by Cynthia Costain
Life in the family went on quietly through the years as Carol grew up from a baby to a little girl of four years old. There were occasional excitements when Father went to England taking an older brother to school, or one of the big sisters went to Barbados to visit friends. During most of the year the climate was perfect; nearly always warm and sunny with cool sea breezes and sudden short showers which kept the gardens blooming, the trees flowering and bearing fruit, and the crops growing. Cocoa was being cultivated in St. Vincent as an alternate crop to sugar and was doing well with a promise of prosperity in the island.
It was the year 1898, and during August the weather began to get very hot. The breeze dropped and the air felt heavy and still. The heat pressed down on the island and people became tired and irritable, fanning themselves and complaining about “hurricane weather”. The heat continued and during the night of the eleventh of September the wind began to blow in sharp hard gusts and the barometer fell rapidly. (25.35 and falling). The shutters were closed and the children put to bed, but they found it hard to sleep and tossed and sweated in the darkness. The storm increased: the wind became strong with sounds of thunder in the distance and loud crashes as branches broke and rocks fell.
Carol woke up to find her nurse shaking her and shouting “Come on Miss Baba, wake up! wake up!” Pulling her out of bed, she bundled her into a little shawl and carried her downstairs, ignoring her sleepy whimper, “Whatsamatter?”
In the big hallway all the family was gathered with maids and servants. It was hard to see as the only light was a small oil lamp, but it was the incredible noise which was the most frightening. The whole house shuddered and creaked, the rain lashed against the walls and roof and there was the occasional breaking of glass or crash as something heavy fell nearby. Above all the wind screamed and howled as it swept across the island with terrific force. The children were crying and the adults looked scared but Carol saw Dad standing by the cellar stairs, fully dressed and calmly calling “Come on now, all of you- down to the cellar. You’ll be all right there, Mother is waiting for you”.
Gradually nurses with children, sisters, servants, brothers and all filtered down the steep steps. The house had a strong stone cellar built against the rocky hillside. Lit by the dim lamp carried by Father it looked very strange and eerie. One or two chairs had been brought down and Mother in her usual daytime dress was sitting at one end with the big sisters. The children ran and clustered on the floor at her feet. Carol shouted in Fred’s ear “What makes the big noise, Freddy?” and he shouted back, “It’s the hurricane, silly”.
The cellar door which gave onto the hillside at the back of the house was open, as it was sheltered from the fiercest blasts, and through it came a stream of terrified people; stumbling and limping, families with old women and babies, beaten by the wind, soaked by the drenching rain and scarred by blowing branches and debris. Carol sat against her Mother’s knee and as the cellar was lit by the sudden violent flashes of lightening saw more and more people crowding through the door and heard the great crashes of the wind. Near her was a family settling down on the floor and a man was carrying a little girl about her own age. She had a big gash on her head and there was blood on her curly hair and trickling down her face.
“Papa! Papa!” she sobbed, and her father soothed her, saying, “Hush now chile – doctor will fix yor haid later on,” but still the little girl cried.
“Poor little girl,” thought Carol and leant over and patted her hand. One of her sisters had a box of bandages and came to help, but so many people were hurt with broken bones as well as cuts that there was little that they could do. Dad helped the more seriously hurt to places against the walls and everyone did what they could without panic. At last Dad called to shut the outside door as a deluge of water began to pour over the lintel and the cellar was full, but as it was shutting there was a sudden wild banging at the door and they eased it open to a family drenched and covered with mud who had escaped from the remnants of their house and crawled up the hillside for shelter.
Carol was too young to realise that the small wooden houses and shacks of the people had been literally blown away in pieces. Some families had feared the worst when the storm began and had gathered together what they could and made their way to bigger stronger houses with hurricane cellars like ‘Windsor’, but others had cowered in their tiny homes which were no protection, until it was too late. In spite of the noise the children slept. They had no idea how long it was before they suddenly woke up in the dim breathless darkness of the crowded cellar with the stifling heat and overpowering smell of frightened people. Everything was silent. Only the occasional moan or snore, but otherwise nothing.
“What’s happening?”‘ asked Fred in a scared voice. “It’s called the eye of the hurricane,” Mother said.”It will be quiet for a while and then get noisy again, but it won’t be for so long”.
Reassured, the children dozed once more, huddled together on the hard floor.
Hours later, they became aware of a general movement, as people stood and listened and murmured to each other and on the top of the stairs stood Willie silhouetted against the grey light from the open hall door.
“Dad,” he called, “I think the wind has dropped.” Some of the men went to try to open the outside door but it would not move. Eventually they were able to force it open a bit and push aside the rocks and rubbish which had been piled against it by the storm. A faint light came in and people began to move and pick up children and bundles and try to peer outside. Mother was helped upstairs, stiff after her long ordeal, and the family followed her up into the hall. Dad went to open the front door and everyone pressed forward onto the verandah.
Carol was very frightened because no one seemed happy that the dreadful noise had stopped and she could see nothing until one of her big brothers picked her up. Nobody spoke; it was as if they all held their breaths. “Where has everything gone’?” she asked.
They looked at a scene of devastation. Down the hillside what had been the garden and the drive to the small houses and streets leading to the harbour was now a sea of mud and debris. There were no houses, no trees, retaining walls had collapsed and muddy water was pouring down the hill, carving deep clefts between rocks and fallen trees carrying stones, roof tiles and the bodies of dead animals towards the town. There were huge waves pounding the buildings still standing on Bay Street carrying broken remains of boats, the wreckage at sloops and battered steamers along the harbour. All the small houses and shelters in the town were gone as were the wooden warehouses. Those buildings still standing were roofless and they could see the Cathedral had missing tiles and broken windows. Along what had been the main street of the town the Library and most of the stores were crumbling ruins.
At last Dad said, “Mother, see that everyone has something to eat. We all have a lot to do.”
There was indeed a lot to do. The hurricane had lasted six hours with an interval of fifty-five minutes. In that time between two hundred and three hundred people had been killed, went missing, or were lost at sea. Nearly all the small boats of the island had been destroyed with their crews, ten sloops had been lost or had capsized, and three large steamers had been driven ashore and broken up.
People were homeless and helpless, hungry and hurt. From the countryside wandered scores of lost people to add to the crowds already in the town: their homes were gone, their goats and chickens lost or killed, their crops beaten into the ground.
The Government had the police set up big tents in the grounds of the hospital, which was roofless, and in open spaces nearby where the wounded could be cared for. The dead were brought to the Police Station. All the men were set to clearing the roads of debris -trees, bricks and stone from fallen houses and walls, dead animals such as, pigs, goals, sheep and chickens which had been swept down in the water and mud. In all the big houses the women prepared food for everyone and all who came were fed.
Before the day ended messages were received by telegraph from Queen Victoria and the Royal Family, and from all over the world came offers of help. Within days, ships arrived with food and supplies from other islands. The Hurricane Relief Fund sent food and medical aid while many volunteer workers came to help dig graves and clear away the remains of the ships and buildings. The children were eager to help and the boys cleared branches, rocks and stones and the girls swept and washed the verandah. Mother and the servants cooked and served big pots of cooked rice and soup with the stores they had in the house, feeding all who came but the straggle of sad hungry people seemed never ending. Finally the relief foods arrived and Fred whispered to Carol, “Thank goodness, I’m getting awfully sick of rice.”
As the immediate difficulties were being looked after, the government tried to assess the overall disaster to the island. The sugar estates were ruined, the new cocoa trees were levelled, most of the trees including fruit trees, palm trees, breadfruit and spice trees were down, or if they had survived were stripped bare and would not produce for many months. There was not a green leaf or blade of grass to be seen and all the vegetables, fruits and livestock which the people needed to survive had vanished.
St. Vincent faced a bleak future.