Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hurricane Memoirs: An Overview

As a native Coloradoan, I would much rather deal with a major blizzard than to experience a hurricane of any size. But as a transplant to the Caribbean, I've become all too familiar with the annual routine of hurricane preparation and watching, waiting, and hoping for the best.

As I type, we are waiting to see if Hurricane Ike--a dangerous category 4 storm--make a direct hit on the Bahamas or pass by to the south of us. Since Ike shouldn't be arriving until sometime tomorrow, I've decided to kill some time (and take advantage of the fact that we still have electricity) by compiling a list of all the hurricanes that I have prepared for, lived through, narrowly escaped or, otherwise, had a personal stake in their outcome since first coming to the Caribbean in January 1993.

For clarification (and to avoid the appearance of inflating my hurricane resume), I have placed an asterisk next to the storms that I've actually experienced personally. I've chosen to mention the others because (1) I still had to board up the house or otherwise prepare for them or (2) close family members or our home and personal property were in danger even if we were not actually present at the time of the storm. Also, I'll plan to come back and update this post from time to time as we will undoubtedly experience more tropical storms and hurricanes in the future.

Tropical Storm Cindy* (Aug 1993) -- During my first "hurricane" experience, I was largely unaware of the serious implications of what was taking place. I was living in the parsonage of the church (along with the pastor and his family) where I was serving as a volunteer in La Romana, Dominican Republic. At the time, we were hosting a small work team from Monadnock Bible Camp, who were staying in the dormitory above the parsonage. The night before the storm arrived (back in the days before internet and the weather channel), Pastor Phanord told us to close down all the windows in our rooms because a "hurricane" was coming and that the team would not be going to the work site the next day. Apart from that--to the best of my knowledge--no other preparations were made for the storm. We didn't board anything up and had no food or water supplies in reserve beyond what we normally would have had for a visiting work team.

We spent the entire next day inside the compound at the parsonage while it rained quite hard for most of the day. I don't recall any significant winds but I do remember that by the time things started clearing off in the evening we had quite the case of cabin fever and were ready for things to be over. Thanks to Wikipedia's extensive records of the annual Atlantic hurricane season, I recently learned that TS Cindy had actually been downgraded to a tropical depression just before entering the Dominican Republic and, subsequently, dissipated the next day. Hence, the reason we experienced mostly rain and hardly anything in the way of wind.

Hurricane Luis (Sept 1995) -- My first real hurricane preparation experience didn't take place until after moving to San Germán, Puerto Rico. I had married Estela earlier that year and, shortly thereafter, moved to Puero Rico to find a job, set up house, and begin the application process for us to study at the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico while Estela waited in La Romana for her application for permanent residency to be processed.

Then in early September, just four days after I had finally brought Estela to San Germán, I found myself standing in a line behind umpteen million people at Supermercado Pueblo wondering if I'd ever be able to get out of there before the arrival of incoming Hurricane Luis. After a few hours, I did finally make it to the cashier, paid for as many emergency supplies that I could reasonably carry on my bicycle and then headed back to our apartment where our landlord and I proceeded to board up the entire building.

As it turned out, none of that preparation was necessary as the then category 4 Hurricane Luis ended up veering off to the northwest, totally bypassing us, after destroying most of the homes in Antigua and Barbuda. We later received first hand reports on the storm from my sister-in-law in Antigua, whose home was amongst those destroyed, and one of my colleagues at ICPR Junior College spearheaded a local effort to collect food and clothing to donate to the hurricane victims in Antigua and Barbuda.

Hurricane Marilyn (Sept 1995) -- This category 3 storm, which followed just a week behind Hurricane Luis, bypassed those of us in southwestern Puerto Rico entirely. Though, others parts of Puerto Rico were not so fortunate.

By that point, I was beginning to get a bit annoyed as we had just boarded up and deboarded our house two weeks in a row. I remember asking our landlord, "Are we going to have to do this every week around here?" Later, I saw an editorial cartoon depicting a family frantically boarding up their home with the caption, "Just like Christmas. Same thing every year." No kidding, more like every week!

I did learn an important lesson about hurricanes that month: Since the actual path a hurricane takes, despite the best efforts of weather forecasters, is always a bit unpredictable, lots of time is often wasted boarding up buildings and, then, sitting around sweating inside those same buildings as they bake in the heat if the fierce tropical sun and, later, deboarding them. Too often, one does all this work only to find later that (1) it was not necessary because the storm never showed or (2) one has vastly over prepared for what little bit of storm actually appeared. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Hurricane Bertha (July 1996) -- As our landlord was out of town, we didn't bother to attempt boarding up the house on our own, though we probably should have. Evidently, parts of northern and eastern Puerto Rico were pummeled fairly hard by this category 3 storm while those of us in the southwest enjoyed a nice quiet peaceful sunny day. Having not yet experienced anything worse than TS Cindy, I pretty oblivious to the seriousness of what was taking place elsewhere on the island, not to mention would could have been happening to us.

Hurricane Hortense* (Sept 1996) -- Puerto Rico took the worst beating from this category 4 storm, though neighboring countries were also affected. I suspect, but don't really know for sure, that the wind speeds near San Germán were significantly less than category 4 winds for the simple reason that the Puerto Rican mountains should have slowed the storm down quite a bit before it ever got to us.

I remember sitting in our apartment around ten or eleven o'clock at night right before the storm hit. Everything was boarded up so we couldn't see outside. We opened our door to take a look outside and it was so calm and peaceful that it seemed impossible that a hurricane would be so close. Indeed, it was downright eery because the radio broadcasts were reporting power outages, flooding, and general mayhem in neighboring towns all around us. Then, in the blink of an eye, the power went out and a fraction of a second later the wind began to howl like I'd never heard it howl before. It spent the night huffing and puffing but, thankfully, it did not blow our house down.

The next morning we awoke (yes, I'm actually pretty good at sleeping through stuff like that) to find the town of San Germán strewn with debris, downed utility poles and light posts, and the occasional roof from a tool shed scattered here or there. But other than that, we really didn't experience a great deal of damage, with all of the houses and large building having remained fully intact. The electricity came back on that night, less than twenty-four hours after having gone out. So overall, we were minimally inconvenienced by the storm. Though, later we learned that other parts of the island had experienced severe flash flooding that had washed away entire houses and spent weeks without electrical power. Indeed, we were quite shocked by what we saw on subsequent television coverage as it was a far cry from what we personally had experienced.

Though we didn't know it at the time, this would turn out to be our last direct experience with a hurricane until our run in with Hurricane Michelle in the Bahamas over five years later.

Hurricane Erika (Sept 1997) -- Passing to the north of Puerto Rico, this formidable category 3 storm--the worst of the 1997 hurricane season--wreaked some havoc in San Juan and nearby areas with tropical storm force winds on its perimeter.

Down in San Germán, I think we were vaguely aware that a storm might be affecting the northern part of the island but I was totally taken by surprise when I showed up at Universidad Interamericana on a bright sunny morning to teach my first day of class and was turned away by the guards at the entrance to the campus because the University had been shut down due to the hurricane. Since nobody else around town had bothered to board up and everybody seemed to be going about their business as usual, Estela and I made a few jokes about the university being overly cautious and paranoid and, then, enjoyed our day off.

At this point, you'll note that the next several years on my hurricane resume are a bit thin. That's because Estela and I moved to Denver for two-and-a-half years while I was attending Denver Seminary and not due to any decrease in tropical activity during that time.

Hurricane Georges (Sept 1998) -- The biggest storm to impact our lives during my seminary years is the massive category 4 Hurricane Georges that made landfall in the southeastern Dominican Republic near Estela's hometown of La Romana. The effects of this hurricane were catastrophic, destroying or otherwise severely damaging the homes of numerous close family members and friends and leaving thousands without food, water, or adequate relief assistance.

The hardest part about this experience is that while we were safely out of harms way in Denver, we were out of contact with Estela's family for about two weeks. The initial first-hand reports that came back to us via missionary colleagues in Santo Domingo suggested that there had probably not been any fatalities amongst amongst the church members in La Romana but also confirmed that the storm was just as devastating as we had feared. Eventually, the lines of communication opened back up again and we learned that Estela's family was safe, that the roof of their house was one of the few in the neighborhood that hadn't blown away in the storm, that many of the church members had been sheltered in the church sanctuary when the storm blew the roof off of the church building, and that the mother of one church member we knew had been killed by flying debris from the storm. Over the weeks and months that followed, we continued to get similar reports of harrowing experiences and, later, courageous responses as relief efforts were implemented and the process of rebuilding the Dominican Republic got underway.

Hurricane Michelle* (Nov 2001) -- Thanks to the mountainous terrain of Cuba, this former category 4 storm was severely weakened by the time it entered the Bahamas. But after observing the destruction wrought by Hurricane Georges from afar, I had finally come to appreciate the power of the hurricane and had no intention of messing around. Frustratingly, our landlord didn't quite see things the same way we did and, consequently, our house did not get boarded up for this particular storm, our first after relocating to the Bahamas.

While we never were able to find out what the actual strength of the storm was when it passed over the Bahamas, I'm guessing it was no greater than a category 2 and, perhaps, even less as none of the windows in our house were broken by the winds. The storm moved through Nassau quickly, arriving around mid-morning and departing late in the afternoon. Since our house had not been boarded up, we did get an excellent view of what was going on outside as we watched the shingles blow off a neighboring house, one by one, and our crazy neighbor running around his yard trying to pick up debris.

Thankfully, the damage was no worse than what we had experienced with Hurricane Hortense in San Germán five years previously, and was basically limited to downed utility poles, lampposts, and tree limbs but no major structural damage to homes or buildings. Electricity here in Nassau resumed within about 24 hours after the end of the storm, at least in our neighborhood, so all-in-all we were minimally inconvenienced by this storm.

Hurricane Frances (Aug 2004) -- In early August we departed to the Dominican Republic to spend a month with Estela's family before the beginning of the fall semester. Since Hurricane Charley--a category 4 storm--had just struck nearby Florida, we happily departed for our trip on the foolish assumption that hurricanes, like lightening, never strike in the same place twice. At least not in the same storm season anyway. And as far as I was concerned, Florida was close enough to Nassau that we should not have to worry about anything in our absence.

Boy was that a mistake! I was soon to learn that hurricanes, unlike lightening, can strike as many times as they darn well please. By the end of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, Florida would experience four hurricanes and the Bahamas would experience two.

Towards the end of our vacation in the D.R., we were a bit disturbed to learn that a category 4 storm was headed towards the Bahamas, especially since we knew that our landlord--who was also out of town--would probably do nothing to secure our house which we had left behind with all of the windows open and our car parked on the driveway in front. Unfortunately, we had no idea what was really happening as the hurricane made its way over the Bahamas. The U.S.-centric cable news stations seemed to be more interested in interviewing home owners who were boarding up their property in Florida than reporting on what the storm was actually doing in the Bahamas.

Later, we would learn that Nassau did not take a direct hit and that our home and car remained undamaged, though we spent an entire day cleaning our house out after we got home as everything was coated with a thick layer of dirt. Again, downed utility poles, lampposts, and tree branches seemed to be the extent of the damage in Nassau, most of which had been cleaned up by the time we finally got home. Unfortunately the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama incurred very serious damages from the storm, resulting in massive relief efforts directed towards those islands.

Hurricane Jeanne* (Sept 2004) -- This category 3 storm joins the many others in the "could have hit us but didn't" department. While the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, still catching their breath from Hurricane Frances, were clobbered yet again, those of us in Nassau simply experienced a seemingly typical rain day and, to the best of my knowledge, no damage of note was incurred on our island.

Hurricane Katrina (Sept 2005) -- This major category 5 storm--like Hurricane Georges and Hurricane Francis--falls into the "storms that happened while we were AWOL" department. The Bahamas has the dubious distinction of being the location where Katrina began to form before moving on to the Gulf Coast and making its now legendary landfall in New Orleans.

Of course, at the time that it began to form, we had no clue that things would get anywhere near as bad as how they ultimately turned out. We were speaking at a church in Ontario, Oregon eight months into our home assignment year on the Sunday morning that we first realized what was going on. After the morning service was over, I went to the church office and called a friend in Nassau to find out what was going on. My biggest concern was that all of our furniture, appliances, books, and so forth were stored in a flimsy storage unit out on Blake Road just a stone's throw from the beach, so I was just checking to make sure our stuff was okay and was assured that it probably would be. (How we ended up storing our stuff there is a story for another blog post but if I knew then what I now know about storm surge I would have never rented the place).

As it turned out, the Bahamas just got a lot of rain, our stuff survived just fine, and our initial concerns turned out to be irrelevant compared to the devastation that would take place in New Orleans a few days later. Following the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, we were greatly relieved when Mother Nature basically gave us a break during 2006 and most of 2007.

Hurricane Noel* (Nov 2007) -- Our first hurricane after returning to the Bahamas from home assignment, this small category 1 managed to do quite a bit of damage on a number of other Caribbean islands but didn't do too much damage in the Bahamas. For the record, the living room of our third-floor apartment was flooded out (to the extent that anything on the third-floor of anywhere can flood) while we slept during the night that the storm passed overhead. But that was due largely to faulty construction of our apartment building and, hey, when you're on the third-floor the water will eventually head for lower ground anyway so it really wasn't a big deal. While there was flooding in some parts of the Bahamas (and many locations around here will flood during a mere thirty-minute rainstorm anyway), the electricty here in Nassau never went out and, as far as I could tell, there was nothing significant in the way of debris or damage following the storm.

Tropical Storm Hanna* (Sept 2008) -- Earlier in the week, the Nassau Guardian warned that the Bahamas would be hit with a double hurricane and, at the time, there were actually three major storms taking aim at us: Hanna, Ike, and Josephine. Josephine has since fizzled out but Ike (see below) has been the real object of concern this week. Hanna, on the other hand, ended up dancing around in circles over the Turks and Caicos for several days while simultaneously causing severe flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When she finally started to head north again, she did so just to the east of and parallel to the Bahamian archipelago. Some of the outlying islands in the eastern part of the Bahamas such as Abaco and Cat Island were hit a bit harder than us here in Nassau (where we mostly just experienced a day or so of gusty winds and occasional scattered showers). But in spite of any inconveniences caused by Hanna, the main concern this week has been to prepare for Hurricane Ike and its deadly category 4 winds.

Hurricane Ike (Sept 2008) -- Expected to be back up to a category 4 storm by the time it enters the Bahamas tomorrow afternoon or evening, it looks like there's a good chance that only the southeastern islands of the Bahamas will be affected. We'll see. Once it's clear what precisely is going on, I'll post an update on Hurricane Ike.

To sum up, my life has been affected--directly or indirectly--by fourteen tropical storms or hurricanes during the last fifteen and-a-half years since I first came to the Caribbean, nearly an average of one per year. I've only personally experienced six of those storms and, of those six, only two of them were direct hits that resulted in a lot of damage: Hurricane Hortense (1996) and Hurricane Michelle (2001). And of those two, both were probably category 2 or less at the time we were hit by them. So given that most of the storms on the above list were category 3 or higher, we have been relatively fortunate in not yet having to experience a storm of that magnitude. If we continue to reside in the Caribbean, I suspect that it is just a matter of time before we experience a major hurricane (meaning a category 3 storm or higher). It's not really a question of if but when. But as I learned back in San Germán over thirteen years ago, the biggest part of the hurricane experience is preparing, watching, waiting, and hoping that you don't get hit. And so we wait . . .

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At Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 11:57:00 PM EST , Blogger Craig Blomberg said...

That's quite a catalog of storms, Dan. Yes, I think I'll stick with blizzards. Hoping you get spared the worst of Ike just as New Orleans didn't get the worst of Gustav!

At Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 8:35:00 AM EST , Blogger haitianministries said...

Thanks for dropping by, Dr. Blomberg! At this point at looks like Nassau may not get much of anything at all. Please pray for our brothers and sisters in the Turks and Caicos, southeast Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba where it appears that the worst of the storm is going to hit.


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