Erika Came for the Night

August 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

Arriving behind Danny and in front of Erika, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I should have known better. Virgin Islanders are a hardy breed and every weather occurrence is measured against the behemoth that was Hugo, which dashed and thrashed the islands in 1989, leaving them battered and severely bruised for many, many months. In the coves of the Salt River basin there are still remnants of semi-submerged yachts deemed too expensive to salvage. Older homes, if they survived Hugo, are here to stay. Fortunately ours did.

Wednesday was spent gathering necessities. Water, batteries, paraffin, gas lighters, essential foods and Sauvignon Blanc. Oh yes, and a clever gizmo to boost cell phone power which once home I realized did not in fact fit my phone despite assurances on the packet to the contrary.

I have lived in countries where regular power outages were common, and with a bucket of water by each loo and strategically placed flashlights I felt well able to handle a blackout. The evening was spent in the company of a friend at a local bar, Tavern 1844, in case you happen to be thirsty on St Croix. I wandered back up the hill, made a cup of tea and sat on the gallery, then boom. Sparks flew from the transformer I had just walked under and the town and Protestant Cay went black. The wind was minimal, no more than the usual easterlies that cool the island, and my confidence slipped just a little.

The insistent thrum of generators kicked in from across the bay, the lighthouse on the headland blinked green, and mooring lights from a few yachts offered pinpricks of light. It is though always surprising how one’s eyes adjust to the dark and what moments before had seemed a bleary blank canvas, quickly take on definition. After the initial surprise at the bang which sends bats and birds aflutter, sounds become more acute as animals and insects settle.

My faith in power companies has never been strong, so I was pleasantly surprised to see within half an hour the flashing lights of a WAPA truck, then a couple of hours later light blinked on around the town.

Thursday went from sunny to overcast. The day, and hours, before an expected storm are always a little surreal. People scurry to finish jobs, there is a run on the shops for a few just-in-case extras, hurricane shutters are trundled out or slammed shut, outdoor furniture brought in, trash cans tethered, and there is a general air of nervous expectation.

My planning, not having taken into account a lack of beans in the house, sent me down the hill in search of a cup of joe. The boardwalk had a few desultory souls ambling around waiting for something, anything. Yachts and dive boats usually tied to jetties were out on moorings, gusts of wind turning them north. Twin City, my usual on-island coffee shop was open. The only place that was.

A closed up house, despite fans, is a hot house, so I spent the afternoon on the gallery, but I couldn’t settle. Words did not flow, and my eyes kept drifting eastwards, watching, waiting. Checking the storm’s track, reading of deaths and flash floods in Dominica did little to comfort. Words about wind shear from those safe in mainland studios merely irritated. I watched the reef necklacing the north shore, usually a gentle ripple of white capped wavelets become a spumming crash of roiling waters.

Then, as darkness dropped like a theatre curtain, the winds picked up. Gusts that had whispered through the palms became a consistent agitated rustling, and fronds twelve feet long cracked and crashed to the ground. Crimson bracts from the bougainvillea rained across the gallery and the green lizards normally scuttling along the railings scurried for cover. And rain, much needed on the island, sparkled through the lamplight like spilled diamonds.

No boom accompanied the power outage this time. Just a sudden and angry blackness.

My daughter phoned from Trinidad. My husband phoned from Houston. Quick words of reassurance to and from them both before I disconnected, wanting to conserve battery life.

An amphora of no great value but aesthetically pleasing, and which I had considered sturdy, smashed over. A shutter from a building nearby snapped. Banana trees bent almost horizontal. Tan-tan seeds clackered. Rain hurtled across the gallery, ricocheting in through the open, and I thought protected, windows.

There was nothing to do but light the hurricane lantern, pour a glass of wine, pull a chair to the open doorway to the gallery, and in the flickering light watch the magnificence of the storm. No thunder, no lightening. Just wind and rain. The swaying palms, like moko jumbies, the good spirits of the islands, danced protection around the house and I marvelled at nature’s rage.

Erika came for the night. It was exhillerating, but I’m glad she was only a tropical storm.

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