In the Eye of Cyclone – Our Encounter With Hurricane Maria
We wanted to post things many times, always too busy to do it. But now, hit by the hurricane – we just have to share with you this story. And – after 5 weeks since that, we just got an internet connection to use for a few moments – so, here it is…
There are as many stories about Hurricane Maria as many people lived through this monstrous experience. While ours is not the most terrible ordeal, for we survived uninjured, we want to share our memories with you. This is my humble addition to all told and untold stories – Margaret’s and me being in cyclone’s eye in Dominica. This short story is dedicated to all directly hit by Caribbean hurricanes of 2017.
Day 0 – Monday (18th of September 2017)
When the shockingly nasty hurricane Irma chopped through Caribbean islands some 10 days before, it went very close to Dominica but didn’t really hit it. We all on our small island breathed easier. Perhaps too easy. A new tropical storm announced by media supposed to be not so bad, and again not to go over Dominica. Lots of us didn’t pay attention to it, thinking that after Irma the worst is over. Well, not exactly. It wasn’t. Reports eventually changed, but until last moment we were told that while Tropical Storm Maria may become a hurricane by time of crossing through Leeward Islands, it should be a small one and pass off the Dominica coast, somewhere on the sea closer to Guadelupe. We should just get some rain and a bit of wind. Terrible misjudgments by meteo services made us all just mildly worried. Somehow it reminded me of misinformation about the terrible storm Erika which damaged our island some two years before. Then too we were told the path of the storm should be east of Dominica, not affecting us directly. It was just at the last hour before it devastated our little country that instead of promised safe passage, Erica showed on meteo maps hitting us directly. Way too late to do anything.
So it was this time. Just hours before expected passage, on Sunday evening reports started to be a little more worrying – yes, Maria will be a hurricane soon and may intensify a bit. Not on direct conflict path with Dominica, but a bit stronger than expected. We planned to do some last minute shopping on Monday morning, also delivering our usual load of fine breads to food stores. But on Monday morning tone of alerts changed drastically. The Hurricane intensifies and may be a category 2 by the time of its closest encounter with Dominica. People were advised NOT to go shopping, businesses not to open, and to prepare for possible heavy winds. All shops, offices and work places closed, but we still were shown by online weather sites that the path of Maria will pass in some distance to us from the east.
Only one site showed a disturbing image of Maria passing through center of Dominica. Should the http://www.windy.com be right, or they were mistaken, since everybody else predicted a different path? We were to learn the truth very soon.
Together with Margaret we experienced the Storm Erika, and also a terrible winter storm in Canada some 10 years ago. That one had wind speeds between 150 and 180 km/h flattening many trees and inflicting serious damage. That helped us recognizing wind speeds, and when in late afternoon things got pretty nasty, we could say clearly that we already have winds worthy a strong Tropical storm. Believing that the Maria will pass away from us, we expected these winds to stay with us until late night and then ease up. But they got stronger and stronger.
The old plantation house constructed solely of wood – the place we rent – did withstand previous hurricane David some 40 years ago, so we hoped it will cope with this one too. Power went out around 6pm, so we had no chance of checking any more storm details. It was easy to hear through closed shutters that wind was already stronger than we remembered from Canada (around 150-180km/h or 80-90 miles/h), and intensifying. By 8pm it became just unbearable. We had to fight with window shutters which were constantly bursting open, pushed by unbelievably strong winds. Every moment of an opened shutter meant heavy amounts of water sprayed inside like by a mega power-washer. The concoction of water mixed with soil, debris and finely shredded leaves and greenery.
We heard trees falling, stuff flying around the house and crashing with heavy bangs, roof slowly giving up to the intense power of wind. We were sure it is as bad as it gets. At one point doors to bedroom rapidly opened, pushed by heavy wind coming through opened bedroom shutters. I rushed to close them, and to my shock I saw in light of my flashlight branches of a big tree slowly moving through opened window and spreading on our bed. In desperation I grabbed the tree trying to push it away, but quickly understood that my efforts are futile. The tree was there to stay. But then suddenly wind gust changed and pulled the tree outside, giving me a moment to close the shutters once again. Scared and exhausted, we were standing in the middle of the house, ready for yet another dramatic intervention. Little did we know that what we experienced was just a gentle flavour of things to come.
Suddenly at 9pm mad winds stopped like cut with a blade. First moment of it was amazing – total silence. Perfect stillness of the air. You could smoke a cigar and watch your puffs go up in perfect order. But then came realization that this silence can mean only one thing – we are in the eye of cyclone! Contrary to most predictions, hurricane went just above our heads. We knew we had only minutes to check and fix whatever we can before the fun starts again.
But when it started some 15 minutes later, very quickly it became obvious that real problems are starting just now. Wind came from another direction, from more exposed side – the Caribbean sea. Blows to the house were so strong that it shake and made noises like a crashing sail ship hitting a reef in heavy storm. Huge bang announced a direct hit by a large tree growing next to the house. Roof broke allowing cascades of water in. We had no way of intervening and had to retreat to another part of the house. However, that started a wild interaction of wind inside and outside, with shutters ripped out of their hinges, roof being pulled out with terrifying noise of ripped metal, and water mixed with debris and shredded leaves ravishing freely inside the house. We both experienced that rare sensation when pressure changes so strongly and quickly, pushing your ear drums in very unpleasant way. Did you ever drive a car at about 180 km/h and rapidly open your window? Well, that kind of thing, only much stronger.
To make it more memorable, through all the rain, wind, and banging of crashing things, we constantly heard outside a very distinct and unusual sound – like huge ship engines running at full blast in far distance. A constant deep roar of passing hurricane.
The wind intensified further and kitchen shutters flew away ripped from their hinges. We had to retreat to another part of our home. Where would it be safest? Bathroom? No, we decided for a storage room and run there with our dog, closing door tightly. But it was just a few moments before Margaret shouted – “look at the ceiling! My God!”. Indeed – we could see in dim light of our flashlight that roof was pulled up by the wind several inches, then let go, and then again going up – only higher. Sound of breaking wood did not make us calmer, and we decided we need to run from that place before roof takes off.
A glimpse at the bathroom confirmed our decision not to go there – there was practically not much left of it! With our options down to only our bedroom still holding on, we went there and tried to secure shutters, knowing this is our last place to hide. The roof above us started to break, allowing water to come. Margaret made a quick and brilliant decision. Closets! Our bedroom has two built in tiny wardrobe closets, each about good for one standing person. We quickly pulled our clothes out and went inside, each of us in separate closet. Dog went between Margaret’s legs totally silent, quiet, and scared.
Last two hours we spent in these two closets, listening to the destruction around us and praying that closets will survive.
Do you remember a scene from Jurassic Park, when a guy tries to hide from a T- rex, and runs from room to room, only to see the beast systematically tearing walls apart to get him? It was quite similar to what we felt. A monster, perhaps King Kong or Gozilla ravishing the house to get us. But at last – after midnight winds eased up a bit. Not much, but enough to notice the worst is over. It is funny how quickly you can adopt. We came out of our closets and decided to have a look around the house. Winds which normally would be still terrifying, but just a bit less than these we experienced an hour ago did not matter so much any more.
We just knew things are getting calmer, and whatever did not break already will probably be ok. So, off we went for house inspection. Constant banging in the attic – several broken shutters and parts of roof torn away and allowing tonnes of water inside the upper floor, drowning our furniture and stuff just ready to move to our new home. Not good. Main floor – rain comes through the ceiling. But it is not just rain – it is the flood upstairs finding its way down through gaps in wooden floor. All furniture in living room wet and messed up. TV? Sound system? Well, you know – messed up to, like everything else.
We noticed that old wooden beams holding the ceiling are bowing in under heavy flood waters upstairs. Not only the rain in living room was not nice, but this looked like the attic may simply collapse, sending down water and all furniture and boxes stored there. That would bury our things and finish whatever remained from the house. A quick decision – chainsaw. We looked where the most of pouring water comes down, and cut an opening in wooden floor of main floor for water to run through. Then, an additional small cut in flooded attic – to let the water go down through that same location. We had instantly a waterfall in bedroom, with buckets of water coming down through the hole – and disappearing in the matching cut in main floor. At least temporarily – we saved the attic from collapse and reduced the flood of our earthly possessions.
Further inspection was very brief – nothing left of bathroom. Not much left of kitchen. Pantry without roof and all cupboards forced open, with all things inside soaked with mix of water, mud, and shredded leaves. Some broken windows in office, terrible mess and flood in dining room where roof was hit by falling tree. Unfortunately it was where we stored most of our freshly imported bread flour. Most of the supply gone. We were simply too tired to bother with it. We went to the bedroom and fell asleep on wet bed until late morning.
Day 1 – Tuesday
We woke up early, to the sound of water dripping in our bedroom and rest of the house. It was still very windy. Quickly dressed in some wet clothes, off we went to see the world outside. The damage exceeded our expectations and came as a shock to both of us. Margaret cried a little – not for our situation, but for the sad state of our island. The land around us was almost bare – broken trees everywhere with some stronger trees either completely uprooted, or having most limbs cracked off, pieces from our roof and roofs of some other houses mixed on the ground. Plenty of unrecognizable wet stuff on the ground. Smaller plants gone, most bushes stripped off all greenery, palms broken or with tops twisted off.
The brown-grey tone dominated all landscape, with green colour almost non- existent. Rain still falling, but even through its sound we distinctly heard the noise of newly formed rivers in ravines near us. With all greenery gone it was easy to see land slides. More land slides than intact soil. It was easy to see that what we experienced with tropical storm Erika two years was just a child’s play. Proportions of Erika damage times ten seemed like a correct estimate. Our road to Retreat House completely disappeared under fallen jungle. Several meters high jigsaw puzzle of broken branches, palms and trees. We could see the Retreat House totally smashed, with roof and some walls gone. A total disaster. Other houses visible on next hill looked similarly destroyed.
Well, our own house was also smashed. Garage and storage shed simply disappeared, water system in rubble. A big tree broke our roof, and other half of roof totally gone. Everything around scattered in one big mess.
Looking at the extreme extent of this disaster, with no radio or phone signal and unable to get any news, we quickly realized that perhaps the night of Hurricane was easy comparing with challenges waiting for us in next days, weeks, and months… We felt like Robinson Crusoe left alone on an empty island, trying to think how to organize things.
And then came days of desperate chainsawing our way out, fixing and drying damaged belongings, sorting salvaged food, learning about misfortunes of neighbours, and so on. Days of hard work and nights spent in our car which miraculously survived. A day when we went to see how is our newly built dream home we supposed to move into in the week following hurricane – only to discover that – despite it being built of concrete and super strong cement fiber elements – it was completely wiped out, attacked by hurricane with unprecedented fury and power. Days of pain and moments of happiness.
The spirit of sharing and mutual support, but also acts of looting. But – as they say – it is another story…
It was only some two weeks later – when Dutch marines arriving in helicopter to give us a bag of rice – that our thoughts were confirmed. It was indeed a monster hurricane – they said. It should be category 7, only there is no such thing on official charts. Winds up to 220 miles per hour (410 km/h). And the eye went through the whole length of Dominica. As they also helped on St Martin which has been the iconic disaster of hurricane Irma, they also said we had it much worse than that. How comforting to
know 😉 We also heard about many deaths and horror stories in other parts of Dominica, learning that we were indeed among the lucky ones. With that come realization that – if we moved to our new house earlier and faced the hurricane there – we would most probably die there crushed by its power, with nowhere to hide. But all this and much more I plan to write in part two of this story, later on.
If you wish to help us personally or Dominica as a whole – please do so as it really is a disaster on unprecedented scale and every little gesture of help makes the difference. We lost almost everything including most of my pro photography equipment and our newly built tiny dream home. And almost everyone here lost a lot and has a terrifying story to tell.
Derek and Margaret
My Paypal account for donations: email@example.com (set only for USD and Canadian Dollars) We bake bread and give out to people in our community. Your donations will help this cause too. Every little help counts! Thank you.
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