Inside the eye: How I Survived a Cat–5 Hurricane

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I’m pretty sure I never wrote “experience a catastrophic hurricane” on my bucket list. Growing up in the Midwest, we get our fair share of thunderstorms, hail, and even tornadoes — but this — this was something out of a cinematic freak show. In Sept 2017, I was on the tiny Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, West Indies, serving as a volunteer. Mid-month, we began to observe an already active hurricane season and had barely escaped a monster of a storm — Hurricane Irma. As the locals celebrated the passing of Irma, we quickly learned that there was a new beast hiding in her shadows — Maria. I remember how I felt when news spread about another looming hurricane. My attitude was laid-back because so much prep went into Irma. We were prepared (or so I thought). “It’s just another false alarm,” I said to myself. Boy, was I wrong.  

On the morning of Sept 18th, there was a sense of urgency in the air. Reports were coming in that Maria was picking up speed and I sensed this was serious. My family and I started boarding up the house and spent the day in preparation. News came in that they would be shutting down the electricity and water for the safety of all villagers. The house we were staying in was along the coast of the village.

Now keep in mind, a Cat-5 is on its way. In my American, Midwest mind, we were toast! Suddenly, my complacency morphed into anxiety. “What exactly does a category five storm feel like?” I kept wondering. “How fast is the wind speed? Rain? Or both?”

By 6 pm, I knew it was game on. While seated on the porch, I witnessed a rather tall and healthy palm tree snap like a twig. YUP! It was time to get into our shelter room pronto! I quickly checked all items I had brought into our area — the space we planned to shelter in was an interior room on the lower level of the house. This room had no outside windows, just the door and window that led to an additional room.

By 7 pm, the storm had entered the small village of Castle Bruce. The heavy rain and hurricane-led winds forced five adults into a small room where we nailed the door and window shut. Subsequently, it was a most memorable night of terror and uncertainty.

The pulsating sound howled as the suction affected our eardrums. It was like something out of the movie Twister. The winds were so deadly that it made our concrete house sway back and forth. I thought we were goners! I heard crashing, smashing, swooshing, breaking, slamming of items in the living room and the kitchen — unrecognizable sounds. Water gushed from upstairs down through the floor into our living space. We were in ankle-deep water.

The room was closed so tight the air became stale. At one point, I noticed everyone had fallen asleep. “What? How can you sleep at a time like this!????” I turned over and looked at one of the elderly village ladies who was sheltering with us. She was lying there peacefully with her eyes closed and grasping at the cross she had around her neck. I told myself, “We will make it through this because this woman looks like she has survived many hurricanes in her day.”

At daybreak, and after one heck of a night, we walked out of the house, healthy and unscathed, yet facing sheer devastation.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, Maria’s eye hovered over the island for several hours.

In the end, 65 lives were lost, with millions of dollars worth of damage done.

So, with the 3rd anniversary of Maria’s destruction approaching, I thought it would be a good idea to share some dos and don’ts if you ever find yourself at the mercy of an impending hurricane. What I learned through this is that preparation can make all the difference when preserving life and property.

Do: 

  • Do identify your shelter and immediately prepare the space for yourself and others. Try to make things comfortable yet functional. Your shelter space should have a place to rest with a flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Do collect enough water based on the number of people with you and plan for several days. You never know when there could be a breach in your drinking water, so make sure you have more than enough stored away.
  • Do gather non-perishable food items and place them in trash bags or anything waterproof. Things get wet fast — try to keep all food items dry and off the floor.
  • Do pack clean, dry clothes, towels, sheets — bring them in the shelter room with you. You never know what personal clothing items could get damaged. Make sure you have several days worth of clean clothing packed.
  • Do keep all medications and first aid kits in a waterproof sealed container and keep it close by at all times. Fill any prescriptions days before the storm’s arrival.
  • Do call and talk with family and friends before the storm approaches and give them an update. Be prepared for electricity and water outages until further notice.

Don’t:

  • Don’t be complacent. Now is not the time to assume anything! You can NEVER be too prepared.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to board up as I did. We found ourselves rushing to board up all the windows. The house was big, and it took longer than estimated.
  • Don’t leave your animals outside. Make prior arrangements for your fur babies during the storm.
  • Don’t wait until it’s too windy to go back inside. Once you and your family are safe inside, stay put.
  • Don’t panic. Try and keep calm so you can prepare and execute a well-thought-out plan of action.
  • Don’t forget to bring entertainment for the kids — a coloring book, iPod, tablet with downloaded movies.

Having survived a Cat-5 hurricane in the eastern Caribbean was another one of those stories in life that I get to tell my grandkids someday. Three years later and I’m wiser now – more prepared. I survived, and you will too this hurricane season!

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