Houses of the Hurricane

A hidden history in the “bush” of North Caicos.

Photo essay by Tom Rathgeb ~ Text by Jody Rathgeb

The beauty of the Turks & Caicos Islands isn’t always about turquoise water and white sand. There is also beauty to be found in the “bush” and in the echoes of the past.

Many of the crumbling remnants of houses seen across North Caicos can be traced back to homes built just after Hurricane Donna struck the country in 1960.

On North Caicos, crumbling and overgrown one-room houses peek through the bush and talk to those who are interested in hearing about “the old days.” Most of them are reminders of the recovery from Hurricane Donna, which hit hard on September 7, 1960.

Wilbert Forbes, who was nine years old September 1960 and living by the beach in Whitby, recalls that news of the storm came from Nassau through the radio. His father Aaron was in the Bahamas at the time, but he says his mother, Wealthy, “was well-informed.” Told to move to high land away from the sea, she took her (then) four children—Agnes, Shirley, Wilbert, and Shirrington—to nearby Musgrove Hill. Joining them were relatives and other families who lived in the same area: a crowd of Swanns, Robinsons, Forbeses, Handfields, and Lightbournes.

The storm brought down nearly all of the beachfront houses, and on Musgrove Hill a large tree (“it was either an oak or a tamarind”) toppled, killing a donkey that had been brought there. Gary Lightbourne was only two years old at the time and lived in Bottle Creek. He recalls that his family stayed in their house because it was high on a hill. He says, “At first the creek was sucked dry and lots of people were picking up snapper, shad bar, and other fish—some were still jumping! Then it seemed like the water poured back in ‘like a river.’ Afterwards, there were creeks and waterholes all about, even in the Pineyard. Creek Mouth and other entrances from the sea were a lot deeper after the hurricane. It was like a natural dredging.”

Hope James-Hamilton was 10 years old when Hurricane Donna hit the Islands, but she remembers the event like it was yesterday. She recalls, “When we first heard the hurricane was coming, it was kind of exciting. Everyone was baking bread, frying fish, washing and packing away clothes to get ready. My daddy (the late Charles Hubert James), the late Raymond Gardiner, and the other men were checking the barometer and watching the creek. When he saw the creek was dry, my daddy said we had to go to the shelter. But mummy didn’t want to go! I remember he pulled me through the last open window in the house, which was closed up, and tied me to a tree so I wouldn’t blow away while he tried to convince mummy to leave.” The family made it to the shelter at the school, where Hope honors the “brave, strong men” who held the iron door shut against the winds while others went to a nearby shack and cooked rice in a big pot. The men then crawled between the shed and the shelter clutching handfuls of rice for the people to eat as they rode out the storm.

Amazingly, no human lives were lost in the hurricane, but there was plenty of destruction island-wide to homes and the boats that were a livelihood to many. Nevertheless, Wilbert Forbes calls the storm “a blessing in disguise.” The reason? Recovery assistance came quickly and generously from the West Indies Federal Government, Jamaica, the United States, and Canada. In addition to food of all types, there was cement, lumber, and roofing materials. The Islanders set to rebuilding their homes and repairing their sloops.

They built quickly and simply: one-room structures of native stone and cement, with corrugated metal roofs. Skills and tools varied; only one man, says Wilbert, had a level and a square. Others crooked their elbows to approximate a right angle.
Over the years, residents added improvements and built larger and better homes which can be seen across the island today. But the “hurricane houses” remain as a testament to island resilience. Created as the result of a natural disaster, they, too, are “beautiful by nature.”

Sources: Wilbert Forbes of Whitby, North Caicos; Gary Lightbourne and Hope James-Hamilton of Bottle Creek, North Caicos, and H.E. Sadler’s Turks Islands Landfall, Second Edition.

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