Deadly 1924 Hurricane
- July 29th, 2011
- in Yachting
The Deadly 1924 Hurricane
At 3 pm on Friday, Aug 27, 1924, the brunt of a severe hurricane hit the BVI and caused serious damage to many buildings. Main Street was choked with smashed buildings. Twenty-nine people were killed and around 80 badly injured. Most of the population was made homeless and destitute. We know what happened as the then-Commissioner Capt Otto Hancock’s wife Agnes kept a detailed record and later wrote it all down to describe to her family in the UK how they survived. That eight-page typed letter is on display at Old Government House and can be read in the very room that she and her husband their two sons, age 4 and 6, their cook and two maids sheltered from the violent storm, as the rest of the building was flooded and destroyed around them.
Here are some extracts from her blow-by-blow account:
2 am: It’s the morning of Thursday, Aug 28. Awoke to find Otto on his crutches [he had lost a leg in the Great War]. He had been downstairs to look at the barometer, which had dropped alarmingly since the night before.
5 am: Warning signal was blown through town. … A very curious morning: wind coming fitfully in small gusts, sea calm, wind due north [of] our dangerous quarter.
3 pm: The wind is very strong. … Sea now roaring into harbour over reef. We shut upstairs and barred all doors, and shutters, securely.
6 pm: Wind getting worse, barometer falling fast, gusts getting more frequent.
8:35 pm: Wind now terrific, and we can see lightning through cracks of door, but all sound of thunder drowned by the wind.
11:43 pm: I said to Otto: “I shall light the lanterns in case electric light fails.”
11:45 pm: Electric light suddenly went out. [The generator shed had blown away.] Terrible noises and bumpings. Sounds as if the verandah and roof are departing!! [They did] Trying to dodge the water which is pouring through the ceiling. … Moved to pantry, where three maids are. Put meat safe in front of door… and cook with her back to it. Put up umbrella and tried to keep babies dry.
1 am: The barometer shows signs of rising, very slightly, but how we got through the hours of 12-6 [pm], I don’t know. We just watched the doors, nailed up more supports and hoped for the best.
6 am: We hear voices outside, but are almost afraid to open a door, as [wind] is still blowing hard. Finally we did … and were struck dumb by the sight we saw. It was worse than dreadful. Nothing but wreckage all around us, trees torn as if they were twigs. All the mountains black and brown, and looked as if they had been burnt.
Government House was essentially destroyed and had to be rebuilt, which is the structure you see today. Only the two-foot-thick walls of the pantry and living room survived. The schooner Fardjina was ashore below (where the tennis court is now). The government launch, Saint Ursula, was aground in the cleaning hole below Fort Burt. In Roadtown (as it was then spelled), “A house stood here and there, but most of them just masses of wreckage, completely blocking the road. The sea did much of the damage as it came up and literally floated the wooden houses off their stone foundations,” Ms Hancock wrote. The injuries were extensive and the sole nurse was hard pressed to cope. The commissioner’s wife had been concerned about a patient in the hospital with a broken leg as she could see that the building’s roof had been torn off, but the patient had the presence of mind to roll under his bed and survived, though buried in debris.
Help came from St Thomas first. A launch with food, medical aid and a BVI Doctor and took eleven of the worst injured back to St Thomas. HMS Valerien arrived 10 days later from Antigua with the Leeward Island’s governor and more supplies of food and clothing and all the ship’s crew worked for two days helping clear up. But not before Commissioner Hancock with one gang started clearing the high street from one end and Mr Roy started from the other end, “shaming certain lazy individuals into helping,” as Agnes Hancock succulently put it.
The day after the hurricane, the gardener showed up with a basket of fruit. “This is what the breeze left, Mistress,” Ms Hancock recalled him saying. The offering allowed them the first laugh they had had since the storm terrorized the territory. It went on record as being the strongest “breeze” that anyone could remember.