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.
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.