MANDEVILLE, Manchester — For the people of St Elizabeth and Manchester’s southern fringe, it’s a case of one extreme to the other. Traumatised by severe drought just months ago, they are now being harried by water, water everywhere.
“We really need a little break from the rain now,” a pensive Sarah Allen of Grosmond, just outside Braes River in North-East St Elizabeth, told a Sunday Observer crew at the start of a day-long photo tour on Friday, three days after Tropical Storm Nicole pounded the island with heavy showers, taking at least eight lives and damaging property, infrastructure and crops.
Her comment came as she watched the rushing Grosmond River — normally an insignificant tributary of the Black River — which has now overflowed its banks, rushing through homes, shops and farms.
Fifty metres away young Dwayne Ivey stood disconsolately in front of his house surrounded by waist-high water. He and his parents had moved out on Wednesday to stay with relatives and friends.
Many of his neighbours had also fled their homes. Some had returned since Thursday as flood waters abated. But Ivey feared that predictions of more heavy rain over the weekend could lead to still more problems.
“Every (rainy) season we get flooding but I never see it like this,” he said.
It was the same story in several other low-lying communities.
But in Downs and Lititz on the South Manchester/South-East St Elizabeth border, there was also the story of a mini-tornado which ripped off several roofs and devastated the greenhouse farm of former member of parliament for South-East St Elizabeth Len Blake.
“I can’t tell you wha happen,” said Thelma Easy as she tried to recall the freak storm that whisked through the community at about 7:30 pm on Tuesday, taking half of her roof.
“Mi only hear glass (windows) a bruk up and by the time mi get up, mi hear blow! the roof gone,” she said, pointing to a half section of her house now covered with plastic tarpaulin. “Everything wet up,” she said, pointing to clothes she was trying to air out ahead of another fast approaching shower.
Easy said aid agencies, including the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management and the Red Cross had provided a little help, including temporary covers, blankets and food.
A few of her neighbours had already done roof repairs or were hammering away as the Sunday Observer crew drove through.
Pointing to wrecked greenhouse structures which had been protecting lush rows of lettuce, Blake said the “freak storm”, which lasted “less than five minutes”, had done him “more than a million dollars in damage”.
Along the main road through SE St Elizabeth badly gouged roads and washed out farms told their own story. At Flaggaman, volunteers were clearing silt from the section of road where 73-year-old farmer Lenford Blake was washed away and killed by rushing waters on Tuesday night.
Of great and immediate concern were the growing bodies of water — fuelled by flows from the Santa Cruz Mountains and from the upper reaches of the Black River — in the parish’s low-lying south-west.
Big Woods, Mountainside, other districts and access roads were all cut off from the east because of ‘heavy water’ — which left motorists and passengers with their hearts in their mouths even on roadways said to be “drivable”. Several families in Hopewell, Greenfield and Vineyard were reportedly marooned.
In the St Elizabeth capital, Black River, the river of the same name seemed dangerously close to breaking its banks as it rushed towards the sea on Friday.
The Black River market was flooded, as were homes, churches and businesses at the edge of town. Vendors outside the market urged the Sunday Observer to visit Parottee, just east of Black River. “Is there yu fi go see flooding,” they said.
A bid by the Sunday Observer to exit South-West St Elizabeth via the main road from Black River to Santa Cruz was soon aborted by ‘heavy water’ just north of the parish capital.
The alternate route through Brompton proved relatively uneventful and the Sunday Observer was able to get to New Market in North-West St Elizabeth in late afternoon. There the evidence of rising water was all around. The access roads to Montego Bay to the north-west and to Darliston and Eastern Westmoreland were declared officially blocked on Friday with yellow caution tape stretched across the roads.
The fear was that the disaster, this time, could be as bad as it was in 1979 when the entire town was evacuated as a result of a huge lake, triggering the construction of the neighbouring community of Lewisville.
By nightfall, the Sunday Observer team was in Middle Quarters pushing towards Santa Cruz, only to encounter more ‘heavy water’. The YS River has been in spate since Wednesday, the Sunday Observer was told, covering neighbouring cane fields and several hundred metres of what is one of the parish’s main thoroughfares in the vicinity of New Holland, just west of Holland Bamboo.
Dozens of young men and boys were making a good living pushing and guiding vehicles through for a “smalls”. One young man told the Sunday Observer he had been “hustling” since early Thursday.
“Turn off yu engine or yu gwine shut off in the water,” they warned apprehensive motorists. The wisdom of that advice was soon apparent. Within a minute or two, the Sunday Observer driver found that his shoes were covered by several inches of water.
There was relief all around when the car finally touched down on dry land and smiles when the engine turned over after a wait of several minutes to “dry out”.
The hustlers came with hands outstretched but this reporter only had $200. “Only dis!! How dis a go share big man?” one youth said heatedly. But he and his companions didn’t hang around; there were many other customers lining up.