Anyone who visited Saint Lucia post Christmas could be forgiven for thinking that the country was hit by a category 4 or 5 hurricane, after the island was scarred by the latest system which struck Christmas Eve. Fortunately or unfortunately for us, whichever way you want to put it, it was only classified as a trough, although it managed to take down bridges, cause massive landslides and take six lives in the process. This trough was even able to stir up theological phenomena and tales of evil and witch craft.
The STAR has extensively covered some of the destruction sites which were left in the system’s aftermath and once again our curiosity fueled the need to find out more about one of the oldest roads on the island, the four lane Vieux Fort highway which was partially destroyed. We wanted to know the historical significance of this road and whether we could find a logical explanation as to why a section was destroyed by the waters. In order to obtain accurate information, the STAR spoke with Monty Maxwell, a retired weatherman who worked at the Meteorological Office for 32 years, and is also well known in Saint Lucia as a musician.
STAR: Mr. Maxwell, can you give us a brief history of the 4-lane road?
MM: In the time of the second World War, British resources were being depleted because of the constant bombing of London and other parts of England by the Nazis, and they wanted reinforcements. They were able to come to an agreement with the American government to receive eleven naval vessels and in exchange the Americans would strategically occupy the islands from Trinidad up to the Bahamas so that German submarines and U-boats would be unable to go through the islands and attack the Gulf States which were more or less vulnerable. So they went into the arrangement and the Americans came here; the 59 Bomber Squadron of the US Navy was deployed in the Caribbean.
When the US came in, they built massive infrastructure, including two runways about 5000 feet long, which they called Runway A and Runway C. Runway A is the current runway being used at the Hewanorra International Airport and Runway C is now known as the Caca Beff. The concrete road that comes down by the beach, which we now refer to as the 4-lane, was part of the base infrastructure. The aircraft would land, then come out by The Reef Bar area, come down the 4-lane road and there were aircraft bunkers all along the area between Beanefield and New Dock Road. And where the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College Southern extension is situated, the road lead there into an area called the Motor Pool. Most of the people of Vieux Fort used to live at the Pointe Sable area. From east of Clarke Street going up to the sea, that area was a mangrove, hence the area is called The Mang. The Americans backfilled that area and relocated the people from the Pointe Sable to The Mang area.
STAR: When were these built?
MM: The runways were built round about 1941, because the Americans came in that year and everything else was built after that. WW II was between 1939 and 1945 and the action really commenced in 1940.
STAR: What would you suggest could have caused a portion of the 4-lane road to collapse during the Christmas trough?
MM: Before I tell you what I think caused the 4-lane road to fail, I will give you a proper understanding of the drainage system for that area.
When the Americans came here they built ‘waterways’. The runway was 5000ft long and 150 feet wide, that’s a significant amount of hard surface. A lot of water would accumulate when you have rainfall, especially significant rainfall events. So they built underground drainage with two waterways. The Vieux Fort River used to merge with the sea in the Atlantic Ocean. The Americans took it from La Ressource and sent it straight to the Dengue area, building a bridge in the area near the True Value store.
In 1970-71 the Canadians came and lengthened the runway to 9000 feet and rediverted the river down by Il Pirata behind the airport fence on the western side. They put in place three large culverts under the runway following the second course of the river.
As you know rivers normally find their course so to facilitate that, they put in place those culverts leading to the Dengue/Bacadere area.
Because of the underground drainage at the airport, the Americans built two canals, one on the south side and the other on the northern side leading to the eastern side towards the Coconut Bay Resort entrance. There is another canal that they built called a crude drain, which led to Sandy Beach. If you head to Sandy beach you will see two culverts that have been choked ‘forever’. These culverts were supposed to take the water from the airport through the crude drain and to the sea, but it has been choked for a very long time.
I think that the rainfall was so intense that our waterways were inundated and couldn’t handle the volume of water. Also the rain that fell in Vieux Fort did not cause any damage, it’s the rain that fell in the forests that had the rivers to come raging down. After the waters subsided, there was river silt all over the Beanefield and Bruceville areas. These waterways have been neglected and as a result are choked up with silt, mud and vegetation. On Christmas day, water lilies that grow in the canals were all over Vieux Fort as far as the Independence Square.
Since the culverts were choked, all the water came from the airport and inundated the road and that’s why the concrete road failed. Also it could’ve been possible that there was a high tide, because the water found its way to the sea and the sea came in. Now you had both these sets of water eating away at the concrete road adding to the failure.
STAR: Could it have been averted?
MM: If the culvert had been cleared a long time ago the water would have just found its way to the sea. What would traditionally happen was the water would erode the sand and create a ‘maigo’ (mangrove), but that could not happen because of the blockage.
STAR: So do you think that these problems of flooding began to occur after the river was redirected or is it just plain and simply the issue of neglect?
MM: I honestly think that it has to do more with the neglect of the waterways. What has happened too is that now we have more water because we have more hard surfaces around the southern side of the airport which is the town area, and we now have less porosity. So this water needs another drain to connect to the southern waterway. But again I will reiterate that the main problem for the failure of the road was neglect.