Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hurricanes

Stepping off the plane in July, little did I know that just barely four months later I would be writing this blog as a hurricane veteran of sorts. Up to then hurricanes were something you read about in the news or watched on TV - you know, something that happened to other people.

The official Caribbean hurricane season starts in May and ends in November. During that time, people generally stock up on hurricane supplies, such as canned and dry food, and lots of water. Grocery stores have entire aisles dedicated to hurricane supplies, and the sheer variety of canned food is pretty overwhelming. For example, I never knew you could get Vienna sausages in a can ...

Apparently, sometimes the worst thing about a hurricane is what happens or doesn't happen after the hurricane has passed. As in, if the water or power don't come on for a while because the infrastructure was damaged. Considering that hurricane season also coincides with the hottest time of the year, being without power for weeks on end was truly a scary prospect. However, also a relatively unlikely prospect. The last hurricane to inflict heavy damage on the Caymans was Ivan, a Category 4 or 5 (depending on who you talk to) which came through in 2004. It damaged 90% of the buildings and caused heavy flood damage because it did not merely pass through the islands but rather decided to stick around for a while and whip up a lot of water....remember what I said about living on the ocean earlier? Having said that, Ivan was the first major hurricane to hit the islands in something like 100 years, so perhaps we are safe for a while now.

But I was fairly oblivious to all that when I started stocking up on supplies. And I have to admit there was a certain amount of curiosity about whether I would be experiencing a 'real' hurricane.

Our first encounter with a hurricane was Gustav, which struck at the end of August, August 29 to be exact. We were not expecting a direct hit, and the hurricane was slated to be a Category 1 storm, hence no one seemed too concerned. Nevertheless, people started to board up their homes, if they did not have shutters, because you never knew if the storm would change course or intensify. We had already ordered our new shutters but they had not arrived, so we were forced to put up the plywood our predecessor had left in the garage. Needless to say we had no idea what to do, as putting plywood boards on your windows is not something you usually do as you are preparing for a winter storm on the Canadian prairies....rather, we'd be using the plywood to keep warm! So Richard's puzzle skills were put to the test, he did not disappoint, and SEVEN hours later we had the house all boarded up.

Cardboard Boat Race

The local church also boarded up one of its windows with a sign that had obviously been put to another use previously. I think it's such a funny picture because it looks like heaven is having a garage sale....

Cardboard Boat Race

And then the wait began. We kept watching the news and following the storm on www.stormpulse.com. And I noticed how it was becoming rather noisy outside - no, not the wind, but people parking their cars on our street. Remember how I wrote about being on high ground. On the Caymans, at 15 feet above sea level, we were definitely high ground (my dad laughed when I told him that 15 feet above sea level was considered 'safe', I think he thought I was mad). Our usually quiet street had a definite street party character to it for a while, and started to look something like this:

Cardboard Boat Race


The storm hit in the middle of the night. Between the block construction of the houses and the plywood on the windows it was pretty much impossible to hear anything, and I did not even know there was a hurricane until my radio and battery back-ups started beeping as they were being starved of power. That's when I started hearing the wind, and went back to sleep praying that the plywood would hold up because we really had no idea if what we did was good enough for a hurricane...

The next morning we went to inspect the damage. Here is a before and after picture of our yard:

Before:
Cardboard Boat Race


After:
Cardboard Boat Race


Unfortunately we also lost a tree, although that was not altogether surprising. It had been uprooted during Ivan and was just starting to come back but was obviously much weakened. Here is a picture of the Neem tree we lost that night:

Cardboard Boat Race


All in all, we got off lucky. Apparently the hurricane switched to a category 2 as it went over us, and there was no damage on the island as far as I know.

The next hurricane, Paloma, was much more severe, although damage on the island was very light, with trees down here and there. However, it did not look like we were going to get lucky this time, as the hurricane was headed straight towards us and was slated to be a Category 3 by the time it hit the Caymans. I actually was not worried until our neighbour, a Caymanian who obviously had some experience with hurricanes, offered that we could come by if we needed help as he had a generator and ample water supply. It was when he said "we are supposed to get it pretty bad" that it dawned on me that this wouldn't be no Gustav... But the hurricane changed course literally before hitting Grand Cayman and headed east, straight towards the smaller island of Cayman Brac which bore the brunt of the damage. I think by the time it hit the Brac the hurricane was a Category 4, and it did very heavy damage.

And we did not even lose power.

Which brings me to my last point - Tilley hats off to the Caribbean Utilities Company and the Cayman Water Authority. I was amazed that we never lost power - the wind was howling outside, the palm trees were bending to the ground, rain came down in buckets, and we were inside as if nothing was happening, tracking the storm on the Internet and still writing e-mails. Someone told me that the power lines are rated for 100 mph winds, and we must have hit those numbers that night for sure. And the next day the crews were out fixing what needed to be fixed. They do an excellent job.

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