June 1986 – floods that Jamaica will never forget
In June 1986, I had to meet two friends at the Montego Bay airport to drive them to Negril. I left Kingston on Saturday morning for Montego Bay in light rain to meet the afternoon flight.
The rain remained light but steady for the entire journey. There were no issues at Flat Bridge, and the only other danger point was a winding stretch of road near Falmouth, where it was easy to pick up skids on the wet road. I arrived early and met my friends, and we set off for Negril in unrelenting rainfall. They were concerned about the weather, but I assured them that afternoon rain in Jamaica was no problem, that it quickly disappeared by late afternoon to make way for bonus beach time and a spectacular sunset.
After the hotel check-in, it was clear that we would have to remove Rick’s Café from the evening plans due to the continuing downpour. For consolation, I suggested night dancing at Hedonism. They loved the night out – Sunday was off to a good start. The rains subsided, the sun peeped out, and my guests enjoyed a delicious Jamaican lunch. I said goodbye on Sunday evening, driving on rain-soaked roads from Negril to Savanna-la-Mar, where I would overnight before returning to Kingston.
RETURNED WITH A VENGEANCE
On Monday morning, the rain returned with a vengeance. I ploughed dutifully through the torrent, navigating the old roads of Manchester and Clarendon that were now partly flooded and partly washed away. As I crossed the fairly new Rio Minho bypass bridge near May Pen, I noticed the raging, angry waters of the river. I could feel an eerie, spine-chilling vibration while traversing the bridge. But crossing this bridge is always a little spooky, especially if there are trucks going over at the same time as it makes the trembling bridge feel like a roller-coaster ride. I held on to the steering wheel tightly, never relaxing the grip of my fingers until I was safely on the other side.
When I arrived in Kingston, I got an urgent message from my friends. Their hotel room on the ground floor was flooded. Utterly bewildered, they had no idea what to do next. I had to think quickly. I called Irving, a friend who lived on Negril’s West End, and asked him if he could rescue the young ladies and take them home for safety. He agreed. The young ladies never saw the sun again on that trip, but Irving was a gracious, welcoming host.
The tourists were out of harm’s way in Negril, but the all-island deluge continued. Reports came in about flood-related tragedies across the island. A man near Lucea went outdoors to bring his animals to higher ground, and he was swept away by floodwaters. And four people drowned in St Mary when a bus plunged into the Wag Water River. And to my absolute horror, the Rio Minho bridge that I had crossed only two days earlier collapsed, taking downstream three cars and a minibus. At least 12 bodies were recovered from the sometimes dry river. Reports say the river’s flow had peaked at 50 feet above its normal depth. In the days that followed, more than 50 Jamaicans died across the island in this disaster that was described as the worst to hit in more than 40 years.