Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hurricane Allen and other pleasant Caribbean Hurricanes!

We’re half way through the hurricane season and so far so good, for the most part anyway. Despite projections of a greater incidence than usual in this era of changing global weather and climate, the anticipated flurry of storms has not transpired despite the battering of the northern Leewards and Virgin Gorda last week by Hurricane Earl. Antigua and St Maarten had trees flattened and power outages, parts of the Virgins suffered substantial damage and restaurants and other buildings on Frigate Bay in St Kitts were lashed by heavy rain and high winds. It could have been worse, so let’s hope the status quo continues.

The period is one of fear and loathing for many in the Caribbean, the several thousands who live in less sturdy accommodation, though satellite tracking systems now give ample early warning and time for safety measures which the old time West Indian simply did not have. Seeing out a powerful hurricane then was a matter of experience, good fortune and trusting in the shelter as much as anything else. As an ingénue in Barbados in 1979, I awoke one morning to find everywhere covered in a thick red dust, blown over from the erupting Soufriere volcano in St Vincent. It was a startling revelation, something quite out of the ordinary, disturbing to the status quo. Not long afterwards something far more traumatic and personal assailed Little England, the first indication and realisation that perhaps all was not sweetness and fine light in these balmy isles.

Sundays then were reserved for beach cricket, and that alone, and Bathsheba on the east coast the chosen destination once a month. This one morning, someone rang advising against it, mentioning a brewing storm which the dogs accepted but not the mad Englishmen relishing the noonday sun. Beautiful day, over Farley Hill we drove, past Morgan Lewis mill and down to that glorious foreshore on the most atmospheric part of the island. Things were blissful till around mid-afternoon when suddenly the wind whipped up and the sea got angry. Even then, as someone used to rough weather in the Pennines, often for months on end, I wasn’t unduly concerned. The game continued, though one or two of the more enlightened decided to head back to Bridgetown and the south coast.

A hardy Irishman Mr David O’Flynn lingered with me, but eventually we too were forced to repair to the Edgewater Inn for sustenance. Soon after, we were about to set off for the west coast when the proprietor hailed us, obviously worried: “no one can leave now, you’ll die” were his words of admonishment, spoken in all seriousness and registering like no other. “It’s a hurricane now, and heading our way fast”. We were forced to bed down for the night along with a score of others on mattresses scattered on the floor. It was humourous at first, until we heard a St Lucia radio broadcast echoing through the bar area “Ok Barbados, signing off here, the Caribbean is with you, the Lord God too, we trust there’ll be minimal damage”. By now it was dusk, doors and windows were barricaded and taped, the wind howling like a banshee, the rain driving horizontally.

The Edgewater was built of solid coral stone blocks on a cliff edge high above the roaring ocean, seemingly exposed to the raw elements but in defiance of all the weather could muster and probably one of the safest structures on the island. As darkness fell I took one last glimpse of the world beyond through a chink in one of the thick porthole glass windows. The vision that appeared shocked me to the core - Hurricane Allen was upon us, in all its fury. As far as the eye could see out to the horizon, gigantic lines of white topped breakers tumbled shoreward, immense battalions of them, twice the size of houses. To the right down the coast road, coconut trees were bent at ninety degrees, snapping amidships when the force became too great and scattering their cargo like bouncing bombs, chattel houses had their corrugated roofs peeled back like sardine tins, then torn asunder and flung to the heavens.

A sleepless night ensued, followed by a long, surreal journey back to the west coast later the next day, clearing roads of debris, matchwood trees and people’s belongings. I was dropped off at my place on Gibbs Beach, incredulous at the scene that awaited - a palm tree had toppled right across the car, a write off, the gently sloping beach had all but disappeared, replaced by a 20 feet high cliff, and my cottage awash with smashed cutlery, broken trees and foliage forced through open louvres stupidly left open. My cat clung on terrified at the top of what remained of some flimsy curtains. Twas a salutary sight, an awakening to the awesome power of nature. It was deemed a glancing blow, not even the full impact. In Dominica, people still talk of “David”, in Jamaica of “Gilbert”, reverentially in a way, out of respect. Hurricanes. Don’t underestimate them and ignore them at your peril. Heed any warnings and batten the hatches.

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