Before I went to live in Grand Cayman in 1980, I felt that I had some idea of what a hurricane would be like – high winds, plenty rain, houses boarded up, stores closed, and, in the case of low-lying islands such as Grand Cayman, a few feet of sea-water coming ashore. My first hurricane was Gilbert in 1988 where I spent an anxious night in the house but lost only a short piece of guttering from the roof facing east, so that wasn’t all that bad. And then came Hurricane Ivan in 2004. That storm hit Grenada as a Category Three, more or less by-passed Jamaica as a Category Four, and then stalled over Grand Cayman for over 24 hours as a Category Five with winds gusting at 195mph. A hurricane is a diverse set of horrors and circumstances, and in a song I later wrote about the storm for the annual theatre show I did in Cayman, I highlighted the feeling of helplessness and fear during those first hours:
The sky close down and the sea jump up, Ivan.
The wind say ‘Look, ah comin’ and I don’t play.’
Mash up Grenada, bounce Jamaica, Ivan.
Yuh crouch in yuh house believin’ is Judgement Day.
The last line in that verse truly described that first night. With my own family and that of my friend Henry Muttoo, we were indeed crouched in the house wondering if we would survive. The house was strongly built on a rock foundation, with 4×6 rafters, and I had boarded up the windows, but it was vibrating and moaning, and the sound of the wind was terrifying; people describe it as the sound of a train, but to me it was more like some huge prehistoric animal trying to get at the people inside. One of the diverse set of traumas in a hurricane is that waiting out period. You don’t know how long it will last. You can’t reach anyone, or anyone you. The radio station is off the air, power lines are down, and the night is pitch black. Your mind says, “Oh God, stop nah.”
In that state, my daughter Annika called out, “Dad, the roof in the bedroom is shaking.” I ran up the hall and looked in the master bedroom at the end of the house. There was an overhang of the roof there, and I could see the underside of the ceiling vibrating. I closed the door, told everybody to stay out of the room, and we huddled in the central part of the house. The wind assault continued and suddenly I heard this tremendous bang, like an explosion, down the hall. I walked to the area slowly and opened the bedroom door – I was looking at open sky; the entire right-hand section of the roof in that room was gone. The wind had ripped it out in one burst; a section about 20 feet square, made up of plywood, resting on 1×6 pine, nailed onto 4×6 rafters, tied into the belting top of the side of the house. It must have weighed several hundred pounds; we had heard a boom, as from a cannon, and it was gone. Two days after Ivan, I found the roof section in the bush beyond my property, 200 yards away. The 4×6 timbers had held onto the belting, but Ivan had simply broken the eight rafters, in one surge, and carried away the section like cardboard. I stood there in shock; I almost couldn’t believe what I saw.
The next four hours or so, the nine of us huddled in the central part of the house, wondering which part of the roof would go next. I will never forget the sound of that wind hammering the house knowing what I had just seen it do. Fortunately, there was no other roof overhang, and while I could see the ceiling vibrating above us, the roof held inside, but above that every piece of shingle covering the four sections of roof had been ripped out by the storm. With only plywood underlay left, Ivan’s rain came in unimpeded. We would end up losing all the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and several mattresses. To add to the rain, the storm surge came ashore east of us – in Ivan, it came from two directions and met in the middle of the island; it sent 10,000 motor vehicles to the dump. The rain was relentless and would eventually cause mould all over our house. That’s one of the lesser known consequences of a major storm like Ivan – it leaves behind buildings, seemingly intact inside but riddled with mould; two years after the storm, we were still battling that fungus on our walls.
By Monday evening Ivan had abated, but then came the second stage, this one of shortages. All the lumber in Cayman is imported, and the supplies on the island were exhausted within hours. No ships were coming in to bring more. I managed to make a patchwork repair of the open roof on my house using some 2×6 lumber Henry Muttoo had luckily found floating nearing his condo in Georgetown. With the plywood I had on hand that helped to keep out the rain. But there was no electricity (it took three months to return; light poles had gone down like dominoes), no water supply, gasoline was running low, very few stores were open (they had run out of stock, even things like razor blades) and for several days just moving around the island was an ordeal. With the coast roads blocked from sand left by the storm surge, drivers would have to negotiate flooded back roads (with only parapets to guide you as to where the road was) with your heart in your mouth in case your car stalled. People were lining up from early in the day at the spots where water trucks were selling rationed water. Transportation was a nightmare. Fortunately, I owned a Dodge Caravan minivan so when the movement of garbage to the dump began I was able to use that, with the seats removed, to get rid of my junk. I must have made a dozen trips with that vehicle packed to the roof – broken cupboards; uprooted trees, clothing and linens, glassware, household garbage, etc – and the Dodge made it through the flooded roads never once shutting down. (When I moved to Guyana, I brought the faithful Caravan with me; she’s still going strong, safe from the hurricane belt.)
The hurricane story is actually a book – there are so many sides to it – but I can’t end without mentioning the privations that follow in the wake of the storm and how long it takes island economies to recover from these invasions. As I write this, my hotel operator friend Bob Dubourcq from St Maarten is telling me that in the current Irma strike in the Caribbean St Maarten will take about 10 years to recover, and the news for Barbuda is probably worse. We should be thankful we don’t see hurricanes in our country. As I said in the Ivan song:
The wind wouldn’t finish, it wouldn’t diminish, Ivan
From Sunday to Monday, howling and raging on,
And then on the second night when yuh get some slumber
Yuh wake up to find every leaf in the country gone.
That’s something I haven’t seen in the hurricane stories – that a major storm like Irma strips the leaf off every tree in its path and snaps coconut tree trunks like a sapling. Until you live through a major storm like a Category 5, you have no idea of the horror it is – while it’s happening and long after.
Yuh cotch up in yuh house, alone, Ivan
Thank God we had a good cell phone, Ivan
Yuh couldn’t buy a razor blade, Ivan
Yuh couldn’t find a piece o’ shade, Ivan
Well, if Ivan should come back so, Ivan.
I man gone to Chicago, Ivan”