“Good timber does not grow with ease. The stronger the wind the stronger the trees.” ~ Thomas S. Monson.
I traveled to Jamaica with my family in 1963, sailing on the SS Ascania. Our journey was extended by several days, as we had to observe protocol, and allow a killer to exit the Caribbean before we could safely make our way to Kingston harbor. Hurricane Flora (as I just discovered, thanks to Google), killed over 6,000 people during her travels through the area, hitting the Leeward islands, Tobago, Hispaniola and Cuba, before finally discovering it was better in the Bahamas. When it was safe to do so, we made our way to Jamaica. The island had avoided a direct hit, but had experienced the outer bands.
Kingston was a mess. Cows and goats wandered through the streets, debris littered the place. We had nothing to compare it to, since we had never left England (or rather the UK, since Wales was our annual summer trip) before. It would be 29 years before I would live through a hurricane, and that was our friend Andrew who wiped out South West Miami. My favorite memory of that event was the surgeon who insisted on leaving the hospital in the midst of the storm to ‘see what it was like’. No one could convince her (yes, she was a female surgeon) to stay inside. The police and Fire Rescue had already been told to stay where they were, yet out she went, fascinated and foolishly brave. I figured that this was a special lady. Surgery is a competitive field, and not only was she female, she was Haitian, so she was used to fighting for her place in life. She returned, didn’t seem to be impressed. Then again, in North West Miami we did not get the direct hit.
There is much to humble you when you go through these big weather events. For a start, they are all encompassing. Forget your plans, forget your schedules, forget normal routines, the storm demands your full attention. And the waiting. What can you do but watch the weather channel and the spaghetti strips which drift apart, then converge, while the hurricane ignores the models and does her thing.
This time I was in a house with impact resistant windows on the second floor. While shutters blocked the sights downstairs, when the hurricane force winds finally reached us, I had a view of Mother Nature’s magnificent, terrorizing fury. Trees limbs flailed around madly, trunks bending down low, then snapping back up. I watched one with limbs so low they touched the ground, but wait, they never got back up. Like a loser in the ring, the tree was down, uprooting a fence, crushing a garbage can, and rendering a few squirrels homeless.
As Irma stripped the trees bare, and robbed us of what we take for granted, we learned to treasure a few small pleasures. Before the winds had died away and we could ‘eat out’ (as in, fire up the grill), we discovered that Sterno and chafing dishes could boil water for coffee – if you put enough of them close together. One son donated his ancient trusty transistor radio, and once more I was connected with the outside world.
Being without power is another humbling experience. Here in the US, a country which has 5% of the world’s population yet consumes 24% of the world’s energy, we have forgotten how to function without electricity. In 1992, despite not being in the direct path of Andrew, our home lost power for 3 weeks. The kids learned that their father could set up an outside kitchen and cook a mean meal the country way with sticks and stones and a big pot. Or, as his grandson declared recently when he heard the story, ‘he was a genius!’
But for those with health issues, being without power in South Florida in the summer is more than an inconvenience. As we have recently learned, heat can kill. Being without air conditioning is no joke, but for some this week it was deadly. For those of us able to rehydrate, to take cold showers, to find a breeze by a window, or to jump in the car and crank up the ac once in a while, it was merely an inconvenience.
Of course, once the worst of the storm’s effects have passed, once we have power restored, when we can get internet on our phones again and post our status on Facebook, we quickly go back to taking for granted things that many people in the world can only wish for. The pictures coming out of the islands who were wiped clean by Irma’s wrath are heartbreaking. These are not people who can complain about how long FPL is taking to come to their block. These are not people who have to boil water, because of a few burst pipes. For the population of St. Martin, Tortola, and other small islands, life as they knew it has ceased to be. They lack habitation and water, never mind electricity and gas. As the US TV stations focus on Florida, where the disaster relief efforts are already underway, we must not forget those who are mentioned briefly in updates, who have literally lost everything.
For me, there were many moments to pause and appreciate: the sound of silence before generators started to kick in. With no traffic on the roads or in the air, there was a peace to be felt as we took stock of the damage, as we walked and talked with our neighbors. The birds who had left the area soon returned by the score; squirrels fought for territory as the uprooted tried to move in on their neighbors. And when you rely on a reporter’s verbal description of places, you come to appreciate the use of a vivid phrase, a metaphor which aptly captures a scene. You relish those well-chosen adjectives which allow your mind to paint the picture which you cannot see.
Ah yes, Irma has passed leaving death, destruction and devastation in her wake. Let us hope that she has taught us valuable lessons, but let us not forget those who will not so easily bounce back.
This Friday morning I hope we can appreciate the simple pleasures, give thanks that we made it through to the other side, and be patient with our fellow man as we recognize our powerlessness before all of the things which are outside of our control.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!
Those of us with a Caribbean identity are so familiar with natural disasters whether hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and corresponding effects such as hardiness, stamina, poverty, disseases etc.
Yet we keep getting up, rebuilding, laughing and welcoming the world to our fragile islands.
Jah Rasta Fari!