Four years ago, Hurricane Paloma laid waste to Cayman Brac.
When the Category 4 storm hit the Brac in the early morning of Saturday, 8 November, 2008, it damaged the vast majority of structures on the island, left about 1,000 people homeless and caused an estimated $50 million of destruction.
The entire island was without power as the hurricane downed electricity lines and poles. The sheer magnitude of the repair work prevented crews from fixing the damage for weeks in some areas.
The hurricane, with its sustained winds of up to 140 miles per hour, also damaged property on Little Cayman and the power was out because the island’s power generator was hit.
Boats and barges from Grand Cayman hurried to the Sister Islands to deliver food, water, ice, tarps and other emergency items the day after the storm as word came through of the massive damage that Paloma had wrought.
Royal Navy supply ship Wave Ruler went to the Sister Islands, where its crew of 50 provided disaster relief and humanitarian supplies.
The runway reopened the following day and a medical crew from the Health Services Authority arrived on the island to help those who had been injured in the massive storm. Incredibly, no one died in the hurricane.
Four years on, the island has built back, in some instances, bigger and stronger than before, said District Commissioner Ernie Scott.
“Most of the island has recovered. There’s a little bit still left to be done, but it’s just minor … Some people have just simply decided that they will not do certain repairs or restorations for personal or economic reasons, but we are certainly back up and running,” said Mr. Scott.
“It didn’t take four years for that to happen, I’d say we were back on our feet in about 18 months,” he said.
“In all cases where we had to do repairs or renovations, the strength and quality is deemed to be better than what it was prior to the hurricane because we were dealing with building codes that may not have been mandatory back when the buildings were first built,” he added.
Mr. Scott’s own home was damaged, with several inches of water flooding his house and extensive damage to his roof.
He sought shelter, along with many others, at the Aston Rutty Centre on the Bluff. “As District Commissioner, I needed to be there,” said Mr. Scott.
The storm, devastating and shocking though it was, has meant that people in Cayman Brac are better prepared for hurricanes.
“It brought home a greater awareness of nature’s wrath,” he said. “It showed how important it is to remain in a high level of readiness at all times.”
If there can be a silver lining to such a catastrophe, it was the bringing together of the community, with people helping one another out as the island reeled from the storm, its aftermath and recovery.
“There was strong evidence of that,” said Mr. Scott. “Some of that happened privately and also from the business side.”
Of the 1,207 buildings in Cayman Brac, 56 were destroyed; 182 sustained major damage; 231 had medium damage; and 543 had minor damage. Only 195 structured escaped unscathed.
Paloma hit the Sister Islands one day before the 76th anniversary of the devastating 1932 Cuba storm, which brought winds in excess of 155 miles per hour to Cayman Brac. That storm was one of the deadliest to ever hit the Caribbean, claiming more than 3,000 lives.
Three months after the 2008 storm, Britain’s Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, arrived in Cayman Brac to see the damage for himself and met some residents who had also survived the ’32 storm.
After touring the island, he said: “It is fairly obvious that Hurricane Paloma did a considerable amount of damage to an awful lot of the island, both to a lot of people’s houses and also to the whole environment as well. But, then again, it is good to see the way nature recovers and that the human spirit is alive and well. People seem to be picking up the pieces and getting on with trying to put back the damage done as quickly as possible.”
Among the places he stopped on his tour was the Brac Reef Beach Resort, which was wrecked in the storm. Wooden boards and roofing material lay strewn around the empty pool and the prince and local dignitaries had to manoeuvre around the rubble.
Now, four years later, the hotel shows no signs of the devastation.
Monaliza Christian, executive assistant at the resort, recalls the weeks and months after the storm, when she and staff members who remained at the hotel had to set up office in an area that is now the screened-in porch. “We put a long table there, we created a little office,” she said.
Surrounded by the ruins of the hotel, she and others worked without access to Internet or land lines to try to contact guests who had been booked in for the upcoming high tourist season and other hotel business.
Eighteen months after the storm, the hotel reopened its doors. For many months prior to that, the hotel’s outdoor pool-side bar, which was the only part of the hotel that remained standing, became a focal point for residents to gather.
“Most of our repeat guests came back quickly because they wanted to see what happened,” she said. While it took a little longer for new tourists to come to the island, this November the hotel is fully occupied.