As I write this column, the huge Hurricane Irma is directly hurtling towards our former Leeward Islands’ lovely home of Antigua and Barbuda, threatening to trash the small islands and test its’ big-hearted people like never before. After looking at the online weather update, Tuesday and acknowledging there was not going to be any desperate last minute turn nor desired respite from nature’s most powerful force, in a panic, I hurriedly telephoned a few of our friends. While I laughed nervously as they told me not to worry, we chatted in earnest about their preparations for the first Category Five catastrophic storm to slam into the country in recent recorded history.
Shutters were up, water and non-perishable foods stored, refrigerators emptied, ice boxes dusted off, and frisky pets brought in and secured. In the philosophical words of my elderly former landlord, “we have done all that we can, now we can only wait, the rest is up to the Almighty.” I would hear the popular reference trusting in God repeatedly, as a nation’s belief in a divine force greater than any spirited squall rose to the fore bringing comfort in an uncertain and worrisome time.
When I finally reach her late that evening, my neighbour Rhonda tells me the rains had already started falling in the little valley at the foot of the humped Mount Pleasant, as she worried about the likely fate of her small but beautiful garden wrestled from a forbidding desert of thorny acacia and the occasional, hardy neem.
Taking years of dedication and devotion, the evolving landscape features a humorous statue of a peeing man moulded by her husband Sir Reginald, revered designer of the Antigua flag, and the brown free form figure never fails to attract gawping admirers as it impudently watches over the fine collection of rare roses and the pond of purple water-lilies. Under immediate threat too, are the plump pony tail that I had patiently grown from a midget for nine years and then entrusted to her in 2014 to hold pride of place, the slim cypress that towers at the front as an admonishing finger pointing to the surprised sky, the neatly trimmed perennially flowering hedges, and the thorny rows of spiky grey green agave lining outside the fence like twin rows of stern soldiers.
Recalling her horrible experiences with Hurricane Luis which skimmed closer to Barbuda in 1995, Rhonda says the heavy winds from that category four storm measuring 135 miles per hour (mph) sent sheets of water seeping in under the windows and doors in the darkness, and it was her already astute one year-old son who finally alerted the family. She feared then that the small building in Sutherlands, in the capital St Johns, was about to collapse as “the wooden house was rocking so violently from side to side” no one dared sleep.
We wonder aloud about the destructive effects of this far stronger Irma, a monster with 185 mph winds and higher gusts, on the pretty, cosy chattel house she has since built with its delicate fretwork and contrasting painted wooden frame. The combination of a life-threatening storm surge that could top 11 feet and exceptional high tides would cause normally dry areas near the coast to be inundated, likely swamping expensive beach-front properties and damaging key adjoining roads and bridges.
My green-eyed confidante, the stunning blonde Eman left the now-ravaged 2000-year-old Syrian city of Homs, north of Damascus more than two decades ago to join her husband Hassan, who was repeatedly tortured by the previous Assad regime for dissent, and build a fresh life as newlyweds that Luis interrupted in the tropics.
Eman sighs heavily, recounting how the deluge flooded their home as she scrambled to keep her newborn daughter dry, with their bed and sparse furniture ruined. The experience so traumatised Eman that she now wraps all their mattresses in protective plastic so at least there will be somewhere dry to sleep, should her fears be realised and the roof of their current house is torn off. Electricity went for about two months, she adds, explaining why she has therefore cooked all the perishables removed from the freezer and fridge. A great animal-lover, Eman reassures me that furry Fido and his fluffy father, our beloved mix Bunji are safe inside with more than enough sustenance to feed a pack of wolves.
Elsewhere my pal, the laughing Anette, true to cheery character, is unfazed, finalising her arrangements to secure the breezy premises of her elegant, traditional West Indian residence perched high with its sprawling wraparound verandahs and wooden windows that command magnificent views of the ring of mountains in the southwestern distance, and the downtown vista of the bustling city and its famously blue deep water harbour. As we talk briefly, I hear the deep barks reverberating from the trio of devoted guard dogs, abandoned as young puppies in a basket on her doorstep, years ago.
I worry, too, about my other indomitable British buddy, champion rower and world traveller, tall, sunburnt Lyn with twinkling eyes and an enviously svelte figure, who lived with her adventurous family on a house boat for long stretches wandering the seven seas, before casting ashore permanently when they fell in love with Antigua. She almost singlehandedly farms acres of fine vegetables in the rolling reaches of Newfield in the centre of the country valiantly battling drought and disease, and unwittingly growing delicious hybrids like the fruity, flavourful habanero crossbred by bees into the best pepper I ever tasted, alas, the seeds now all lost.
Hurricane Irma, like Luis 22 years ago, almost to the day, is a classic Cape Verde cyclone, an Atlantic superstorm that originated at low-latitude in the deep tropics developing from a tropical wave leaving the West African coast close to the islands chain. Often the season’s largest and most intense tempests, such record gales spawned in August and September pack a killer punch, rapidly gathering strength over the warm open ocean. Irma became a Category Two hurricane in a mere 24 hours following its formation on August 30.
Threatening vulnerable islands across the north western Caribbean, and up to Florida in the American
mainland, the extremely powerful Irma ties with the 1980 Hurricane Allen as the second-highest Atlantic hurricane by wind speed, weather reports said. She is the strongest ever recorded in the ocean basin outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and the biggest tropical cyclone worldwide so far for 2017. Irma is the ninth named storm, fourth such event, and second major hurricane of this Atlantic season.
The National Hurricane Centre (NRC) disclosed Wednesday that a NOAA National Ocean Service station on Barbuda reported sustained winds of 118 mph with a gust of 155 mph, before the instrument failed earlier that morning.
In comparison, Luis would extensively damage and destroy residences on tiny low-lying Barbuda with its howling winds and more than ten inches of rain, while nearly half of all properties in Antigua were taken out by the hurricane as it passed 25 miles to the north of the bigger island. Prolonged power outages and disruptions to water supplies ensued. The storm accounted for three deaths and injured 165 locals. It impacted some 32,000 inhabitants, forced 1,700 into emergency shelters and left about 3,200 others homeless. Throughout the country, the total storm damage rose to a whopping US$350 million or 60% of Antigua and Barbuda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Affecting much of the Leeward Islands from September 4 to September 6, Luis also struck St. Barthelemy, St Martin and Anguilla leaving at least 16 dead, between 20,000-70,000 homeless and racking up an overall US$3B in costs. It was the most devastating hurricane to slam the northern Leeward Islands this century and one of the biggest to hit after Hurricanes David in 1979 and Hugo in 1989.
Weather.com reports the Atlantic has spawned rare Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale in back-to-back years with Matthew in 2016 and now Irma. The previous was Hurricane Felix in 2007.
Historical records in the Atlantic area date back to 1851, but the first Category 5 hurricane was only registered in 1924. While such major hurricanes must have hit prior to that date, some probably missed the islands and coastlines, and ships probably avoided others, so data is sparse, the website noted.
From 1924 through early September 2017, there have been 35 Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The decade with the greatest number of Category 5 hurricanes, eight is 2000-2009. But 2005 was the banner year, since of the incredible 15 Atlantic hurricanes, four – Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma soared to top status, Weather.com said.
With some experts predicting Hurricane Irma will smash into the American coastline as a Category Five on its way to becoming the latest expensive storm, the most intense made landfall in the United States as the Labor Day hurricane of September 3, 1935 with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph.
As Tropical Storm Jose lines up, already forecast to become a new hurricane, in the immortal words of my stately Antiguan landlady, the feisty Mrs Williams, “Lord have mercy!”
ID learns that the Royal ship Queen Elizabeth the Second encountered a 95-feet rogue wave, created by Hurricane Luis on September 11 1995 off the Newfoundland coast, but luckily escaped with little damage.