You can try to describe Kaieteur Falls to someone who hasn’t seen it; you can try, but you will fail. You have to experience Kaieteur personally to understand the impact. That premise is also true of major hurricanes; you understand it only from living through one. Twice, when I was living in the Cayman Islands, we were hit by hurricanes. Gilbert in 1988 was a Category 3 storm that decimated Jamaica with a direct hit but only skirted Cayman causing minor damage and no serious disruption. I lived in the central part of Grand Cayman, and I actually slept while the storm was passing over; all I lost was a strip of guttering torn from the roof.
Hurricane Ivan, in 2004, a Category 5 storm, was a different story; it was an experience I would not wish on anyone. The storm came from the south leaving 39 people dead in Grenada and causing US$815 million in damage. It hit Jamaica, took 17 lives, left 18,000 homeless and the financial loss was US$360 million. By the time it reached Cayman, ironically on 11/09/2004, Ivan was packing winds of 165mph, and pushing a massive rolling sea, and it ravaged Cayman leaving damage of US$3.5 billion.
The statistics don’t begin to tell the horror; you have to live through it. Warned by news of the damage in Grenada and Jamaica, all the tourists had been airlifted out, and residents were either battened down in houses or jammed in the island’s 11 hurricane shelters. I lived in a sturdy concrete structure in the centre of the island, built with massive 4×6 rafters and open-beam ceilings (there were 8 friends from the island’s west coast staying with us), but you could hear the building moaning in the wind; you could look up and see the massive roof vibrating; the roofing shingles being ripped off by the wind sounded like gunshots; you felt that the windows, covered with plywood, would burst at any moment. The worst part was you could do nothing; you had to sit there and take it; to venture outside was madness. Power was off; the entire island was black; the rain came in horizontal waves; all the radio stations eventually shut down. You felt entombed.
Eight hours into the storm, shortly after midnight, the winds began to increase. Suddenly my daughter Annika raised an alarm in the master bedroom at the end of the house. I ran in there and could see the underside of the roof, being literally heaved up and down by the winds. I pulled her out of the room, closed the door and headed down the hall to the living room. Almost immediately, I heard a sudden deafening sound, like a cannon going off, from the bedroom. I inched back and opened the door I had just closed. The section of roof I had just seen was gone; I was looking at open sky. This was a piece of roof about 14 feet square, with massive rafters, tongue-and groove decking over that, 4×8 plywood over that, and finally the asphalt shingle roofing. In the time it takes to say “bang” that entire section was gone. The rafters in that house were 4×6 yellow pine, toe-nailed with large spikes into the wooden plank on top of the concrete walls; the hurricane winds didn’t rip out the nailing; it broke the 8 rafters like matchsticks and carried away the roof section. In an instant it was gone.
The next half hour was deadly. Some young people were in tears. We were all in shock. It was the height of the storm; I grabbed some mattresses as cover, and we huddled together in the central living room area. By now, the massive wooden roof structure in that area was also vibrating and flapping. Our eyes were riveted on it. I can’t remember being so scared in my life. Underneath, however, I felt that the piece of roof that came off had been in an area with a wide roof overhang, and that the rest of the house, with no overhang, would hold. As it turns out, it did, but the next 6 hours were the longest of my life. One of the hurricane traumas is the almost continuous sound of the storm, moaning, whistling, screeching and roaring – at times it feels like an enraged animal outside trying to get into your house. At the storm’s height that sound is unbroken for hours on end, and I remember at one point, sitting on a mattress, soaking wet from rain coming through the roof and saying, “God, stop now, nah.”
After 16 hours of hammering, Ivan finally moved away and as dawn broke we were able to look outside. Almost the entire 3-acre property was under water – all from rain; no seawater had reached us. Many trees had been uprooted – 4 coconut, 2 mahogany, and a neem. The smaller trees were gone. My massive croton edge, 15 years in the making, 100 yards long, was flat on the ground. Every piece of shingle on my roof was gone, torn to pieces and scattered all over the property. But it was only when we got into my trusty Dodge Caravan and tried to get to town that we began to understand the full reality of what had happened to Cayman. The destruction was everywhere; entire roofs ripped away; massive trees uprooted; cars overturned; something you had seen only in movies was now in front of you. Two things in particular were striking: almost everywhere you looked utility poles were down like match-sticks. In one highway section of about a mile, every single pole was flat on the ground or broken off to a stump. The other thing was with few exceptions all the leaves had been blown off the trees. I later wrote a song called Ivan; one line in it says, “You wake up to find every leaf in the country gone.” It was true. Overnight you could see through places where plants once grew; as the sun came out, there were very few places with shade. The landscape looked like a skeleton. In the weeks to come, in areas where invading saltwater killed all the trees, it looked like a fire had passed through. For almost a year, those dead, black branches stood against the sky – stark reminders of the carnage.
In the days immediately following the storm, construction material became a highly precious commodity. By noon on the day after Ivan, there was no lumber or hardware to be bought anywhere on the island. I managed to seal my roof using some 2×6 lumber my friend Henry Muttoo had found floating near his seaside condo; we manhandled it on top of my valiant Dodge mini-van, and drove it at 10mph to my house, 8 miles away. With that up, followed by some plywood I had in my garage and some plastic sheeting, I was able to keep the rain water from pouring into my house. The Dodge mini-van, with the seats out, was a salvation, making a dozen fully-loaded trips to the dump at a time when you couldn’t beg, borrow or steal a truck.
The Hurricane Ivan story is really a book: there are stories of heroism, of selfishness, of profiteering – the insurance adjuster tale (they were brought into Cayman in droves to deal with claims) is a chapter in itself; the early attempt by the government to block the devastation news for the effect it would have on tourism; the surprising resilience of zinc sheets as roofing if properly installed; the role of the country’s strong building code in preventing far greater loss, and, in the long term, the huge shift to metal roofing instead of shingle that made a few people rich.
The storm had ripped Grand Cayman up, down and sideways. At its height, a 20-foot storm surge had come from the south-west, flooding the seacoast condos, and shifting an entire wooden apartment complex into the road almost intact. The surge of seawater was so powerful that it covered the entire central part of the island for a distance of 6 miles; the view from the satellite showed the island as if cut in two by the sea. Hundreds of utility poles were down. Thousands of homes had been flooded, by water from the sea, or from the torrential rain, with appliances and furniture destroyed. In the central and eastern parts of the island, where sea water came ashore (in some cases releasing corpses from cemeteries) 11,000 motor vehicles went to the dump.
Cayman took years to recover. The tourism industry was shut down for several months. Many retirees, living on the expensive beach properties on the southwest coast, left the island permanently. It took as long as 6 months for some people to get their properties habitable again, and where I lived there was no electricity for three months. We got by using small diesel generators for power, and a kerosene stove for cooking. Another line in my Ivan song went: “Ivan sen’ we straight back to kerosene.”
I learned many things in my years in Grand Cayman, most of them over time. One of the most telling, however, was the frightening power of wind let loose; I learned that in 24 hours from Hurricane Ivan.