by a dead land crab and was empty. “Horton” thinking that the spring had gone dry started howling in despair and the entire village of Hell’s Gate was in an uproar thinking something had happened to him until the men went down and realized that he was crying that all would die as there was no water in the spring.

Hurricane Sept. 26, 1932

Hurricane referred to as a cyclone for whatever reason on September 26th, 1932, caused two deaths in the village of Hell’s Gate. The Roman Catholic Church in The Bottom was moved from its foundation. Saba manpower with some equipment provided by Dutch marines were able to get the church back on its foundation. It became a school later on and I went to school here from 1953 to 1955.

Anyway my grandmother Agnes would tell me of the different signs they would notice. The yard fowls would start to cuddle up together and bury themselves in the soil, the livestock would make strange noises and there would be a series of drizzles before the bulk of the rain would start up. There would be crops to harvest and the animals to be taken care of and then at the very last moment the houses were closed up. My grandparents’ house was just a small two room affair so just a few windows to be closed and then wait out the storm.

With hurricane Luis it was something like Donna in 1960. The bulk of the bad weather was in the North. However the storm was so large that we did get hurricane force winds here on Saba as well. And for the first time I experienced the eye of the storm. It became so calm that the neighbours and I were out in the street checking to see what was going on. We suddenly realized that the eye of the hurricane was so large that we should get back into our houses for shelter as the worst of the weather was still to come. And it did come.

I remember getting a call from a radio station on St. Martin to bring them up to date on what was happening on Saba. My neighbor had a flock of pigs and the walls of the pens had blown away and I saw one of the boars mating with a sow, so I told him “ not to worry, life goes on, my neighbours pigs are sending in an order before the hurricane gets too strong.”

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Hurricanes can come anytime of the year. There was one on March 8th, in 19808 I believe and a Saban schooner and its crew were all lost. The damage here was caused by the “Alice” hurricane of January 2nd, 1955 when 22 inches of rain fell in a 24 hour period.

I don’t remember if it was hurricane Luis. Senator Aleppio Goeloe of Bonaire was on the phone with me when the telephone lines broke. Three weeks later when the telephone lines were restored the moment the phone was connected it rang. When I picked up the phone who else but Senator Aleppio Goeloe was on the phone and if I remember correctly he said: “As I was saying.” I said to him: “Have you been on the phone for the past three weeks?” It seemed like he had been. His call before the hurricane was just after my last radio interview with the pig story. You cannot imagine how many requests I would get for interviews while my wife and small children were trying to secure the house. It was useless to tell radio stations on Curacao and in The Netherlands that I needed time to secure my house. Now that I am no longer an office holder the calls for interviews are no longer a bother and yet somehow I miss the action and the excitement of reporting to the world events which were taking place. I hope though that we will get some respite from all the hurricanes we have experienced since “Hugo” opened up a hurricane lane with a lineup of yearly hurricanes threatening our livelihoods and our very existence.

So in remembering hurricane Luis let us not forget all of those other hurricanes we have had to deal with going back to my ancestor Jacob Vlaun and beyond. One of those beyond ancestors “Daniel Johnson” known as “Johnson the Terror” had to deal with a severe hurricane in Port Royal Jamaica in 1660, so hurricanes are now lodged in our genes and provide us with bragging rights as to our long sojourn in the West Indies!!

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