Part III: Dorian
Highest wind speeds of an Atlantic hurricane ever recorded at landfall: 185 mph
The summer of 2019 was by far the most f’dup period of my life so far. No other time is even on the same Richter. When I arrived on the tiny island of Elbow Cay, I thought it was all behind me. Though thoroughly exhausted, I felt better than I ever have. This good feeling was not a familiar one of intense, heavy, creative energy, but rather a fresh one: calm, light, and contemplative.
Day 1 of 7 Leading up to Landfall
August 25, 2019
Enjoying the simple pleasures of island life: watching the sun rise behind clouds on the horizon in the cool of dawn, sun-dried linen with late summer cicadas, and fire-roasted breadfruit… which after you peel back the burnt skin is almost exactly like a baked potato- yet from a tree- and also delicious mashed or as French fries.
Day 2 of 7
August 26, 2019
A turtle and sunset from both sides of the island.
August 27, 2019
The only thing I love as much as exploring a new reef is when I can finally find my way back to a particular spot on a familiar reef. And ya gotta love it when a fish swims onto the spear.. one of the finest gifts there is. This one is a Nassau grouper, and I fed what I didn’t filet to a tree branch I had just planted. The tree is called Bursera simaruba, and it will root from a branch, so people use it for living fences. I heard about it from some Emberá friends in Panama, then read the late, great James Duke say tree has more common names than any other plant species he came across. Native people tend to name plants for which they have a use, so a plant with a lot of common names, means a lot of peoples use it. Some of the oldest cave art in the Caribbean is made from its charcoal. I believe the Taíno root for the word simaruba was also the first word from the Americas to make it into the English lexicon, but I can’t find that source. A lot of things originate in the new world, so it make sense that the Taíno, gave us so many words: tobaco, potato, maiz, coco, cacao, even barbecue. The word for huracan also came to Spanish from from either Taíno or Carib, another Arawakan language.
August 28, 2019
So at this point, we were around 5 days from landfall, which is probly when the reports from NOAA started heating up, and when I decided to stay. This house had been through plenty hurricanes since it was built in the 60’s, and these island people know how to prepare for and weather hurricanes, because they do it every year. I figured, what are the chances it will hit this tiny island? I was planning on staying for a few weeks to sort out my life… so I figured, if I leave and then I’ll just have to turn around and come right back after it passes.. just stay put. And this iwas the biggest take away: if you can leave, leave.
Instead, I was smelling the roses.. or I think this may be frangipani
August 30, 2019
So Dorian is now just 2 days out and at this point a category 3 I think. I’ve got 20 coconuts stockpiled under the house, and I’m preppin a few to put in the fridge so I can make fresh coconut milk for a few days. I basically filled every sealable container that I could fit in the freezer with water so I would have ice for at least a couple days to keep the fridge cool. The vid was a lil shout out to my buddy Hans, and you can see in the backdrop that the weather is still amazing. Bright sun, baby blue skies, and turquoise ocean.
Hurricane Dorian Arrives Tomorrow
August 31, 2019
Six am: A beautiful, dark sunrise on the horizon. The drop off from where the ocean has slurped away the beach is about 5 feet tall. Cold coconut water into a frosty glass. I take the wireless internet gear down from the roof and test the setup from the porch, where I get a strong signal. I’ll break it down tmrw morning and stow it until after the storm. When the generator goes, I have solar to run my end, but not expecting the other end to be up for a few days. And there is no cell signal here, which is normal. Grouper salad for dinner.
September 1, 2019
Six am, big seas on the ocean side. Eight am, seas way up on both sides, dock under water, waves breaking over the house and clear over the tiny island called Eagle’s Rock. Ocean beginning to lap up the land out back. Chat on the phone with mom over coffee. She tells me it’s now a cat5 moving 9mph about 40 miles out. So I figure on a noon eta. An electrical energy is in the air like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and the power is just tremendous. Posting clips from outside just before I went inside to hole up.
Around 9am the wind picked up and I went inside. The sound inside was wild. You could hear this gutter that had been ripped off, but not fully detached, just layin into the roof like a 20 foot aluminum whip. Again and again. I would peek through little cracks in the hurricane shudders to witness the power outside. Finally, I decided that regardless of shudders, there was no point in being around all this glass. It was dark as night outside. In a sort of pre-emptive attempt at damage control, I closed all doors and retired to the bedroom on the lee side. I closed the blinds to minimize any glass, and just laid down on the bed. It was kind of hot, so I had a little rechargeable fan-
I had turned off the generator earlier at the point at which I felt it was the last time to make a safe roundtrip to the generator house. By chance, I had the solar power kit I have been developing, and I stashed it under the bed. Next to me was a 1 or 2mm wetsuit and a mask and my fav pair of slip-on vans. I had my phone, cards, passport cards, and cash.
I thought about tryna listen to something on my headphones, but felt like a bad idea. I wanted to be ready to make a move. The house is wooden and raised up on pilings. While this bedroom is the closer to the ground than the other two, the house was moving a lot, and I was ready for the floor to collapse at any minute. At first I said it felt like being in an airplane, like a puddle jumper in bad weather, but then I realized it was more like a jerky train.. because there was no up and down, just side to side. Ceiling fans and wall hangings were swinging.
I told myself, “You’ve put yourself in harms way, but you are in the safest place.”
As far as I could figure, there was no where safer to go. I jus lay there in the dark and breathed and listened to the sounds.. steady freight train chug with somewhat regular intervals where for a few seconds the pitch of the wind howling rose up to a sustained scream, then back down.
At one point I remember hearing a bang, just a very quick BLAM, almost like a gunshot or explosion. At some point, maybe then, I decided to put on the wetsuit up to my waist, as the air was warm. Then, slowly, the intervals between the screams got longer, getting increasingly spaced apart, but still repeating. Then finally, there were no screams, just the chug. I kept waiting. Finally, it was quiet. Brighter.
I got up opened the door and the hallway looked normal though dark. I walked to the door to the outside and opened it.
Mostly I saw what I expected, leafless trees.. but trees. And palms still with fronds. I rembered coming down right after hurricane Floyd, and the yard was mostly leveled.. I had stopped counting at 30 trees down. This wasn’t that bad. A few minutes later the wind would die down and the destruction in the yard would be fully illuminated and just basking in the golden noon day sun. This is the eye I thought, it’s coming right back for the 2nd half. But it was so calm, which was just really odd. In the yard I could see a big chunk of house wreckage. I thought may be it was the neighbor’s and walked back inside. Then I opened to the door to the main room.
The furniture was a bit mangled, but not too bad. The roof was intact. There is a fireplace in the middle with a giant hood-style chimney that hangs from the ceiling by cables, and it was still hanging there. But in the far side of the room, the door to the main bedroom was blown off, and right next to it.. it was just too bright. A small piece of roof was missing. And thru the door I could see bright light. Turns out that room where I slept the night before was gone. Only the floor remained. The ceiling, the walls, all the furniture, including the bed, was just gone- Wizard of Oz style gone. I looked, but didn’t go in at this point as there was glass everywhere from a sliding glass door that had imploded, and the very last thing I wanted was to get cut up. The wreckage I had seen in the yard, which was down wind from this room, was part of the roof. But the strangest thing to me was that the rest of the wreckage was scattered around all sides of the house, and the bed- or the mattress rather, was actually about 20 feet up wind. Later, someone would say that there were mini tornado’s ripping through the middle of the hurricane, and it made sense. But at the time, all I could think was this thing is coming back. Any minute. But from which direction?
The common logic was that the wind would swing around the west and come out of the south, but who knows. I wondered if may be, just by some chance, we had only caught the side of the storm and that it may have passed… may be this wasn’t the eye. After all, I thought the eye was just a few fleeting moments.. but it had been a good half hour already, I went back outside and saw 2 guys making way thru the wreckage in the dirt road in front of the house. Wow survivors. I yelled to them, but they didn’t hear. A nice sized pit bullish lookin dog ran up to the house and I yelled again.
“We’re headed to town!” he yelled back.
“Town?!” I yelled. “What’s in town?”
“I lost my roof. Going to high ground, the community center.”
That sounded intelligent.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” They were on the move. I decided to join and went inside, realized I had what I needed already, and went back out and began picking my way through the wreckage in the yard. But the ocean was well up over the road, and to move in the direction of town involved climbing over wreckage. It was way too slow, and one missed step might slice your foot open. If this was the eye, then there was no way any of us would make it to town quick enough They were out of site. I turned back. Man, I thought, I hope they make it someplace safe.
At this point, my best choice of location is the cistern, the massive concrete water tank. I make a quick mission to the generator house to see if it’s an option, but its destroyed. And the dock is under water.
The only other option I can think of is under the house, but it’s open to things flying around or a floor collapsing, so that’s out. Yep, the safest bet is to suit up and crawl down through the 2 foot square opening into the cistern. It’s full of water, no problem there.
But what if it fills up and there’s no room to breath? It is of course where all the gutter empty into. Granted they’ve been ripped up, but still. I go down and turn on the tap so at least its draining.. though it will take days. Then I think, ok, what if something knocks a hole in the cistern, all the water pours out, and I’m fine, but I’m now standing on the bottom of the tank and can’t reach the hatch to get out? What are the chances someone is going to look for me in there? And how long might that take? I look for a ladder, but settle on a rope, and begin to tie it off to the wooden railing. But the railing on the other side is gone, what if this side blows off next? At that moment, the wind is picking up. It’s coming from the opposite direction now, out of the south, like predicted. It’s comin back. Execute. I find a broken off piece of aluminum sticking out of the concrete, loop the rope around it, and put my feet in. Nice and cool. Lower in, lift out. I need something to float. Grab a boogie board from under the house- thanks brother Chuck. And I’m goin in- wait where is my Snorkle? You left the snorkel? Dude, what is wrong with you? I can’t tell you how many self quips I had.
Got the snorkel, I’m in. I prop the wooden top over the 2×2 foot entry, and lay a heavy water pump on it to keep it from blowing off, but I don’t want it to seal out all the light, so it’s like 3/4 covered. The tank is maybe 10 feet wide, 20 feet long, and 10 feet deep, set into the earth maybe 5 feet. There’s only about 18 inches of air at the top. Plenty of room to breath. It’s blowin’ out side, but not bad. I put on the mask to look around. Golden sun rays light up the tank. Nothin down there, just a lot of cool fresh rain water. There’s a baffle about half way down the length with a little opening into the other side, which is dark. I see a lizard on the far wall, and I’m like, what’s up buddy, it’s jus me and you. The wind starts picking up and the rain hits. Below the lizard on the wall at the level of the water is a dark spot. I getta fix on it and keep looking back to see if the water level is going up. Then I see the spot move and realize it was a bit of leaf or something. I really want to know if there is water coming in so I find the gutter inlets and put my hand under them. I feel drips but nothing much. I guess the gutter are pretty much gone. The intensity begins to pick up. The gusts cause these crazy pressure spikes that I can feel in my ears and I wonder if they get worse if they could blow out my eardrum.. so I go underwater to see how that feels. No different, I still feel them. So I put my thumbs over my lobes and seal them off. That feels better, also muffles the sound. As it gets wilder outside, I move away from the entry hole. The top blows off. I I figure if a tree lands on top of the tank and it collapses, the center will go before the walls, and so I paddle to the far corner floating on my belly, facing into the corner of the wall.. basically staring at the wall a few inches away from my face. The volume is deafening. I estimate the time elapses in 30m increments. Hour. Hour and a half. I am just breathing. Again, I tell myself, you put yourself in harms way, but you are in the safest place. Just wait. Even with the wetsuit, I can already tell that the main limiter is going to be my body temperature. So I do my best to keep my core out of the water. Shifting around. Flip onto my back. There is this crazy sound.. it’s mechanical.. it sounds like an engine running, like a helicopter.. but I know that is impossible. Nothing mechanical is functioning out there. I can’t figure out for the life of my what it could be.
[To be Continued]
Floating in the Cistern
At some point, I really have to take a leak, to relieve myself. And of course, I am floating in the fresh water supply. Granted there is another cistern, but the last thing I want to do is botch this one.. with its however many thousands of gallons of collected rainwater. It only takes a few parts per million of the ammonia in urine to ruin sweet water. That said I do remember reading Pepe Mujica, the ex-president of Uruguay, talk about his years in solitary confinement, basically living in a hole in the ground, when he learned that he could let his urine sit for a day to let the salts precipitate and settle to the bottom so that he could slowly sip enough of it to maintain hydration. Alas I couldn’t hold it any longer, and so I got that momentary pleasure of warm pee in the wetsuit.. knowing that even though it felt warm, I had just dumped precious heat along with enough ammonia to contaminate the entire once fresh water supply in which I floated.. bitter sweet to say the least. And as happens once you break the seal, that was the first of quite a few contaminations. With each one, I felt a little closer to cold. At this point I had estimated that I had been in the tank 3 or 4 hours. Just like before the eye, the demonic shriek of the gusting began to get shorter and with longer periods of relative calm between them. I considered floating over to the hatch to pop my head up and take a quick look around. But just as I would be ready, the howling would return.. “Just wait” I kept telling myself. “You’ve made it this far.” No sense in getting a stick blown through your neck just to have a look around.
I also began to prepare myself mentally for the possibility that I would eventually poke my head out of the hatch only to find that there was no house. By my estimates, the storm after the eye had already been a few times longer, so I guessed there might be more damage. Since the storm had returned, it had been relatively dark from the clouds blotting out the sun, but now I noticed it was getting darker. The gusting intervals were definitely spreading out and lessening in intensity, so decided to take a look. Looking outside, it was windy, but safe. Complete annihilation in the yard, but the house remained- or at least from my point of view. I climbed out, and my first goal was to find a blanket or something to dry off and wrap myself in. The linen closet was dry and I peeled off the wetsuit and wrapped myself in towels. Surprisingly, I was hot in minutes. Awesome, no concerns there. And it was nearly dark. My god I thought, it’s sunset. I climbed into the cistern about 1p. It must be getting on 8p so I was in there not 3 or 4 hours but 6 or 7. I didn’t see any animals, and I wondered if any people had survived.
I continued down the hall from the linen closet to the room where I spent the first half of the storm before the eye. Per usual, I had closed the door upon leaving. I turned the knob and pushed. It didn’t budge. I figured the roof may half collapsed, as the second half of the storm had come from this southern side of the house. I pushed again and again. It seemed to move a bit. I tried again, and it did shift. I kept at it and the door opened enough for me to peak in. It looked like a bomb went off. Glass everywhere, no windows, no hurricane shutters. They had imploded. But the roof was intact. On the other side of the door was the beach. I could not believe how much wet sand there was piled up on the floor covered in glass and blinds and mess. And this room is maybe 5 feet above the ground, so all this sand had been airborne and flown in through the windows. “Go no further” I thought, “off limits”, and closed the door.
The bathroom was intact. No water of course because no power to pump it up up from the cistern. But I would be able wash and flush with buckets no problem, so that was great. So the master bedroom in the north side, where I slept last night, disappeared this morning. The other bedroom on the south side, where I spent the first half of the storm, imploded this afternoon. Which left one bedroom. I couldn’t believe it. It was perfect. Dry. Something ceramic had fallen over and smashed on the floor, but I had a dry place to sleep tonite. Incredible. I was elated.
I went to the kitchen and found it a mess, but intact. I tried the stove.. it lit. Unbelievable, that rusted old gas line and that tank laying in the sand beneath the house were somehow still connected. There had been no power since about 10a, but the fridge was cool. I brought up some ice from the freezer to the fridge to squeeze another day or so out of it. Then I made a wicked breakfast of scrambled eggs with onions, tomato, avocado, and some fresh bread and butter and orange juice. I went to bed a happy man. Though I wished I could let folks know that I was ok. I thought about the unnecessary suffering caused by the simple fact that no one knew I was alright.