How I Waited for a Hurricane

Eerie skies suggest bad weather approaching.

The steely calm before a storm over the Caribbean Sea.

Too soon, it’s June!  ‘Tis the start of the hurricane season and we must now be ready – just in case one blows our way.  We pray that the Nature Island will be spared this year – but there are no guarantees.  We’ll hope for the best!

The following article describes my first experience with hurricane preparation in Dominica. That was  in September 1998. I’ll never forget it!  This piece was originally published in Caribbean Compass in November 1998 and has since been modified slightly:

A brilliant day at Springfield Plantation. Photo taken in 2004.

The sky was a surreal blue, not one rain cloud in sight. It was hot and dry  – uncommon during the rainy season. Intense sunshine glared. The peak of Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest mountain could be seen from miles away throughout this extraordinarily clear day. On the self-proclaimed Nature Island, the rainforest seemed greener than usual, the flowers especially brilliant. The calm Caribbean Sea looked inviting.

Hustle and bustle on King George V St., Roseau. Photo by Edwin Whitford.

But despite the outward appearance of a perfect tropical day, there were signs that trouble was brewing. In the capital city of Roseau, normally a laid-back place, tension was thick in the air. The local radio stations had recently broadcast warnings that Hurricane Georges was headed straight for Dominica! Citizens scurried to purchase essentials needed to wait out the storm. Supplies of flashlight batteries sold out quickly in some stores. Kerosene oil for lamps seemed to vaporize. The candle factory did a tremendous business that day. The frenetic atmosphere in the local grocery stores was overwhelming. I watched many hands grab packages of powdered milk, cocoa, Ovaltine, canned fish and meats, biscuits and other non-perishable goods. Although the friendly Dominicans spoke courteously to one another while discussing the weather, their faces were strained and their voices quavered upon mention of the name Georges. At a busy intersection, a handsome traffic control officer paused for a moment to raise his white-gloved hands towards the heavens in prayer. Rush hour occurred a little earlier that Friday afternoon as people hurried home to prepare for whatever lay ahead. It would take them some time to board up their homes and fill containers with water to last for a few days.

They had not forgotten about Hurricane David. In 1979 this fierce Category IV storm had practically demolished the entire island. Georges was now considered to be as strong. Back at my home base, 1,200 feet up on the edge of the rainforest, I frantically packed up boxes of books, clothes and electronic equipment, wrapped them in plastic and put everything fragile on my bed. Meanwhile, the knots in my stomach got tighter and tighter. In an almost panicked state, I phoned Canadian friends (author Susan Toy and Dennis Ference) who live in Bequia , a tiny island in the Grenadines, 150 miles south of Dominica. They reassured me and gave me web sites to check for the latest information. And they cautioned me to seek safe shelter. My cottage did appear to be structurally sound with its concrete walls and galvanized steel roof, but I did not want to take any chances.

Part of the Springfield Plantation complex (Photo taken in 2004)

After I had tightly closed the metal louvers on Saturday morning, I headed down the hill, carrying my most valued possessions (my computer and related equipment), to the nearby guest house at Springfield Plantation (which is now a research center). This stately old wooden building had endured many previous hurricanes and had escaped relatively unscathed. It also had a concrete basement where we could shelter if things got really bad. I settled into my temporary room, but I still felt uneasy. The storm was forecast to strike on Sunday morning. It was getting closer, pumping 150 mph winds. Then I realized what I had forgotten to do: turn off my electricity and water. My neighbor’s cat, accustomed to hanging around my place, still had to be found and brought to the guest house. The night seemed endless. I worried incessantly. At 3:30am, I turned on my radio. Georges was making progress, but he had veered slightly north. Now, he was predicted to strike between Dominica and Guadeloupe. High winds extended for almost a hundred miles from his center.

At daybreak on Sunday, I went outside. The air was moist and still. No rain. One of the staff was sitting on a bench with her sack of essentials close by her side. “The storm will mash up Dominica. I’m so afraid,” she cried. That didn’t help me any. To work off my anxiety, I walked back up the hill to my cottage and shut off the power. The cat came out of the forest, but proved to be an unwilling captive. Eventually, an old grain sack and two pairs of hands secured the critter, at least for a while. (Tia the cat is still around and has actually weathered a few storms since then!)

View of the Antrim Valley from Springfield down to the Caribbean Sea on a brilliant day. Photo taken in 2004.

Back at Springfield, I drank a cup of Ovaltine and speculated with staff and two guests from England about the potential wrath of Georges. I couldn’t eat much. My stomach felt queasy. By 10am a few sheets of lightening and blasts of thunder echoed throughout the Antrim Valley below Springfield. The rain fell like a solid object. I went back to bed. An hour later, I woke up to silence. One of the staff prepared me a big British breakfast: bacon, eggs, chips and beans, with fried plantains on the side. “It might be a while before you have a big meal again. You’ll need the energy,” he advised. A radio blared from the dining room. We gathered every few hours to hear the updates. People were now being urged to go to shelters around the island, if their homes were considered unsafe. Police and emergency response personnel were on standby. Now, we just had to wait.

By late Sunday afternoon, Georges’ course had moved a little more northerly. Now Antigua was its main target. But Dominica was still under a hurricane warning, because this wild animal was no small beast. On the northeast coast, there were reports of massive waves and thundering surf. Some sections of road had been washed out. People were still scared. As dusk approached, the sky’s eerie yellowish glow gave a sense of foreboding. Ghostly gray clouds shrouded the surrounding mountains. The wind began to blow in earnest. We sat around and chatted some more. Some people played cards. Others drank tea. I tried to write some letters, but couldn’t concentrate. At 8pm, Georges appeared to be well on his way to Antigua. It looked like we would escape the worst of the assault. Many weary souls headed off to bed. I did too, but later awoke to shrieking wind and hammering rain and the unnaturally black blackness of that night. Something was wrong. In a flash, I realized that the power had gone off. My heartbeat quickened. Terrified, I ventured outside. I could hear someone moving around. “Should we go down to the basement?” I yelled. “No, it’s not that bad, Gwen. Go back to bed.”

A few hours later, I arose to chirping birds and welcoming sunshine. I opened the storm shutters and peered out. With the exception of a few fallen leaves and branches, Dominica’s natural beauty and its people had been spared this time. I headed up the hill to my cottage to unpack my things and continue with life in the hurricane zone.

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