Residents of an idyllic tropical island are putting their
lives, buildings and infrastructure back together, after their
worst hurricane season in at least 70 years. An Edmonton P.Eng.
went to Grand Cayman Island to help out. Although dealing
with a death toll nowhere near that of some of its neighbours,
Grand Cayman has a big job ahead, he reports.
In Carribbean terms, Grand Cayman residents have been
lucky with hurricanes, over the years. But Ivan changed
all that, with the worst hit in most of the population’s
memory. Above, typical residential roof and second floor
damage, near George Town. Right, beached yacht and disabled
cars at Lime Tree Bay.
BY BRIAN C. ADENEY, P.ENG.
What does the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane on the
Saffir-Simpson scale look like and how does it impact those
people in its path? The eye of Hurricane Ivan, one of several
significant and the largest of the Atlantic hurricanes so
far in 2004, came within 30 kilometres of the south side of
Grand Cayman Island on Sept. 12, after causing widespread
death and destruction in Grenada and Jamaica.
In an instant it changed the lives of the 40,000 inhabitants
of an idyllic tropical island that I had just visited, in
Grand Cayman is the largest of the three Cayman Islands,
sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1503. The islands are a
British protectorate (former colony), located about 300 km
northwest of Jamaica and 300 km south of Cuba. Grand Cayman
is an important cruise ship port and tourist destination —
35 visitors for every resident in 2003 — and the fifth
largest offshore financial centre in the world.
Through a resident contact, I was fortunate in obtaining
an emergency temporary work permit as a professional engineer
and arrived at the main airport exactly 14 days after the
hurricane hit. At that time, only Caymanian citizens, ex-patriate
property owners and Red Cross relief workers were being allowed
on the island, as almost all infrastructure was inoperative.
I immediately noticed damage to the airport terminal building
and hangars, although all were functioning. The fencing around
the airport had been flattened by a tidal surge and I later
heard that the runway had one metre of standing water across
it at one point during the storm.
What also struck me was that I knew much more about what had
happened on the island than the residents themselves, as I
had ready access in Canada to the Internet reports and pictures
prior to arrival. Many residents and tourists had left the
island prior to the storm, and those remaining were still
without electricity, sewage treatment, regular phone service
(there was some intermittent cell service) and television.
They had limited water usage, and isolated radio and newspaper
I came armed with relief supplies, including bottled water,
bow saws, mould masks, new mop heads, rubber gloves, cleaning
solutions and batteries, most of which were not available
in the few open stores.
The powerful 400-km-diameter Hurricane Ivan lasted almost
30 hours on Grand Cayman. It slowed down when skirting past
the island and dumped a total of 12 inches of rain, most of
it falling sideways. The maximum wind gust recorded at the
capital, George Town, was approximately 350 km/h before the
wind recorder collapsed.
The highest level Category 5 hurricane is defined as having
sustained wind speeds above 257 km/h, using the Saffir-Simpson
scale adopted in 1969 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (www.noaa.com). I have since heard that Hurricane
Ivan may require the National Hurricane Centre to consider
a more severe, sixth category.
This storm also produced the sixth lowest barometric pressure
ever recorded in the Atlantic, which contributed to a four-metre
tidal surge (rise in sea level). The accompanying winds generated
several 10-metre-high waves across much of the island, most
of which is a mere five metres above sea level.
When I left, there were only two recorded deaths, although
there were still some people unaccounted for three weeks after
the storm hit.
The damage I saw varied. Homes, schools, businesses and hotels
on Grand Cayman are generally newer and much better built
than structures on other Caribbean islands. However, the high
intensity and duration of this storm affected a large number
of people and their property.
Local accounts noted that up to 80 per cent of structures
had sustained some roof, window, or flooding damage, of which
25 per cent were completely destroyed.
Some dwellings near the shoreline experienced up to two
metres of flooding on the first floor. Some lost their roofs
entirely. Trees were uprooted throughout the island and there
were large piles of mixed debris in the mangrove areas.
It has also been estimated that up to 10,000 vehicles —
about half of those on the island — were destroyed either
by drifting against each other and houses in the waves, or
by having electronic instrumentation shorted by flooding seawater.
An unknown number of yachts and other boats were also destroyed
or damaged and ended up on dry land against houses and each
Beach sand was pushed into large snow-like drifts across
roadways near the world famous Seven Mile Beach.
It will be some time before contractors and construction
materials are available to repair or replace roofs, and the
hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30. Essentially, all goods
on the Cayman Islands are imported. In addition, numerous
insurance claims will have to be settled before repair work
Putting Up the Plastic
My role was to assist primarily with installing plastic over
damaged roofs. I also cleaned out homes where shallow flooding
had occurred, often with an unpleasant combination of rainwater,
seawater and sewage backup, and helped cut up fallen trees
Finally, I spent two afternoons at the Cayman National Museum
assisting with drying out artifacts and archival documents.
The museum had been flooded with 1.5 metres of water on the
As the daytime temperatures were 35 C with high humidity,
we worked outside from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m.
to dark, or about 6:30 p.m. Air conditioning is a must, especially
at night, but with no electricity or other utilities, many
residents had left the island to stay with relatives overseas.
There had been reports of some minor looting and siphoning
of gas from vehicles during the initial days after the storm,
but I saw no evidence of this during my one-week stay; co-operation
between residents was high. The night curfew hours had been
reduced from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. by the time I arrived.
There was major damage to the island’s infrastructure,
including desalination plants. The only fresh water available
is collected in cisterns. Many waterlines and other utilities
were exposed — all underground services are shallow
burial, due to marl/coral bedrock near the surface.
Power poles were toppled and wires let loose — both
wooden and reinforced concrete poles had snapped off. Sewage
lagoons were flooded, communciations towers were damaged.
In addition, pirate grave sites along the beaches were washed
One of the island’s biggest issues will be waste management
as the one landfill site, which was apparently nearing capacity,
becomes filled with construction debris, brush, and destroyed
appliances, furniture and vehicles. There was talk about barging
destroyed vehicles to Miami for processing or operating a
crusher on the island.
It was interesting to note that Grand Cayman does not have
a beverage container recycling program or formal composting
site. Limited separation of materials in the waste stream
appears to occur either at the curb side or at the landfill
We went through three to four litres of bottled water per
person each day, so empty bottles were accumulating quickly.
A volume of 11 million cubic metres of landfill waste was
estimated to be generated from the storm’s aftermath,
officials at the Department of Environment and Health told
Overall, I was most impressed with the resiliency and positive
spirit of the people in getting the island back into shape.
The damages essentially affected all residents in some way
and became a big equalizer, as many of the wealthy and poor
alike were left with nothing.
Most of the people had never experienced a hurricane on this
scale; the last major one was in 1932 with lesser ones in
1988 and 2001.
It will take some time before normal conditions are restored,
but some good lessons were learned about the best construction
techniques and hurricane preparedness measures.
Brian Adeney, P.Eng., is project director, environmental
practice, for EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd. in Edmonton.
He has over 22 years of consulting experience in water resources
and environmental studies in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Northern
Canada, and has a specific interest in flooding and erosion