Hurricanes threatening Caymanian heritage

The massive hurricane that ripped through Grand Cayman in September 2004 may not have taken any lives, but there were significant casualties nonetheless – namely the hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and a devastating blow to residents’ psyche through the loss of invaluable pieces of Caymanian heritage, an audience gathered for a lecture heard this week.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, many historic items were carted away with the rubble during the island-wide clean-up, according to the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.

The disregard of heritage during a time of disaster, as well as the need to be prepared for storms, was the focus of a National Trust lecture “Weathering the Storm” held Tuesday at the University College of the Cayman Islands campus.

The photographic presentation discussed lessons learned from some of the worst storms experienced in the Cayman Islands; how to adapt for future challenges; and why and how some of Cayman’s oldest homes survived the storm with minimal damage.

The panel of speakers included Denise Bodden, the National Trust’s historic education and development manager; McCleary Frederick, director of Hazard Management Cayman Islands; and Courtney Platt, photographer and co-author of “Paradise Interrupted.”

Ms Bodden said while the speedy clean-up of Grand Cayman was beneficial, significant historical pieces were taken away with the rubble.

“When we clean up, we have to be mindful of what we are clearing away,” she said.

Ms Bodden said this is an ongoing struggle the National Trust faces on a daily basis. “There is a lack of awareness of what our heritage is, why it is important and how to deal with it when it is damaged,” she said.

Like many who evacuated, Ms Bodden left her vehicle at the airport and fled with one bag, only to arrive back on island to total chaos. She spent her time taking photos and recording what heritage was left over from the damage.

Mr. Frederick and Mr. Platt photographed areas that were heavily damaged in the storm and their photographs of the aftermath show the chilling details of how much destruction occurred.

Mr. Frederick said the government’s assessment calculated that Ivan had destroyed 10 to 15 percent of the homes on the island; another 20 percent had major damage; 50 to 60 percent suffered minor damage; and 5 percent had no visible damage.

The cost of Hurricane Ivan, he said, was $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion in building damage and $750 million to $850 million in residential loss, with 8,500 cars lost.

Many older Caymanian homes survived the storm unscathed, including the Webster House and the homes of Sybil McLaughlin, Dolly Solomon and Lorna Bodden in Bodden Town. Ms Bodden said these older homes are worth studying.

Mr. Frederick explained two major elements in Cayman which cause damage from a hurricane is wind damage and storm surge. Because of those concerns, older Caymanians did not build their homes on the seafront, but inland.

Traditional homes were also built in a way so that water could pass under the home, and not straight through it, he said.

“In earlier years, Caymanians built their homes on rock and not sand,” he said. “A bad example of building on sand and too near the waterline can be seen in the Seven Mile Beach area.”

After a Nor’wester, people had to walk in the water to get around the buildings. This, Mr. Frederick said, is what happens when people build too close to the water.

“If you are building on a coastline or canal, raise the building up and have a sacrificial ground floor for water flow,” he said.

Ms Bodden added, “Nature is a wonderful teacher, but we have to pause and think about it long enough to get something meaningful out of it. In the same sense, preserving who we were and who we are is very important.”