Irma: a meditation on hurricanes and The Bahamas

Anyone who has grown up with me knows that I’m not a person to take hurricanes lightly. When I was 17, I wrote an extended essay on the subject. The essay required me to delve into the science behind hurricanes, and also sent me to the archives in search of the impact of hurricanes on The Bahamas.

CratonHistory68I knew about the 1929 hurricane, of course; my grandmothers’ generation had survived it, and they would tell us stories of the bad old days when hurricanes came along every year and pass directly over Nassau.AlburyStory And the history books I had at my disposal (Michael Craton’s 1968 edition of A History of The Bahamas and Paul Albury’s 1975 The Story of The Bahamas) mentioned an earlier hurricane, one from 1866, which also devastated Nassau. I read everything I could get my hands on about both hurricanes. And then, for the next decade or so, I was a hurricane prophet, warning my family (really, anyone who would listen) to get ready every year. Because, although Nassau had not sustained a major hit for a good 20 years or so, I just knew it was going to be a matter of time.

Well, as we can see, it was. New Providence was struck directly in 2001 by Hurricane Michelle, whose eye passed over Nassau, and then almost struck directly by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, whose eye shifted just to the west of our island in the last hours before it struck. But nothing yet has impacted the capital the way the hurricanes of the 1920s and the 1800s did.

There are two things I want to say about this. The first has to do with the past and what it can teach us. The other has to do with the future and how we can use what we have learned.

What the past can teach us

The Bahamas, like the USA, historically sits outside the most common path of hurricanes. The majority of our archipelago lies above the Tropic of Cancer, in the sub-tropical zone, and at least until the end of the twentieth century, most hurricanes tended to form and stay within the tropics, crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean Sea and then sweeping up the Lesser Antilles. This was disastrous for the Caribbean but fortuitous for The Bahamas, as the Caribbean islands tend to be mountainous, and mountains help to break up hurricanes’ organization. The most common result was that by the time that hurricanes reached The Bahamas, even major ones like Inez and David and Georges, they had dissipated and were reduced to Category 1 or 2 hurricanes, or even to tropical storms.

Every thirty years or so, however, some regular shift in global weather patterns appeared to encourage the formation of hurricanes further north and increase the likelihood that they would affect The Bahamas and US eastern seaboard. These hurricanes would sweep across the Atlantic and not be disrupted by land or mountains until they were well inland in the USA. Neely1866The 1866 hurricane in The Bahamas was one of these, one of the earliest with a systematic plotting of its location and its intensity (believed to be a powerful Category 4 hurricane). Our primary source of information regarding its intensity comes from the barometric pressure recorded during the passage of the storm (for more details, read Wayne Neely’s book). This was followed by another deadly hurricane in 1899; then a series of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes between 1926 and 1932; then Betsy in 1965; and then Andrew in 1992.

This meant that it was quite possible, at least during the twentieth century, for a Bahamian adult to live and die without experiencing more than one or two devastating hurricanes. My father was such a person. He was born in 1938, and between then and his death in 1987, he experienced only one major storm: Betsy in 1965. His life during the 1970s was spent putting up hurricane shutters when we were under hurricane warnings, only to find out that the hurricane had either blown out to sea, or was nothing more than some wind and rain. And he complained. Our hurricane shutters were heavy wooden things that were fitted into our window frames and held in place with bars of two-by-four. They were hard to put up and hard to take down, and when he put them up only to be disappointed by some storm or other, he refused to take them down until the end of the season. He would unshutter the public areas of our house, but we would spend our nights in the darkness of the closed-up bedrooms.

I imagine that it’s hard for younger Bahamians to conceive of the possibility of going through one’s life without ever experiencing more than one deadly storm. The past twenty-five years have brought an extended period of hurricanes affecting our archipelago, beginning with Andrew, which was Category 5 when it struck Eleuthera from the east, and continuing through Floyd and Michelle and Frances and Jeanne and Wilma and Irene and Ike and Sandy and Joaquin and Matthew and Irma and potentially Jose.  The historical weather patterns affecting hurricanes have changed; the thirty-year cycle that predominated from the 1780s through the 1990s has been replaced with a cycle that we have not yet found a pattern for.

What is most striking about all of this, to my mind, is not the inevitable argument about climate change. What strikes me about this historical survey of hurricanes in The Bahamas is the one glaring fact that we tend to obscure while we are praying to be spared or engaging in rescue and clean-up: that the modern Bahamas fares better in hurricanes than almost any other territory on the planet

Part of the reason for this comes from our very geography. We have no rivers to overflow and break their levees, and we have no mountains to engender landslides. These are the two deadliest side effects of hurricanes, and they don’t happen to us. But there are other common ways that people die in hurricanes, and delving into our historical archives can tell us what they were. People are drowned in storm surges (as happened in Andros in 1866 and 1929) and people are killed by falling debris when houses are torn apart, when roofs fly off. And since the 1930s the number of houses that are torn apart in The Bahamas has been a whole lot fewer.

That’s because we have learned how to build for storms. I grew up in a house that was built in the 1930s, when we were rebuilding the city after the 1929 hurricane, and the contractor who built that house intended that it would withstand any storm. It is constructed of poured concrete reinforced with steel, and the roof is anchored securely to the walls. It has breezeways above every door to allow for cross ventilation, and it has withstood hurricanes without structural damage since its erection. I live in another house, this one built in the 1950s, again from reinforced poured concrete, this one raised some three to four feet off the ground (it is built on uneven ground). My parents were born in wooden houses, one of which is still standing, the other which would still be standing if a bulldozer had not ripped it apart. The one thing we learned after the destruction of our grandmother’s home was that it was built by shipwrights, and that there was not a nail in it; it was held together by wooden pegs which grew more secure over time as they swelled into place. The houses on Harbour Island, which was hammered by Andrew when it was a Category 5 hurricane, still stand, while much of Miami, which was hit after Andrew had weakened somewhat, was destroyed.

This is what we learn. Bahamians know how to build for storms. It is part of our adaptation to these islands, where evacuation is a twenty-first century luxury for the most sparsely populated islands, but is usually impossible for most of us. We have developed techniques to build homes that withstand hurricanes, and we have also written several of those techniques into our building codes. True, there is more that we could do today, but do not, possibly because of cost. Our grandfathers knew that we should not only build strong and smart, but that we should also build high: most of our traditional houses are raised on blocks and are three or four feet off the ground, and are far less prone to flooding than what we build today.

And that leads me to the second part of this meditation.

What the future can bring

I’ve watched/studied hurricanes for most of my life now. And while I respect them—deeply—I do not believe that Bahamians should fear hurricanes the way we appear to do. On the contrary. I believe that we should look hard at ourselves and work out why it is that we handle major storms so well. Part of it is, yes, our geographical flatness, our lack of mountains and rivers, our ability to hunker down through the storm and then not worry overmuch about the physical aftermath. But part of it is what we have developed ourselves.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Bahamians are the world’s experts on building to survive hurricanes. This is a critical skill that we can share with the world—especially given the fact that major hurricanes appear to be forming more and more often, and growing larger and stronger, and not following the patterns of the past.

For that reason, I believe that we should be in the global hurricane industry.

I believe:

  • that we should study and standardize our building techniques—all of them, from the working in wood to our facility with concrete;
  • that we should make a science out of them and embed them into engineering and architectural programmes which we can market to the world;
  • that we should certify our contractors who already know how to build for hurricanes, train more in those skills, and then export them throughout the entire hurricane region of the Americas to share those skills with others;
  • that we should develop specific materials that we can manufacture here (cement? concrete blocks?) and thus generate revenue that returns home;
  • that we should continue to research how to expand our skills in withstanding hurricane to become the acknowledged leader in the world;
  • that we should expand those skills to incorporate more and greater self-sufficiency—using renewable energy, sustainable architectural designs, and so on;
  • that we should take the opportunity to rebuild devastated communities better than they were before—just as we rebuilt Nassau after the 1920s. We should invest in the rebuilding of our southern islands as sustainable, self-sufficient communities which can not only withstand future hurricanes but which can serve as models for the world.

We are faced with real opportunities. I pray that we have the sense and the courage to take advantage of them.

For anyone who wants to learn anything about hurricanes in The Bahamas, look to Wayne Neely. He’s the expert. If you want to know who to listen to on social media, check what he has to say. It’s his hobby; but it’s also his training, and his job.


25 thoughts on “Irma: a meditation on hurricanes and The Bahamas

  1. Bravo Nicolette! Bravo!
    Very good article. You need to send this to the papers to publish.

    My great-grand father was a master carpenter and mason. His house, built on Long Cay around 1901, is still standing….all wood. I wish I had the money to have it restored….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are quite right. ….It is know how and not luck that helps us to survive . The house that my father was born in also stayed around for close to one hundred years, before it was burnt down. The wood that was used in those old buildingsl was also very special….they were made of Grand Bahama pine and we’re not processed in the way that modern imported wood is processed.I was told by an old carpenter that because of that the wood would still be working and would the tongue and groove would fit more tightly in time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes… the wood used in my great grand father’s home was both native wood and wood brought on boats from South America. They also used the wooden dowels. My father told me that he built boats with no kind of bonding agent. When the wood swelled there was no leak.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this excellent piece Nicolette. Our Bosfield family homestead in West St. is still there from 1900 and fit to a T, the criteria that Jackson Burnside called the Architecture of Common Sense. Let’s look to our past – respice – to strengthen our future.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. here is the problem you have not identified, there are no inspectors that will enforce any building code regulation, compared to US or Cda solve the problem with govt employee being honest and you might see change


    1. So here’s the thing. Even if our inspectors are crooked, we still do better than the USA in hurricanes. I’m pretty sure it’s because of the way that we build, codes or no codes. The exception might be on the Family Islands where some buildings seem to be erected without regard to codes, or where there is very limited ability to enforce the codes, but on the whole our buildings stand after hurricanes. I also believe that our codes do not go far enough. In low-lying areas, for instance, it should be mandatory to raise the floor of the house. Every house should have a cistern/rain water tank (which, of course, could be built under the house, which is now raised). Perhaps we should even consider making it mandatory for hot water to be provided by solar heaters to begin to reduce the demand for publicly generated electricity. I believe we need to make serious interventions in making our lives better, rather than seeking to maintain the status quo while making the cost cheaper.


      1. Good reply. We always have people looking at the negative which has nothing to do what you wrote.

        It is this type of thinking which will show the value in the brilliance of our people, how we can diversify out economy through training and how we can harness and export our talents to improve the economy.


  5. Definitely, Neko, and this is something we in Creative Nassau are encouraging with the ‘new breeze blowing’ (ie in the change of government who are actually prepared to listen to the creatives) through Jackson, your cousin’s, architectural legacy in recognizing and celebrating the immense respect owed to our ancestors in their design of the Bahamian clapboard house and, as Arlene mentioned above, his ‘Architecture of Common sense ‘something which most of our younger generation have no clue about, nor are interested in ‘cos ‘clapboard’ equates with ‘old fashioned, poor, and embarassing’……much work for the sankofa bird to do!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article! Very informative from a historical perspective as well! I live in a 99 percent wooden structure near the coast on the south. Yes it was designed and built by one of the world’s greatest Bahamian man of the soil architects, Micheal J. Moss. Built forty plus years ago and still standing strong!
    I pray that we make use of your worthy recommendations! Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent and practical treasures. Let’s celebrate and market them – knowledge, experience and skill. Second to none.

    Job well done Dr. Bethel.


  8. Nicolette, this is an excellent piece. We have much to be proud of in The Bahamas – especially how we have responded to the natural phenomena. We must continue doing what is needed in our communities to prevent loss of life and property as the dynamics of these hurricanes change. The ‘seemingly’ new dynamics that are causing national concern are flooding and sea surges. Adjustments on a national scale should take place to reduce the general fear and hysteria. Keep sharing! Your work matters.


  9. Nicolette, an excellent article! Recommendations worthy of consideration. I trust that the Minister of Works would give them serious thought. Keep up the good work!


  10. Thanks for this piece, I agree this should be published to a wide audience. More Bahamians (particularly the younger one) should have acces to this piece. Kudos Nicolette!


  11. Thanks for this piece, I agree this should be published to a wide audience. More Bahamians (particularly the younger ones) should have acces to this piece. Kudos Nicolette!


  12. Nicolette,
    Thank you for an excellent article.
    The historical perspective was enlightening.
    We must learn to value some of our customs from the past not everything that is new is good for us.
    Camille Barnett


  13. Excellent article to for a Bahamian Arcbitect on which to meditate. Yes repeat this in written and presentation form to the Bahamas Institute of Architects (Henry Hepburn, Stefan Russell, Amos Ferguson, Michael Moss), Bahamas Society of Civil Engineers (Teran Nicolls, Hammond Rahming). Minister of Works, Director of Building Control, Minister of Housing, Minister of Finance, Minister of Health, Minister of National Security and the Prime Minister. Yes The Bahamas Building Code needs enforcing in all the islands and updating with raised floor minimums in low lying areas, wood construction options with wood dowels. NEMA standard documents for declaring flood and storm surge zones, hurricane shelters/safe rooms and tornado shelters/safe room standards similar to FEMA 361 and 320 docs based on ICC500 standards need to be added. The current 8″ concrete masonry unit wall construction with 3/4″ cement plaster where we fill some of the block cells with concrete while pouring 8″x12″ steel reinforced concrete columns and 8″x16″ belt beams on 12″x24″ steel reinforced concrete footings on rock and timber roof trusses hurricane clipped and strapped 24″ on center each side of rafters and hipped plywood roof sheathing forming a sealed boxing at overhangs on belt beam 3×6 also pressure treated wood plate with hurricane shuttered windows and hollow metal or heavy wood doors when built 3-4 feet above grade in non-low lying areas has proven over the years resistant up to 140 mph winds with little damage and providing life safety. We need to enforce our homes to be constructed for hurricane shelter quality for life safety. I would not mention the spate of fires we have had in recent years. This is a re-education campaign for the Bahamian construction industry affecting our built environment that when systemized can be marketed to the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well written. It shows that we do have “thinkers” in the country who given the opportunity have the ability to provide for our country, The Bahamas the plan neededto bring about transformation and progress for all.


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