Hur­ri­cane hor­rors

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

Be­fore I went to live in Grand Cay­man in 1980, I felt that I had some idea of what a hur­ri­cane would be like – high winds, plenty rain, houses boarded up, stores closed, and, in the case of low-ly­ing is­lands such as Grand Cay­man, a few feet of sea-wa­ter com­ing ashore. My first hur­ri­cane was Gil­bert in 1988 where I spent an anx­ious night in the house but lost only a short piece of gut­ter­ing from the roof fac­ing east, so that wasn’t all that bad. And then came Hur­ri­cane Ivan in 2004. That storm hit Gre­nada as a Cat­e­gory Three, more or less by-passed Jamaica as a Cat­e­gory Four, and then stalled over Grand Cay­man for over 24 hours as a Cat­e­gory Five with winds gust­ing at 195mph. A hur­ri­cane is a di­verse set of hor­rors and cir­cum­stances, and in a song I later wrote about the storm for the an­nual the­atre show I did in Cay­man, I high­lighted the feel­ing of help­less­ness and fear dur­ing those first hours:

The sky close down and the sea jump up, Ivan. The wind say ‘Look, ah comin’ and I don’t play.’ Mash up Gre­nada, bounce Jamaica, Ivan. Yuh crouch in yuh house be­lievin’ is Judge­ment Day.

The last line in that verse truly de­scribed that first night. With my own fam­ily and that of my friend Henry Mut­too, we were in­deed crouched in the house won­der­ing if we would sur­vive. The house was strongly built on a rock foun­da­tion, with 4x6 rafters, and I had boarded up the win­dows, but it was vi­brat­ing and moan­ing, and the sound of the wind was ter­ri­fy­ing; peo­ple de­scribe it as the sound of a train, but to me it was more like some huge pre­his­toric an­i­mal try­ing to get at the peo­ple in­side. One of the di­verse set of trau­mas in a hur­ri­cane is that wait­ing out pe­riod. You don’t know how long it will last. You can’t reach any­one, or any­one you. The ra­dio sta­tion is off the air, power lines are down, and the night is pitch black. Your mind says, “Oh God, stop nah.”

In that state, my daugh­ter An­nika called out, “Dad, the roof in the bed­room is shak­ing.” I ran up the hall and looked in the mas­ter bed­room at the end of the house. There was an over­hang of the roof there, and I could see the un­der­side of the ceil­ing vi­brat­ing. I closed the door, told ev­ery­body to stay out of the room, and we hud­dled in the cen­tral part of the house. The wind as­sault con­tin­ued and sud­denly I heard this tremen­dous bang, like an ex­plo­sion, down the hall. I walked to the area slowly and opened the bed­room door – I was look­ing at open sky; the en­tire right-hand sec­tion of the roof in that room was gone. The wind had ripped it out in one burst; a sec­tion about 20 feet square, made up of ply­wood, rest­ing on 1x6 pine, nailed onto 4x6 rafters, tied into the belt­ing top of the side of the house. It must have weighed sev­eral hun­dred pounds; we had heard a boom, as from a can­non, and it was gone. Two days after Ivan, I found the roof sec­tion in the bush be­yond my prop­erty, 200 yards away. The 4x6 tim­bers had held onto the belt­ing, but Ivan had sim­ply bro­ken the eight rafters, in one surge, and car­ried away the sec­tion like card­board. I stood there in shock; I al­most couldn’t be­lieve what I saw.

The next four hours or so, the nine of us hud­dled in the cen­tral part of the house, won­der­ing which part of the roof would go next. I will never for­get the sound of that wind ham­mer­ing the house know­ing what I had just seen it do. For­tu­nately, there was no other roof over­hang, and while I could see the ceil­ing vi­brat­ing above us, the roof held in­side, but above that ev­ery piece of shin­gle cov­er­ing the four sec­tions of roof had been ripped out by the storm. With only ply­wood un­der­lay left, Ivan’s rain came in unim­peded. We would end up los­ing all the kitchen and bath­room cabi­nets and sev­eral mat­tresses. To add to the rain, the storm surge came ashore east of us – in Ivan, it came from two di­rec­tions and met in the mid­dle of the is­land; it sent 10,000 mo­tor ve­hi­cles to the dump. The rain was re­lent­less and would even­tu­ally cause mould all over our house. That’s one of the lesser known con­se­quences of a ma­jor storm like Ivan – it leaves be­hind build­ings, seem­ingly in­tact in­side but rid­dled with mould; two years after the storm, we were still bat­tling that fun­gus on our walls.

By Mon­day evening Ivan had abated, but then came the sec­ond stage, this one of short­ages. All the lum­ber in Cay­man is im­ported, and the sup­plies on the is­land were ex­hausted within hours. No ships were com­ing in to bring more. I man­aged to make a patch­work re­pair of the open roof on my house us­ing some 2x6 lum­ber Henry Mut­too had luck­ily found float­ing near­ing his condo in Ge­orge­town. With the ply­wood I had on hand that helped to keep out the rain. But there was no elec­tric­ity (it took three months to re­turn; light poles had gone down like domi­noes), no wa­ter sup­ply, gaso­line was run­ning low, very few stores were open (they had run out of stock, even things like ra­zor blades) and for sev­eral days just mov­ing around the is­land was an or­deal. With the coast roads blocked from sand left by the storm surge, driv­ers would have to ne­go­ti­ate flooded back roads (with only para­pets to guide you as to where the road was) with your heart in your mouth in case your car stalled. Peo­ple were lin­ing up from early in the day at the spots where wa­ter trucks were sell­ing ra­tioned wa­ter. Trans­porta­tion was a night­mare. For­tu­nately, I owned a Dodge Car­a­van mini­van so when the move­ment of garbage to the dump be­gan I was able to use that, with the seats re­moved, to get rid of my junk. I must have made a dozen trips with that ve­hi­cle packed to the roof – bro­ken cup­boards; up­rooted trees, cloth­ing and linens, glass­ware, house­hold garbage, etc – and the Dodge made it through the flooded roads never once shut­ting down. (When I moved to Guyana, I brought the faith­ful Car­a­van with me; she’s still go­ing strong, safe from the

hur­ri­cane belt.)

The hur­ri­cane story is ac­tu­ally a book – there are so many sides to it – but I can’t end with­out men­tion­ing the pri­va­tions that fol­low in the wake of the storm and how long it takes is­land economies to re­cover from th­ese in­va­sions. As I write this, my ho­tel op­er­a­tor friend Bob Dubourcq from St Maarten is telling me that in the cur­rent Irma strike in the Caribbean St Maarten will take about 10 years to re­cover, and the news for Bar­buda is prob­a­bly worse. We should be thank­ful we don’t see hur­ri­canes in our coun­try. As I said in the Ivan song:

The wind wouldn’t fin­ish, it wouldn’t di­min­ish, Ivan From Sun­day to Mon­day, howl­ing and rag­ing on, And then on the sec­ond night when yuh get some slum ber Yuh wake up to find ev­ery leaf in the coun­try gone.

That’s some­thing I haven’t seen in the hur­ri­cane sto­ries – that a ma­jor storm like Irma strips the leaf off ev­ery tree in its path and snaps co­conut tree trunks like a sapling. Un­til you live through a ma­jor storm like a Cat­e­gory 5, you have no idea of the hor­ror it is – while it’s hap­pen­ing and long after.

Yuh cotch up in yuh house, alone, Ivan Thank God we had a good cell phone, Ivan Yuh couldn’t buy a ra­zor blade, Ivan Yuh couldn’t find a piece o’ shade, Ivan Well, if Ivan should come back so, Ivan. I man gone to Chicago, Ivan”

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