As I write this, Florence, a massive hurricane, is approaching the US mainland, taking dead aim at North Carolina, and it sends me back to my experience with such storms. When I lived in Canada I had only heard about these things and back then, frankly, I had a somewhat benign view of them; little did I know. I had moved to Grand Cayman in 1980 and had built a house in the eastern part of the island, and I found that most folks in Cayman were as casual about hurricanes as I – the island is in the hurricane belt but no major storm had hit them for some 40 years, nobody built a house with hurricane straps, and many homes and even some businesses were in place only a few yards from the sea. My first hurricane experience came with Gilbert in 1988 which had caused massive damage in Jamaica, but it had weakened by the time it reached Grand Cayman, and while the winds were formidable it left the island virtually unscathed. It had come over us in the night, but no major trauma for me. I lost a 12-foot piece of rain guttering on the eastern side of the house, but no trees down, no flooding, just a piece of aluminum gutter gone. Cool breeze.
And then came Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This one was a Category 5. It had flattened Grenada and Cayman was dead in its path, so I heeded the warnings, moved all the loose stuff in the yard, and put plywood over the windows, but I was still rather relaxed, after Gilbert, even though I had heard of the destruction in Grenada – I had no idea what was coming. In fact, Ivan arrived over us, 180mph winds, and stalled – the eye right over Grand Cayman. The sound of the wind is hard to describe. It’s a new experience. You’re battened down, all electricity power is gone, only cell phones working, and in that absence of audio, you are surrounded by this constant raging roar, as if some ferocious monster is trying to get at you. Also, while the wind will go from this roaring rage, to somewhat of a moan, and then back up again, it never stops. That storm was over us for 16 hours, and the wind never stopped; not once. I remember we had pulled some mattresses in the living room to use as cover if the roof gave way, and I was sitting on one, as the storm raged, and it went through my mind, “Oh God, man, stop now nah. Ah hearing you. Stop now, nah.” That’s one of the hurricane traumas I learned – the panic of not knowing when it will end.
The other one is the destruction. Grand Cayman is only about ¾-mile wide and about 12 miles long, so this very wide Ivan circle created two storm surges of sea-water – one from the north created by winds going in one direction, and one from the south where the winds are going the other way. One surge came in from the northern coast, rolling south, and the other came in from the southern coast, rolling north, literally engulfing the central part of the island completely. At that stage, photos from storm-chaser planes later showed the central part of Grand Cayman disappearing completely under the sea. That salt-water flood would later result in 10,000 vehicles consigned to the dump.
On land, structures close to the shore were moved by the wind and the storm surge, off their foundations and pushed, in several cases, completely blocking the east-west road. Ditto with sand thrown up by the waves. Utility poles came down by the hundred all over the island. In one stretch, the Linford Pierson Highway, covering about a mile or so, every single pole was down. With the exception of town, phone lines and power lines were dispersed on the ground like black spaghetti; all over the island, same picture. So many poles were down that power was off for months. We lived on generators, and eventually the government had to bring in Canadian line-men to help with the pole replacement work. The infrastructure of the island was ravaged. The only saving grace was that the Grenada news had alerted people and hundreds had gone to the hurricane shelters, many brought there by the Fire Service crews who came around and took them out of danger; as a result there was only one death.
The aftermath hurricane story is a book, for whoever wants to explore it, but just this week, in US coverage of the North Carolina storm, I saw video of a building in that area with a piece of the roof being ripped off in one burst from the wind – a flash back to my experience in Ivan; this one had come late in the day after the storm had been parked over us for hours. My daughter Annika came to me, very scared, telling me the roof in the bedroom at the end of the house was coming off. I ran up there, looked in the room, saw the vibrating underside of the roof, closed the door and told the rest of the group sheltering with us, about 10, not to go in there. My house had 4”x6” yellow pine rafters, nailed down, plus hurricane straps. On top of that was 1”x4” tongue-and-groove pine, then 4’x8’ plywood sheets, and finally asphalt shingles. But the Ivan wind got under the roof overhang to the west, and in one surge the storm tore off a 14’x20’ piece of the roof to the right, from the eave to the wall, intact, in one sudden burst. Some vibration, a loud bang, and it was gone. I’m talking about three seconds – gone.
After the storm, I would find that section (rafters; pine boards; plywood sheets, asphalt shingles) still intact, in the bush on the other side of my property. The nailing and strapping had held – but the uplift of the wind surge simply broke off the 10 rafters like twigs – 10 clean breaks. When I went in the bedroom the next day, standing there looking up at the sky, and saw those stumps of wood it had left at the top of the walls, I couldn’t believe my eyes. That one burst of wind had to be carrying hundreds of pounds of pressure. It was like you fired a gun – roof gone, up in the air, clear over the rest of the house on the right of that room, and landed about 200 feet away. Imagine the destruction if that piece of flying roof, weighing several hundred pounds, had come down on the roof area to the right where eight of us were huddled in the living-room. It would have probably killed us all.
Seeing that roof coming off yesterday in Wilmington, took me straight back to Ivan. To have experienced a major storm like that, one can only feel for anybody in the path of a hurricane anywhere and give thanks that Guyana is spared that horror.