British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Winifred K. O'Mahony
Hurricane Janet - Barbados 1955
Hurricane Janet Path
It was during the small hours of the night when I heard the telephone constantly ringing. Befuddled with sleep I could recognise the voice of the Commissioner of Police asking for Dr. O'Mahony. Apparently there was an hurricane alert but I was not to be 'alarmed'. Shaking my husband awake I handed him the 'phone. Yes, Piace Air Base in Trinidad had alerted us that Hurricane Janet had altered course and was heading for Barbados. Several hours could elapse before it reached us but there was much to do.

In less than 10 minutes Dr. O'Mahony was dressed had taken out the car and was headed for Police Headquarters and the big General Hospital nearby.

My first job was to close the big hurricane shutters on all 20 windows. Jamming each one of them with the great wooden bars to ensure their security. Then to telephone various friends to whom we had promised shelter in the event of a severe storm. So far the public had not been alerted and the time was around 3 a.m. I left the radio on as I knew that in due time the Government would be broadcasting general instructions as to what to do.

Then down to the big flat beneath our apartment which belonged to the Director of Public Works, now on vacation in Trinidad. Again I had some 20 big windows to secure, doors to bolt and in agony I had to decide that all the beautiful plants on their verandah would have to be left to the mercy of the oncoming storm.

Dr. O'Mahony rushed in for a few minutes, swallowed a cup of tea, a bite of toast, and was away again in an endeavour to visit the many outlying country hospitals - about 7 of them, a few of which were below or at sea-level. Now I could hear Police Vans with hailers telling the public to clear the roads, batten down their homes and remain there. The streets were no longer safe. Meanwhile the wind increased and our friends were arriving with emergency cases, and even a young baby with his nurse.

Hurricane Janet - Barbados 1955
In an endeavour to be shielded against the coming storm, a huge Shell Tanker had been left against the great old boundary wall of the Garrison. Later I realised its worth when it served military and other lorries as they subsequently went out on their various missions. Beside the tanker were parked a big number of Public Works lorries hopefully left there for later salvage work. Inside the ancient Fort Walls lay the big old ammunition store, and this was now receiving military personnel and soon we could hear the purr of a huge radio which was installed inside the walls which were about 10 ft. thick.

Returning to my flat I heard the Government broadcasts which were now on a more urgent note. The hurricane was now expected rather earlier than anticipated and would probably pass to the south of the Island. All business firms, banks, offices, etc. were to close immediately and everyone was urged to get off the streets. Our good Canadian friends, Mr. and Mrs. Garrett, had now arrived, together with their little golden cocker spaniel. Alas they had not had breakfast so I had to set about cooking as big a meal as possible for them, not knowing when the next meal would be.

Hurricane Janet - Barbados 1955
Santa Nita
Up until then the weather had been fairly normal but now I was aware of sharp gusts of wind from the North West - an unusual quarter for us - and gradually these were increasing with squally rain. Then Mrs. Merrivale Austin arrived with her daughter, son-in-law, their babe of 2 1/2 years, together with Nanny. Multitudes of baggage were carried in by their butler and chauffeur, who then hurriedly left for their own homes. Then I allocated a great big spare bedroom to the nanny and babe and gave out the necessary items for food preparation, etc. Mr. Austin was supposed to be in Grenada with his brother, the Chief of Police, and in an endeavour to alleviate his anxiety we put through a telephone call. Luck was with us and we got through, only to learn that Merrivale had left for Trinidad. To our amazement, Grenada had then had no intimation of the approach of 'Janet'. It was then approximately 10 a.m.

Dr. O'Mahony was still not home and the wind was increasing all the time. Eventually however, he arrived, put his car in the garage and battened it down as securely as possible. The wind had now shifted to the North and we could still stand on our sheltered verandah, watching the trees being blown hither and thither. Rediffusion had been off the air some time, and electricity now was cut out. Hurricane lanterns had to be lighted as the hurricane shutters at the windows completely precluded all light. Then came the deep murmur of the emergency generator from the Military H.Q. nearby. I prayed that the aerials, both there and at Police H.Q. and at Government House would stand up to the fury of the gale which was now ranging around us. Through a tiny gap in the kitchen jalousies we watched the torment of a quadrangle of tulip trees some 80 ft. high, as limb by limb they were torn apart, one of them flung across a building behind us. Then a great evergreen tree, a centenarian at that, had its branches torn off like shreds of paper. Corrugated sheets from nearby Nissen huts were being flown around in profusion whilst the noise was utterly terrifying. The wind was shifting again and we realised that the peak of the storm was at hand. The menfolk kept a constant check of windows, doors, etc., which were taking a tremendous battering, but we heard the wind now approaching from the South and our front door, which was of immense thickness, with four big bolts and two locks, was beginning to give way. Hurling our full weight on it, my husband and Bill Duncan were able to jam a huge 3ft. square piece of timber under the main lock and then wedge the other end with further pieces of timber which they nailed to the floor. Now the great gusts of wind were shaking the whole of this huge old building which had been Military H.Q. for well over a hundred years. The wooden staircase leading up to the flat was another anxiety - it was laced with a huge bouganvillia - but if it were torn down how on earth could we get out of the building in an extreme emergency? We had Julian Garrett, a man of 76 years, and Mary Ann Duncan, a pregnant woman, amongst our 'refugees'!

The turning point soon arrived and by 1.45 p.m. we realized that the winds were diminishing. Carefully opening the kitchen door, which had been protected by trellis on its verandah, my husband carefully stepped out and I followed him. The great lawns around us were smothered with leaves and the torn-off limbs, as well as many entire trees completely uprooted. An acrid-like smell assailed us from everywhere; it turned out to be sap from the tortured trees. The Adjutant and his staff, together with some of the personnel, were now coming out from their shelter in the old Ammunition Hall nearby. Almost immediately orders were being given for squads of men to start out in convoys of lorries with lifting tackle in order to clear some of the main roads and to re-establish communications. A squad was allocated to Dr. O'Mahony and he immediately got out his car, - intact, thank God! - and they slowly started out to try and get down to Medical Head Quarters at the General Hospital.

Hurricane Janet - Barbados 1955
Pilgrim Holiness Church
Marion Garret and I struggled through the debris towards the road, which was blocked by fallen trees and a medley of telephone and electric light wires lay everywhere. Several huge gas lamps from the huge holders had been snapped off and lay in the littered road. Any trees which remained upright had been stripped of leaves and had turned a dark brown. Venturing towards what had been a magnificent copse of tamarind, manchineel and coconut trees which bordered the sea behind our flat, my friend and I found it utterly impassable. The beautiful great trees had been ripped up and hurled against one another, whilst the roots lay exposed some 8 to 10 feet in the air. The erstwhile calm blue Carribbean was now a boiling, roaring horror. Sickened by it all, we crept back home. No electricity, no refrigeration, but thank God I had an adequate supply of food.

Mrs. Merrivale Austin started packing up her belongings when her chauffeur arrived with news of the severe damage to their fine old home. The verandah had been completely destroyed and it was feared that the house itself had shifted from its foundations. A tree had been blown down across the roof of the garage, which had given way under the impact. Their car was in a sorry state.

It was late at night when my husband returned, deadly tired and very silent. He fell asleep in an armchair immediately, too weary to even walk to his bedroom. I roused him later, gave him a light meal and he retired to bed. At 4 a.m. we were up again, hurried cups of tea were made on an oil stove and once more the poor D.M.S. started off on his Island-wide survey. The emergency dynamo from St. Ann's Fort was still chugging away, and now lorries and other vehicles were coming and going all the time. Little by little the whole battalion were reporting for duty. By daylight tents were being erected on the surrounding lawns. Sentries were stationed and soldiers with rifles were being sent out to guard strategic food supplies. Soon Army trucks with personnel were leaving to try and open up the blocked roads and clear communications. The Public Works Department called up all available carpenters, masons, etc., and instituted flying squads to commence the immense task of repairing damaged buildings. Then the Electricity Department and Telephone Company co-opted every electrician and every technician available and with vans, cars, or any possible transport, they started off on the task of disentangling and repairing the hundreds of miles of ruptured and damaged wires. Day and night these gangs of men worked in relays at the immense task.

Hurricane Janet - Barbados 1955
Rebuilding After the Hurricane
Later in the day, when there were only short sharp squalls of wind and rain, I ventured further afield from our immediate vicinity. Sick at heart I saw the lovely great trees uprooted and it was a miracle that so many had fallen between the houses or into the road or gardens. Most homes appeared to be damaged in some way and many had lost their roofs. Even strongly built concrete houses had their roofs entirely lifted off. The sea was subsiding but the flooding in many places bore evidence to the phenomenally high seas.

Approaching the many hotels bordering the sea, I found the verandahs piled high with sand to a depth of 3 feet or so, whilst fish were floating in the flooded ground floor lounges. The Royal Hotel, with its luxurious air-conditioned bedrooms, once the proud possessor of a Restaurant built out on a pier in the sea, which had now vanished and merely the damaged piers were left standing, was now roofless and derelict. The Manager's beautiful bungalow, recently built, was now shifted from its foundations and the roof lay shattered in the middle of the street. Further up the road I saw the home of a distinguished merchant completely cut in two, as if from bomb damage.

My courage failed me here and a passing Staff Officer in a military jeep gave me a much needed lift home. No servants and no help were anywhere available. Sand carried in the wind had permeated every corner of the house. I swept and dusted until my hands were blistered. My lovely mahogany furniture was dull and horrid from the salt-impregnated air.

I then learned of a further horror which had occurred near our home. The big Picture House, solidly built of concrete, had been used as a shelter for a large crowd of people. The storm in its fury had ripped off the roof and so caused the walls to collapse. There were many killed and seriously injured.

British Colony Map
1980 Map of Barbados
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 54: October 1987


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