In the Wake of Ivan the Terrible

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.

Trouble in Paradise
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.


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 December 2003.

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.

Information Shortage
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 contact.

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 ( 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.

Varying Damage
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 other.

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 is started.

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 and brush.

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 first floor.

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 out.

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 itself.

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 me.

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 control.

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