On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 29, 1961, the 8,000 or so residents of Grand Cayman were making final preparations for what was expected to be a close encounter with a major hurricane later in the day.
As fortune would have it, the storm changed course at the last minute.
Hurricane Hattie, which had formed – as late season Atlantic Basin tropical cyclones often do – in the southwestern Caribbean Sea off the coast of Nicaragua on Friday, Oct. 27. On that day, the center of the Category 1 hurricane passed very close to San Andrés Island, where Hattie killed one person, injured 15 others and caused considerable damage.
By late Saturday morning, a Hurricane Hunters aircraft found Hattie had strengthened to a major hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph and was moving northward. Late that night, the Miami Weather Bureau, which monitored and issued advisories on hurricanes in those days, predicted the hurricane would continue moving north.
“The expected movement would bring the center very near Grand Cayman Island by early Sunday night with hurricane force winds probably beginning there by later afternoon,” the Weather Bureau’s 11 p.m. advisory stated.
Late the next morning, Hattie was 125 miles south of Grand Cayman, moving north at 9 mph, and the Weather Bureau was still convinced that Hattie would pass very close to the island – perhaps a bit east – but a little later in the day.
“The expected movement will bring the center very near Grand Cayman Island around or a little bit before midnight tonight with hurricane force winds beginning there by later afternoon,” the Weather Bureau stated, referring to a timeframe that was only five or six hours later.
Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Hattie was 110 miles south of Grand Cayman, but had taken a slight jog to the northwest. Still, at 2 p.m. the Weather Bureau maintained Hattie would pass near Grand Cayman “during the night” with hurricane-force winds beginning late that afternoon – only a few hours away.
At 5 p.m., the Weather Bureau noted that Hattie – still a Category 3 hurricane – was 95 miles southwest of Grand Cayman, moving northwest and had increased its forward speed to 13 mph. But it still had an ominous forecast for Grand Cayman:
“Hattie is expected to turn back toward a north-northwest course during the next 12 hours and likely a more northerly course thereafter.
“The forecast movement will bring the center of [the hurricane] west of Grand Cayman Island around the middle of the night.
“Extremely high tides and rough seas will attend the passage of the storm in Grand Cayman.
“All persons in …. areas subject to storm surge inundations should evacuate to a safe location.”
At 8 p.m., the Weather Bureau reported that Hurricane Hattie was 90 miles southwest of Grand Cayman after the storm had continued on a northwest course instead of a more northerly course. It still expected Hattie to change to a northerly course at some point, but by this time, it no longer predicted a close pass by Grand Cayman.
Hurricane Hattie then put on the brakes, slowing its forward speed and started drifting to the west-northwest, away from Grand Cayman, where it intensified, first to a Category 4 hurricane, and then to a Category 5 hurricane. When it finally started moving again, it headed westward, eventually making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane just south of Belize City.
The early 1960s were days without sophisticated weather satellites and computer models that could analyze a multitude of climatic variables and then forecast a track.
However, the steering patterns of late-season hurricanes that form in the southwest Caribbean are notoriously weak, making for erratic movements of tropical cyclones that form in October or November, making track forecasting of these storms difficult even today.
Hattie devastated Belize, with a 10-foot storm surge inundating Belize City. The storm killed 307 people, made another 10,000 homeless and damaged an estimated 70 percent of the buildings in the country.
Grand Cayman, on the other hand, never experienced the predicted hurricane-force winds and only suffered minor damage, although it did receive 11.5 inches of rain, 7.8 inches of it falling in a six-hour period.
Hattie’s top winds reached 160 mph after it turned away from Grand Cayman, making it the strongest measured October hurricane ever in the northwest Caribbean until Hurricane Mitch came along in 1998.
The fact that the Miami Weather Bureau failed to foresee that Hattie would basically make a 90-degree left-hand turn just south of Grand Cayman is something that probably wouldn’t happen today.
The early 1960s were days without sophisticated weather satellites and computer models that could analyze a multitude of climatic variables and then forecast a track.However, the steering patterns of late-season hurricanes that form in the southwest Caribbean are notoriously weak, making for erratic movements of tropical cyclones that form in October or November, making track forecasting of these storms difficult even today.
Ultimately, Cayman dodged a bullet with Hurricane Hattie and had the storm done to Grand Cayman what it did to Belize City, the history of the country might have been a lot different. Less than 10 months after Hattie, the Cayman Islands – then a dependency of Jamaica – made the important decision to become a British Crown Colony instead of staying with Jamaica, which had decided to become independent.
Cayman’s decision laid the foundation for following a path to becoming an offshore financial center, thanks in large part to the efforts of immigrant lawyers like James MacDonald and Bill Walker. It’s impossible to say whether these men would have remained in Cayman, or in Walker’s case, come to Cayman, after a devastating hurricane, and had they not, whether Cayman’s economic miracle would have ever happened.