Hurricanes and the Solace of the Witnesses
By Jeff McCord
Last week my wife, accompanied by a knowledgeable friend, left our Blue Ridge cabin refuge to visit St. John and appraise the damage to our home. Ours is fixable. Many aren’t. She aptly described the mood on-island: “There’s so much destruction that one has to be cheerful; it’s all about survival and there’s no room for pessimism.”
Optimism is in the air in the islands as trees, flowers, birds and animals recover and return. On St. Thomas, cruise ships again visit Charlotte Amalie. Beautiful Magens Bay beach has reopened. Cruise ships will also soon resume visiting St. Croix where resorts have reopened. And, on St. John, Hawksnest and Honeymoon beaches are open again.
Amid recovery, people have some time for reflection. They look for meaning in the catastrophe – or, at least solace. Roman philosopher Livy was correct when he said “the best medicine for a sick mind is the study of history.” So, as a comfort, I looked at eyewitness accounts of previous historic Caribbean hurricanes.
The first European witness to such a storm was Christopher Columbus. During his fourth and final voyage of discovery, he commanded a fleet of four ships. He’d just returned to the Caribbean from Spain in June, 1502, when he became worried. From Taino Native Americans, on previous voyages he had learned of the fearsome storms that they called “hurakans.” Early on June 30, he recognized signs of one approaching and sought shelter by anchoring his fleet off the leeward shore of Hispaniola. He told King and Queen of Spain Ferdinand and Isabella what happened in a letter:
“The tempest was terrible throughout the night, all the ships were separated, and each one driven to the last extremity, without hope of anything but death; each of them also looked upon the loss of the rest as a matter of certainty. What man was ever born, not even excepting Job, who would not have been ready to die of despair at finding himself as I then was?”
Neverthess, all four of Columbus’ ships survived, though seriously damaged.
Two hundred years later, young Alexander Hamilton described a hurricane that struck St. Croix on October 31, 1772. In an article for the Royal Danish American Gazette that made him locally famous, he wrote:
“It began about dusk . . . [and] seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare.”
Hamilton also described a problem still faced by many. Sea water sucked up in water spouts and carried by hurricane winds is often deposited on land, fouling cisterns. Hamilton observed: “The rain was surprisingly salty; indeed, the water is so brackish . . . there is hardly any drinking of it.”
Among the worst Caribbean storms, though, was the San Narciso hurricane, a Cat 3 that struck the Virgin Islands with little warning on October 28-29, 1867. Harper’s Weekly offered a post- storm description of St. Thomas penned by an officer on the Royal Mail Steamship Douro (the sister ship of the ill-fated RMS Rhone discussed below):
“The harbor was strewn with wrecks, the light-house gone, and many houses roofless. A confused mass near the center of the harbor, built up of crushed hulls, broken spars, and loose cordage was formed by the ship British Empire; alongside her was the steamer Columbian, now showing nothing but funnel, masts and rigging above water; right underneath these two were a French bark and brig . . . Dotted over the harbor were masts showing a few feet above water, marking the spots where the various schooners and other craft had gone down; and on the beach all round lay other vessels hurled by the force of wind and wave far upon the land, some positively in the streets of the town . . .To the left of the town lay in one cluster five large steamers . . . so crushed together that to distinguish masts and funnels proper to each was impossible.”
This brings vividly to mind post-Irma photos of harbors in Tortola and St. John (minus steam ship funnels). And, descriptions of the towns and hills themselves are all-too-familiar. Indeed, in trying to describe the aftermath of San Narciso’s fury, 19th century witnesses hit upon the same words we used 150 years later to describe Irma: as if a bomb had gone off; trees suddenly as bare as winter; hillsides as though swept by fire.
“After the cessation of the Hurricane, it appeared as if winter had visited the tropics,” visitor Arthur Rumbold told the St. Thomas Tidende newspaper. Similarly, the following could have been written in September, 2017:
“The Virgin Islands . . . were swept by a hurricane which has caused fearful destruction. All the islands appear as if fire had passed over them – the town of St. Thomas looks exactly as if an explosion had taken place – roofs, doors, and windows having been blown away, and the streets are filled with roof tiles, tresses and rubbish. ”
That was actually written on November 3, 1867 by Royal Navy Captain L. Vessey of the HMS Darwin who was among the first to arrive in Charlotte Amalie to offer help after San Narciso.
Captain Vessey was also the first visitor to arrive in Tortola where he saw that every house in Road Town had lost its roof. He also learned the ghastly story of the wreck of the famous RMS Rhone, then thought to be unsinkable and today a favorite diving spot. The Rhone’s captain and 122 crew and passengers lost their lives in a desperate attempt to save the ship by steaming toward the open sea through the gap between the British Virgins of Peter Island and Salt Island. But, she struck a submerged rock and quickly broke apart and sank in mountainous swells.
Although she could carry more than 300 passengers, fortunately most had disembarked days earlier. More on the Rhone and the San Narciso hurricane can be found in my fact-based novel “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea” on Amazon.
By now, you may be asking, “How does this sad history of death and destruction offer solace?”
Consider that survivors of these storms and subsequent generations successfully cleaned up, rebuilt and constructed far more beautiful, bountiful and sustainable tropical island communities and resorts than Alexander Hamilton or Captain Vessey could have imagined. And, now we are doing the same.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI