Monday – The Day We Met Maria

Posted By simon on Sep 18, 2017 | 24 comments


Monday, September 18th 2017

Government had closed school and all Government offices to allow everyone to prepare for the approaching storm. We laughed, we are self-employed, we don’t get a day off. But early in the day I headed out to get gas and drinking water; it never hurts to be well supplied and we would use it all anyway. I joked with friends over Facebook that I might have to wake Wendy by boarding up the windows. Maria was now a Category 2 and heading very close to us. It looked like we might get some weather. Not wanting to leave it too late, I boarded up all the upper windows and cleaned up the yard.

As the day progressed we were spending more and more time on the internet, researching Maria on various weather channels and conferring with friends to make the best prediction about where it would go. Facebook was full of the usual jokes, predictions, and messages. I took breaks to board up more windows, bake a batch of hurricane brownies and repack our ‘Go Bag’ which was still mostly ready from Irma the previous week. Passports, credit cards, wallets all in a dry bag. One of the advantages of being in the dive business is a good supply of dry bags and waterproof cases.

By late afternoon the day had become one of mild breezes, slightly cloudy with some rain. Gradually we started hearing reports from the North of flooded rivers and some wind. A friend lost their very old cherry tree and much sympathy was given.

Almost every hurricane I have lived through has come at night, where the winds and rains are amplified by the fear of darkness and lack of knowing. Noises, vibrations, and shaking that make you long for daylight. This storm would be no different.

As the daylight ended Maria was upgraded to a Category 3 and the jokes on social media started to fade with the light. The banter was replaced with concern, support and well wishes, along with phone calls and promises to keep safe.

By 7 pm we were at Category 4 and Maria was headed right for us. Fear started to trickle into our activity. We increased preparations, finished stocking the downstairs hidey-hole and packed an emergency suitcase and our Go Bag. As we threw in toiletries and some dry clothes, I started moving everything we might need downstairs, fighting against the wind and rain. True to my British heritage, it was time for one last cup of tea…

8pm and the situation was deteriorating quickly. Winds were howling, throwing furniture about our porch. I insisted we move down, NOW. Pouring the tea into a thermos, we waited for break in the furor and then ran outside and downstairs into our ‘safe’ room.

More than a decade previously, I had spent a lot of time applying my building knowledge from the UK and USA to better understanding the vernacular architecture for the Caribbean. Thick well-insulated walls and weather-sealed windows and doors were all out now. Wide porches surrounding the house to protect windows from driving rain, steeply pitched roofs that better handled hurricanes ,and light and open spaces were now in. When we finally bought our dream piece of land high over the sea, looking down to the bay, we knew we were in a high-risk volcanic area as we had experienced many strong tremors. In fact so many that I had even named our local football team ‘Soufriere Tremors’!

So we decided to build from wood. Wood handles tremors better than concrete, and after hurricane David in 1979 (the hurricane by which all hurricanes are judged in Dominica), many wooden houses were standing proud. Where we situated the house we were protected at the rear from prevailing winds and normal hurricanes. Over the years, we had sat out on our porch during many storms watching the winds rip through and occasionally knock down trees, while remaining unharmed.

But as we ran down to the safe room I realized this wind was coming straight up the valley, slamming into the house from beneath. It was by far our most vulnerable spot and I felt the first stirring of fear.

By the time we locked ourselves in the safe room, the wind was forcing water through the windows. I suddenly realised that I had to board up this window from the inside as well. It seems incredible that I had not done so already, but this window had never seen wind or rain; it is one of the few glass windows in the house and I was now worried about the glass exploding into the room.

Finding what I could, I nailed up some boards over a curtain to reduce the explosion if and when it blew out. But now the room was flooding badly as rain was forced through the window. The rain was also being driven into the floor upstairs and cascading down onto our heads. Wendy started mopping the floor and wringing it into a bucket in a vain attempt to keep the floor dry. But we soon realised that a dry floor was not a valid concern and that we’d moved on to more serious survival issues.

We took a few minutes to drink some hot tea and evaluate. I looked at my phone and there was one final message from a friend in the US. It simply said ”Fuck, it’s a 5.” Worst case scenario, Category 5 coming up the valley from the sea. I realized we would lose the house. My dream of building my own house after building houses for so many others in my life was about to be destroyed.

8.30 pm

By now we knew this was going to be a long miserable night, wet and scary. Water was pouring in everywhere. Wet, scared and lying on the mattress, I realised we were in trouble, deep trouble. We grabbed our Go Bag and we lay down on the mattress, pulling the other half around us to form a human taco. Go ahead, try it, it takes a lot of fear. Wendy was in the fold mostly covered, and I was on the edge, slightly more exposed, but still OK. We could fit our bodies together somewhat, but we had no time to find the best configuration.

9 .00 pm

By 9pm it was deafening. A screaming, maleficent howl that seemed endless, constant. I have heard it described as a freight train, which is accurate, volume wise, but somehow misses the almost animalistic and evil intent.

Noises, horrible tearing wrenching noises and crashes came to us through the Maleficient Howl and we could tell the house was deteriorating. We held onto that mattress with all hands, we loved that mattress, it was between us and Maria.

Then, and I can hardly write about it even now, 3 days later, a most awful crash and the world exploded into noise. The mattress was lifting with us in it. There were crashes all around us, the pressure change popped our ears, and it was as though the whole world was collapsing. “Hold the mattress!” I screamed into Wendy’s ear. “What?” she screamed back. “HOLD THE MATTRESS!”

Somehow we did. Somehow we settled back down and we pulled ourselves back against the wall. “The Go Bag was sucked out!” yelled Wendy. Shocked for a moment I thought about what she had said, “Leave it, it’s gone. Just hold onto the mattress.” In my mind the only thing that could save us was that mattress, without it we would die, I just knew it. My hands were on top and I knew if one of the projectiles hitting the mattress should hit my hand I would lose something, fingers, hands or end up with bad cuts at the least. So I tried to hold the mattress in a fist from below, but the strongest gusts mocked my strength and I had to risk my hands outside. Was it all going to collapse on top of us, or would we get sucked out into the storm?

A calmness came over me as I thought that we might not make it through this. I tried not to think how it might happen, there was no good option. We held onto each other, scared, in the dark, occasionally yelling into each other’s ear. The things you say when you are about to die, about how it was all OK, we are OK, but you really don’t know and you know the other person knows you are just putting on a show, but what else do you do.

The mattress fought back for two hours, trying to unfold, trying to expose us to the wrath of Maria. But we held on, grasping a handful of material and squeezing until our hands hurt. Occasionally I looked up, but the darkness was complete and it was too risky to raise my head.

Finally it let up. I took the torch and looked up into the night sky, where the ceiling had been, but there was still some ceiling protecting us. Wendy stuck her head out “I can see the Go Bag!” she yelled. “Can you reach it?” I screamed. “I think so,” she replied as she eased out from our taco. Grabbing it and squirming back into the mattress, it felt like a massive victory. Just as I slipped back under the mattress, I saw a University of Virginia badge, where our son is attending college. Grabbing it, I showed Wendy, “Andrew is watching over us!” We laughed and for the first time I thought we might actually make it after all.

Another hour in the mattress, the third hour of hell. It was getting harder; water was dripping down my back, water was running down my arm and funneling into my ear. I was shivering, cold and cramped. How long could we stay like this? You can’t sleep when you are waiting for the final bell. Cramps and limb adjustments, cold, water everywhere, in your face, running into your shirt. Misery and terror to the tune of the devil, plucking for more destruction.

Then, it calmed. Not like the eye of a storm, but the winds dropped slightly, maybe down to 100 mph! But it felt safe to look out. With our Dive lights switched on, we looked around. All around us was debris, soaking dripping belongings, the bags we had carefully waterproofed sitting in water.

Our ceiling (the floor of our house) had shifted. There was no house above us. The wall on our right had collapsed into the room next to us. The workshop’s front cement wall had cracked and broken in half, leaning in. There was debris everywhere, but somehow our little corner, half a mattress in size, was not buried. My lovely koubaril door that I had purchased for a steal years ago, a wood harder than oak, had saved us. It had withstood the wrath of Maria with only one broken glass panel. If that had given way we would have faced the winds directly.

“What is that?” I asked Wendy. It was my jacket! A winter jacket I had bought at a dive show in Paris 10 years before; a year when Paris had been so freezing I could not survive without a jacket and had got a boat captain’s style jacket, it had withstood the freezing winds of Paris and now, here in Dominica, it saved me again! I pulled it on, oh so warm. In the pocket was my old woolen hat. Now we were ready for the long night.

We moved some things around, securing what we could under a shelf, off the flooded floor. I cut a long piece of electric wire that was hanging from the ceiling and tied it around the mattress so we could secure our taco closed. Then we popped back into the mattress to ride out the next 6 hours. With many repositions of body and limbs, a warm jacket to keep our heat in, a stolen 10 minutes of nap. We had made it.

A night of sheer terror, small victories and one big victory of life. We emerged from our taco, climbed up and out the ceiling, and discovered a world unimaginable in my worst fears. A war zone of total devastation.

At first light on the morning of Tuesday, September 19th 2017, people all across Dominica were emerging from their survival cocoons into a new world. It is a strange dichotomy of emotions — joy to be alive, but stunned disbelief that our world had been erased during the last 10 hours of hell.

 

The Malevolent Howl of Hurricane Maria

 

24 Comments

  1. OH MY GOD. I”m so so SO glad that this wasn’t my experience, with 2 elderly & 3 kids plus another mother, but I knew at the time that this would be the experience for many. I can’ imagine the weight that fear-for-life takes … but I know even my outlook has shifted forever.

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    • Im so grateful you are both alive. Everything has changed. Gratitude and appreciation for everything has shifted. ONE LOVE

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      • Thanks Barb. Love & hugs to you and Francis too! Wendy 🙂

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  2. I can’t imagine how terrifying an experience it was for you and Wendy. Nature at it’s most violent, and the ordeal going on for hours, which must have seemed like your longest night ever. Thank goodness you and most of those living in Dominica survived Maria. A house can be rebuilt and nature will eventually establish itself once again. You all seem to have the will to rebuild and get Dominica working again. All the best! Lots of love and big hugs.

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    • A beautifully written account of one of the most horrifying situations imaginable. I jumped in to the story of the survival of Simon and Wendy and was spell-bound for the entire read. If I didn’t know it was true, I would think I was caught up in a gripping, fast-paced, nail-biting short story – except that the story continues. But thank God the protagonists made it through that initial night from hell.

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      • Thanks Gwen! Yes it was – and still is – an incredible journey in so many ways.

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    • Thanks Simone! “We have life” is a common phrase spoken by Dominicans these days.. We are grateful for so many things… life-long friends like you, Colin and the kids are one of them 😉

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  3. Simon Wendy. Thanks for sharing. That night is here forever. The most amazing part of Maria now 30 days later is to spend time with other servivours. Everyones heart seems to be wide open. Real connections are possible now. And you are making them.

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    • “Hearts Wide Open” that’s a great description Tim!! Big hugs to you, Jessica & Skye 🙂

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  4. Incredible and beautifully written account despite the harrowing nature of this ordeal. So glad you and Wendy are ok and so very sorry about your home.

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  5. Wow! Just wow! My heart was in my throat and I was clenching on to the desk.
    Your account of that night so vivid, so real – we are so relieved that you are both physically unhurt.

    Dominica will most definitely rebound brighter and greener and stronger.
    If there is anything we can do to help from Florida, please let us know.

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  6. This is a powerful narrative. Thanks for chronicling your experience. I was around for David which came big day but this not only outdid David, it came at night when people are most vulnerable.
    What matters most though is that you have life and each other to soldier on.
    Jah guidance

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  7. Your experience was similar to ours Simon. Same mattress deal but there were 11 of us. That included kids and my mom. Holding on to that matressay for dear life. I could not help.but cry as I read this… as it is so easy to.remember. the sound. The feel. The sight… we have life. Thank god.

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    • God bless Vanessa, glad you and your family are safe. So many of us now have a completely different relationship with our mattress 🙂

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  8. Thank you for sharing your ordeal with the world. I’m so grateful you made it through although your beautiful house didn’t. Sending love and healing. ❤

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  9. Simon. Thanks for sharing you and Wendy’s incredible experience with Maria. Reading your story brings tears to my eyes. I was on the Phone with my Sister and at one point she told me she was scared because the house had started shaking then we lost the phone connection. That night for us not knowing what was going on and whether family would emerge safety was terrifying.

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  10. Words fail me as I read this harrowing nightmare of Maria and what she has done to you both and to so many Dominicans. I just do not know what to say to send you comfort, even now – a month later. Sending you so much love and positive energy to continue with what you are doing now for Dominica and Dominicans. We all love you and support you and hope that you will reach out if there is anything – anything that we/I can do to help in some way to try to make your lives and the lives of all Dominicans return to normal xxxxxx

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  11. Great to hear you both are ok.
    Certainly a gripping description.
    There must have been many twisters within Maria. Our home consists of two almost identical superwoods coobari houses on stone foundations separated by our 20′ wide courtyard.
    While 1 remains almost untouched (plastic guttering, all windows and every sheet of galvanize in place) the other house completely im/exploded.

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  12. Thank God you both are OK. Izzy sent me this article – well written Simon – really gives us a clear feel of that terrifying night. So glad Andrew was in VA. You guys take care. You know I wish you the best…B

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  13. I just read your experience and I was so in tune. I cannot imagine what you all went through. I am so happy that you are both alive and so many others. May God bless all of you and keep you safe as you rebuild your lives.

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  14. A night to remember for all.who experienced it. I’m saddened that you lost the house but happy the you’ll made it through.

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  15. Lost for words. Blessings on you, Wendy and Andrew who looked over you. Good to see the smile – however painful – back on your face as you bring relief to your community from SLU.

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  16. Thank you for writing so beautifully on surviving the nightmare of Hurricane Maria. Now the rebuilding begins.

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  17. We were praying for your Safety & Protection. Your Guardian angel must have kept you from Harm, & we are Thankful that you are OK .Dominica is a Beautiful island, a Gem in the Caribbean. Still praying for your restoration efforts. God will help in the recovery of Dominica – – I have NO doubt about that.
    Love to you All…….
    Sharon. (HUGS).

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