Terror came to Cayman 80 years ago

Deadly 1932 hurricane upgraded to Cat 5 this year

On 8 and 9 November, 1932, back in the days before tropical storms and hurricanes got names, the Cayman Islands, and particularly Cayman Brac, was devastated by a hurricane that brought wind gusts of more than 200 miles per hour, waves up to 50 feet and more than 30 feet of storm surge. 

The hurricane is now often referred to as the 1932 Cuba Hurricane because it killed more than 3,000 people in Cuba, most of them in the coastal town of Santa Cruz del Sur, which was inundated with more than 21 feet of storm surge. 

Originally thought to have been a Category 4 hurricane, a reanalysis of the storm completed by the National Hurricane Center in Miami in May 2012 caused the storm to be upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane, with top sustained winds of 175 miles per hour and a barometric pressure as low as 918mb. The upgrade made the storm the strongest ever in the Atlantic basin in the month of November and the only Category 5 storm in that month. 

Although the hurricane affected many countries, it was particularly hard on the Cayman Islands and Cuba. 

Grand Cayman was spared the worst of the storm as it passed just east early on 8 November. Still, the hurricane killed one person in Grand Cayman, as well seriously damaging or destroying about 60 homes. The storm also sunk the ship Balboa, the remains of which can still be found near George Town Harbour. 

After passing Grand Cayman, the hurricane tracked northeast, directly for Cayman Brac. By the evening of November 8th, the centre of the hurricane was approaching that island and the few hundred residents who lived there.  

 

Night of terror  

In the book “The Sea of Bitter Beauty”, Cayman Bracker Elsa M. Tibbetts wrote about her experiences during the hurricane. 

“On November eighth, there were more frequent squalls coming from the southeast, which caused turbulent waves to crash on shore. Later that evening, about nine o’clock, gale force winds and heavy rain showers were on the increase. The barometer was rapidly falling. 

“Heavy dark clouds were embracing the Island. This type of weather had never been experienced before on the Island.” 

In 1982, on the 50th anniversary of the hurricane, another Cayman Bracker, Alva Kirkwood, wrote about her experiences during the hurricane for The Caymanian Compass.  

“Night came on and with it the darkness of the tomb,” she wrote. “Torrents of rain also brought hail. The wind had all the trees bowing to the ground or broken off, leaving jagged stumps. 

“We had no electricity and the high winds kept blowing out our kerosene lamps, leaving us in utter darkness.” 

When the house Kirkwood was sheltering started to come down, she and everyone in it had to try and seek the shelter of Cayman Brac’s caves in the middle of the night. 

“The night was pitch black – we could see no more with our eyes open than when they were closed,” she wrote.  

“To keep from being blown away, we held onto one another and ventured forth, trying to remember which direction to take to find the nearest cave. 

“Amid the confusion, we found that my aunt had fallen into an old well half full of debris and was shouting with all her might so as to be heard above the storm. We all came to a halt while my uncle pulled her out, soaking wet, cut up by sharp rocks and shaking with cold and fright.” 

Eventually Kirkwood’s group saw a tiny light and made its way to the house of a relative. But their ordeal was far from over. 

 

Eye of the storm  

When the eye of the storm passed over Cayman Brac, it became dead calm. Many of the residents came outside or went to bed, thinking the storm was over. Mrs. Tibbetts’ family’s house could not accommodate all the people who had gathered in it to weather the storm, so her father recommended they all stay the night in the newly built schoolhouse a short distance away. 

“As the group was walking toward the school building, we suddenly felt a cold chill of air that blew in from the northwest,” she wrote. “Shortly after we arrived at the school, the winds rapidly increased.” 

Mrs. Kirkwood’s recollection was very similar. 

“[A] coolness started to descend as from an open refrigerator,” she wrote. “My brother appeared from nowhere crying out, ‘Come! The storm is returning in greater force. We must make it to the bluff while there’s still a chance.” 

 

Storm surge   

After the eye passed over Cayman Brac, the winds switched from southeast to northwest. The whole northern coast and particularly the lower elevation of West End – where many people lived – was inundated with large waves and storm surge. 

“The ocean roared like a lion as the giant waves started to roll in from the northwest,” wrote Mrs. Tibbetts. “Not long after, the seawater started to seep in under the doors.” 

The schooner Caradad, which had been grounded on the beach nearby the previous year, was picked up by the waves and smashed into the schoolhouse, creating a large hole. Soon, the waves were rolling large rocks through the hole and into the building. Everyone inside realised they had no alternative than to evacuate the schoolhouse through a window on the lee side of the building, jumping 6 feet to the ground. It was just before dawn. 

“Less than 15 minutes after everyone left the schoolhouse, it was in total shambles from the waves and rocks. Our escape was none too soon,” Mrs. Tibbetts wrote. 

About this same time, Mrs. Kirkwood and her family were desperately trying to reach the caves. 

“The dawn could be seen in the eastern sky and darkness gave way to daylight while the storm returned in all its fury,” she wrote.  

“[We] all raced up the cliff, jumping high stone walls, tearing thorny bushes that ripped off our clothing, leaving many of us stripped to the waist, cut and bleeding. Huge trees had fallen across the path and loose rocks retarded our every step.” 

 

Death and destruction  

As Mrs. Kirkwood and her family frantically made their way through the wind and rain toward a cave, her grandmother collapsed and said she couldn’t go. She and her sister dragged her the rest of the way to the safety of a cave. 

Mrs. Tibbetts’ family and their friends and relatives weren’t as fortunate. After trudging through deep water trying to return to their home after leaving the schoolhouse, they found that they couldn’t open the doors because of the high water. 

“It was impossible to get inside out of the storm,” she wrote. “What a frightful feeling! The starless night had ended to be replaced with prevailing darkness and heavy dark clouds that appeared to meet the mountainous waves.  

“It’s hard to comprehend the feeling as you find yourself standing outside your own home, while rising waters continue to surround it … we were shut out from any shelter, exposed to the persistent winds and torrential rains, shivering in the cold and so very helpless!” 

The group found some shelter on the lee side of the house, under an overhang, but they were standing in deep seawater. 

“The blowing sand and rain left burning stings on our bodies,” she wrote. “We were shivering in the cold as the winds and waves continued to batter us.” 

Eventually, the Tibbetts’ home collapsed, trapping everyone who was sheltering next to it under the rubble. Another wave came in and moved the wreckage, allowing some of the trapped people to escape. 

“My parents, brothers sister and I survived the wreckage,” she wrote.  

Others weren’t so fortunate. 

“Other members of the party taking shelter with us were killed instantly; friends and relatives, my Grandma Judy included,” Mrs. Tibbetts wrote. 

Her aunt and her cousins were standing under a tree for shelter. 

“Suddenly, the treacherous waves came up to where they were standing and swept the 10-month-old baby boy away,” she said. Six months later, Mrs. Tibbetts’ mother found a safety pin that had been in the baby’s diaper. 

“The waves had claimed his life and there was very little of his body to be identified.” 

Her cousin Jessica was one of the people who was trapped under the rubble of the house. When a wave shifted the house again and relatives attempted to rescue her and Jessica uttered her last words: 

“Don’t help me as my back is already broken and I am prepared to go, but help the one next to me instead,” Mrs. Tibbetts related. 

Soon after another large wave crashed over Jessica, killing her. 

“Jessica’s watch stayed on her arm,” Mrs. Tibbetts wrote. “It had stopped at 6.20am. We assumed that was the time her life was taken, along with the others nearby that lost their lives from the same waves.” 

 

Aftermath  

The 1932 hurricane killed 109 people from the small Cayman Brac community, including many women and young girls whose bodies were found on the rocks after the flood waters subsided. 

Young men died as well, Mrs. Kirkwood noted. 

“Three ships out turtling with our boys on board never returned,” she wrote. “And a fourth ship, a freighter bound for Pamana with some of our Brac people on it, was lost at sea.” 

Not only was the death toll enormous considering the small size of Cayman Brac’s population, but the destruction to property was equally significant. 

“Every house on the Island was destroyed except for two,” Mrs. Kirkwood wrote. Mrs. Tibbetts wrote that the aftermath of the hurricane was not pleasant, but with the tales of tragedy also came tales of miraculous survivals, like of the young boy who was drowning but was saved when he grabbed onto a pig that was swimming nearby. 

“As we look back even now on November 9, 1932, it was nothing short of a miracle that so many survived,” Mrs. Tibbetts wrote in 1984. “Imagine the forceful wind that battered each of us, the deep water that was beyond the tallest man’s height, the mountainous waves that sometimes swallowed us and bounced us around like a piece of cork in the ocean.” 

Thinking back on the experience, Mrs. Tibbetts likened it to the Biblical tale of David and Goliath.  

“David, small in stature, battled the giant Goliath,” she wrote. “But God demonstrated His love in power that gave the victory. He gave us victory, too.” 

 

Excerpts from the book “The Sea of Bitter Beauty” have been used with permission of the author, Elsa M. Tibbetts-Engel 

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  1. This is such a dramatic account of the terror of a hurricane. I had heard of the storm of ’32 but never in such riveting detail. I would very much like to have the book.

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