Devastation in the Danish West Indies

On 31, August 1772, a devastating hurricane hit St Croix. On September 6th of that year, Alexander Hamilton  wrote a letter to his father James Hamilton on St Kitts which was later published by The Royal Danish American Gazette.

Hurricanes are a common occurrence in this region, with many of us having experienced multiple instances. However, another formidable threat that demands our vigilance is the tsunami.

In October 1867, a catastrophic hurricane named San Narcisco struck St Croix, causing the tragic sinking of the mail ship, The Rhone, in the British Virgin Islands. Just twenty days later, the island was rocked by a severe earthquake. During this tumultuous period, U.S. diplomats were present on both St Thomas and St Croix, in initial negotiation for the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States, (the initial offer was $7.5 million, but the treaty was not ratified by Denmark. A second attempt was made in 1902 when the U.S. offered $5 million, but Denmark again declined to sell. An agreement was finally ratified fifty years later in 1917 for $25 million.)

The diplomatic activities between the islands were facilitated by two ships: the USS Susquehanna, serving as the flagship for Rear Admiral James S. Palmer of the U.S. North Atlantic fleet, stationed in St Thomas harbor; and the USS Monongahela, which had recently visited St Thomas and St. John before transporting U.S. diplomats to Frederiksted harbor.

At approximately 2:50 pm, a seismic event occurred as a seafloor fault in the Virgin Islands Basin ruptured, leading to an earthquake estimated to be between magnitude 7.2 and 7.5. This event triggered a massive undersea landslide, resulting in a devastating tsunami.

In Frederiksted, the navigator of the Monongahela, G.F. Harrington, described a dramatic event where the water rapidly receded from the shore between Butler Bay and Sandy Point, then rapidly returned as a wall of water, swiftly propelling the ship towards the beach. Despite attempts to anchor the ship, it only resulted in damage to the deck.

The Monongahela, left damaged and adrift, was carried inland by the rising water to a depth that would have allowed the crew to sail it back out over the beach. However, a towering wall of water measuring about 15 feet high crashed into the Monongahela, grounding it on the rocky shore. The ship remained stranded until the U.S. Navy intervened, repairing and refloating it six months later, albeit with the loss of at least three lives.

Although the loss of life was relatively low, the impact on businesses, infrastructure, and warehouses was substantial. The hurricane’s devastation, coupled with outbreaks of diseases like yellow fever, claimed additional lives and added to the overall destruction in the area.

Monongahela in Frederiksted
Monongahela in Frederiksted

Earthquakes are a common occurrence in St. Thomas, more so than in St. Croix. Surprisingly, earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 are frequent. In 2020, there were a total of 132 earthquakes within a 300km proximity. However, there is concern that an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or higher is overdue. It is crucial for us to remain vigilant, be aware of the tsunami evacuation routes, and take immediate action upon receiving tsunami warnings.

St Croix Source

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