Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – Some rushed to transfer money. Others prepared to send emergency supplies. Others prayed.
Hurricane Dean’s fury as one of the most powerful storms to cross the Caribbean awakened feelings of alarm and dread Saturday among the nearly 400,000 Jamaican-Americans in South Florida, prompting many to organize emergency aid campaigns and contact relatives and friends back home.
It’s been almost 19 years, but Jamaican-Americans recall with a shudder what a hurricane roaring out of the east can do. They remember the destruction caused by Hurricane Gilbert, a Category 3 storm that killed 45 Jamaicans and 273 others across the Caribbean in September 1988.
“There was no water, no light, the houses were in total disrepair,” said Carmen Bartlett, a Pembroke Pines resident who lived on the island then. “Our concern is how badly this hurricane is going to hit Jamaica and the devastation it’s going to have on the island.”
Around South Florida, banks reported a rise in Jamaica-bound wire transfers so family members and friends on the island could buy hurricane supplies, said Bartlett, who manages Jamaica National, a local remittance company whose parent company is one of Jamaica’s leading banks.
“We had a rush of people anxiously wanting to send money home to their families so they could do their emergency shopping,” said Bartlett, who estimated the average transfer at $100.
Just before leaving for work Saturday, Trevor McCalla waited in line at the Jamaican National branch in Lauderdale Lakes to send money to his wife, Velma, who has been in the town of Bois Content, Jamaica, for four months. Anticipating hurricane-related power outages, McCalla wanted to pay for at least five days of service on Velma’s pay-as-you-go cell phone so he can communicate with her after Dean passes.
“The cell phone is our only contact. Without that, I’d be here not knowing exactly what happened, how they fared,” said McCalla. “It definitely will put me at ease.”
Packing winds of 150 mph, Category 4 Dean was about miles southeast of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, late Saturday and moving west northwest at nearly 17 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It is expected to pass over the southwestern tip of Haiti by 8 a.m. EDT Sunday and then move west over Jamaica, according to National Hurricane Center meteorologist Robbie Berg.
“The island is rather small so it’s a little bit hard to tell if it will make a direct landfall or just go over,” Berg said. “Even if it moves very close, Jamaica will still feel hurricane-force winds.”
Flights between Jamaica and South Florida were at capacity Saturday and canceled Sunday, according to Paul Pennicook, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Air Jamaica. That meant some who wanted to leave Jamaica couldn’t.
“Our flights were already full coming out of the island, from people who were ending their vacations,” Pennicook said. “We can’t do much with people who have wanted to leave just because of the hurricane.”
At Mystik-1400 AM Caribbean Radio in Tamarac, host Ron Burke fielded questions all day Saturday from concerned Jamaican-Americans. He encouraged listeners to communicate with loved ones back home and tell them to heed all preparedness warnings. “People are worried their families are not taking it seriously,” Burke said. “Most people are sending prayers to their families.”
Burke anticipates South Florida’s Jamaican community will be glued to the radio, television and Internet today as Dean closes in on the island. The station will dedicate its entire Sunday coverage to the storm.
Jamaican Consul General Ricardo Allicock also spent Saturday answering questions from concerned expatriates. The Miami-based consulate and the Jamaican Diaspora Southern United States association began collecting donations and emergency supplies at various sites around South Florida.
“Jamaicans prior to Hurricane Gilbert never did take hurricane warnings seriously,” said Allicock, but “since the devastation of Gilbert, Jamaicans have always been sure to prepare themselves for the possible onslaught.”
In Coral Springs, resident June Minto called her mother in Manchester in west-central Jamaica to make sure she was well-prepared and safe before Dean arrives.
There’s not much else she can do, Minto said, except “pray that even if it hits, it won’t be that devastating.”