Archives For Hurricane Irma

Tropical Depression

September 7, 2018 — 7 Comments

It’s that time of year. Waves are building. Cabo Verde off the west coast of Africa is often where we start hearing of them forming, but really these potential storms start their trek well before they hit the Atlantic Ocean. Innocuously named ‘invests’ until they garner enough strength to become a tropical storm or a hurricane.

This time last year Hurricane Irma pummeled St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands, before continuing on to wreak havoc further along the island chain. People on St Croix, the southernmost of the Virgins, set about sending help to their sister islands. Supplies of tarpaulins, water, foods, baby products, clothes were sent 40 nautical miles north on cabin cruisers and dive boats. Then fourteen days later St Croix was slammed by Hurricane Maria before it too continued on its devastating path to Puerto Rico.

When I am not on St Croix, I am in Houston, Texas. 

Last year Houston was at the mercy of Hurricane Harvey. We were fortunate. Our property, a sturdy Downtown warehouse conversion atop a three foot slab, brushed off the winds with rising waters stopping about eight inches short of the top of said slab. Our cars and those of our neighbours floated on the waters spewing down White Oak Bayou. Rendered useless we were reimbursed promptly by our insurers.

On St Croix we were also fortunate. Our house lost some shingles. A gate was torn from its posts and palms trees denuded of most of their fronds. Power of course was lost. For us, until early November. For much of the island it was a great deal longer. 

But many, almost twelve months later, are still struggling to regain a level of equilibrium following the battering. Power is fully restored to the island and has been for some time, but blue tarps are still visible – and not just from the air. Many are still awaiting monies from insurers, some of whom have been shameful in their reluctance to pay up. Hoops have been jumped through, then jumped through again, and again. Frustration has been high. Tensions brittle.

Through all of it, a strong sense of community has been the saving element in a traumatic event. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers. There have been thefts and some vandalism from people lacking empathy, and getting through life by making the most others misery. But that kind of person is found around the world, and needs little incentive to do bad. Much has been made of the linemen who came in droves of trucks from the mainland to help restore power. They worked long hours alongside those from the island. Some lived on a cruise ship leased and moored at Frederiksted. Some lived in semi-demolished hotels. Some are still here, though the cruise ship has long gone. They worked hard, in relentless heat with no shade from trees denuded by rude winds, but were also well reimbursed. 

Physically the island is recovering though vistas have opened up because of trees torn from their roots, or houses ripped from their foundations. Schools lost their roofs. Books became sodden piles. Mould proliferated. Hospitals sustained wind damage and were flooded. Historic walls stood yet another battering though some lost their roofs.

It takes time to restore life to normal, a new normal in some cases. Teachers have been under enormous strain to present a semblance of normality to their students through dual session days. Even now all schools are not up and running, and those open face a shortage of desks and chairs. Valid questions are being asked. What has taken so long? Why are we still waiting? 

Questions have arisen also about the lack of hospital facilities. As they should. Elected officials are always ready with an answer – often trite. Money is coming from the federal government. Monies that would have come whoever was in power, which is something to be remembered in the gubernatorial election in November.

Tropical depression though is not just a weather phenomena. It is also human ailment. It has affected many who still hear, as they try to sleep, the roaring of the winds as it peeled back roofs. The slightest rainfall sends glances skyward to check a recently repaired roof is not leaking, or a home is not being lifted from shaky foundations. A sudden thud can have a man, woman, child or animal jumping in anticipation of a tree landing on the roof, or scything a wall. A sudden blackout can have those traumatized by IrMaria breaking out in a sweat at the thought of months with no power. 

Stability should never be overrated. A tropical depression never underrated. As we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, anxious eyes are turning to those waves starting in West Africa. Invest 92L, forming behind Hurricane Florence, is one such wave. With another behind it. With luck they will bear north west and dissipate in the Atlantic, nowhere near land. And as the end of November approaches we will look forward to celebrating a hurricane-free season.

Those in theses tropics are hoping for no more depressions.

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Moths, Maggots and Mould

November 13, 2017 — 8 Comments

Here we are in St Croix! The sea is an ever-changing panoply of brilliant blues and glorious greens and is a ready distraction as I glance from my study window. I’ve just watched the ferry depart – it’s rather odd four-hulled shape making smooth headway across the channel to St Thomas. It is a constant on an island that has few constants at the moment after first Hurricane Irma skipped to the north, followed a week later by Hurricane Maria who skimmed the southern shores creating merry hell.

Power being the least constant of them all. Most of St Croix is still powerless though the hordes of beefy-looking linemen from the mainland, and our own crews, are steadily making their way across the island installing new poles and lines. March, or at the latest April, is the month being touted by Governor Mapp – I think that’s called “hedging one’s bets”!

Arriving on Wednesday after relatively stress-free flights considering we travelled with Bonnie, the cat and her partner-in-crime, Clyde, the dog, we were astounded to find we are part of that small percentage who do have light and therefore water. Along with the delight was a momentary pang of guilt – assuaged by offering ‘power and shower’ to people we know who are in need of a top up.

Hurricane Maria stripped the island of vegetation. Stately mahoganies tumbled. Elegant palms may be upright but their waving fronds have fallen or dangle impotently, providing little or no shelter. The genip tree across from our sturdy West Indian home is showing signs of life but until a few days ago was naked – it’s branches skeletal against the ocean backdrop.

But life is to be found. In our house it is in the crevices of old brick walls, or sending tendrils across walls and furniture, or in the fridge.

Moths emerge on a minute-by-minute basis. They had taken up residence in the pantry, managing to invade tightly sealed packaging to leave mounds of sawdust on the shelves. Bleaching and repainting have helped but still they flutter out to be met by a barrage of Raid.

Mould is an unsightly web of varicose veins across walls covered with anti-fungal paint, and wood furniture polished with wax. Diluted vinegar has been sluiced over every surface, left to dry, rinsed and then sprayed with eucalyptus anti-mould magic. We’ll see.

And maggots inhabit every nook and cranny of the fridge and freezer. The saving grace. Power came on the day before our arrival and so instead of a seething mass of blancmange-like grubs there is a bucketful of dried oat-like particles coating every surface and deep within the fridge’s innards. I will never look at muesli the same way again.

Drawers, rails, the ice-maker, and various screws, bolts and important parts line the gallery catching every skerrick of sunshine as vinegar and lemon do their part in eliminating odours. I have a minor concern that there will be one vital part missing when the fridge is reassembled, and I believe it is an unacknowledged concern of the man who will be putting it back together. It has been a back-breaking endeavour and why, I have been told, my husband never went into the plumbing business. A tall man in a confined space is not a pleasant work environment. We have spritzed, we have poured, we have scrubbed, we have dug into every possible fissure with toothpicks in order to rid our cooling device of it’s unwelcome, though thankfully dead, visitors. Baking soda and a constantly rotating fan are now doing their job and one day, soon, we will have a functioning fridge.

There are many small jobs which need attention. Shingles have been rudely cast aside by Maria’s wrath exposing the inner structure of our home. A few shutters now swing forlornly on broken hinges in the intermittent trade winds but the windows held true as did the roof, hurricane clipped at every conceivable point. An enterprise I, at one time, considered excessive but for which I am now grateful.

But we have it easy. Blue tarpaulins dot the landscape in FEMA’s effort to keep the daily squalls out. Many have lost much. Piles of debris litter the road sides – mostly organic but sofas, mattresses and televisions are seen in some areas. There is a recycling centre but it is overwhelmed – it’s dumpsters out and about around the island trying to corral the odiferous detritus left in Maria’s wake.

Frederiksted, on the western end of St Croix, took the brunt of the hurricane as she spumed her way to Puerto Rico where she inflicted even greater damage and hardship. This end of the Caribbean chain has been hard hit this year so we are receiving cruise ships who normally shun us. St Thomas, Tortola and many other regular cruising destinations are unable to host great numbers of tourists and so St Croix is grateful to be able to receive them – albeit offering limited delights but each day is better than the last, and the spirit of resilience is ever present.

These islands need tourism, and to those who have made plans to visit, or are considering a Caribbean adventure, please come. All are welcome. But please be patient if your credit card does not immediately work, or cell phone reception is patchy, or if the power fluctuates – this is what islanders have been managing for many weeks, and in some instances will be coping with for months to come.

Moths, maggots and mould are easily dealt with and do not dampen the warmth and friendliness of the Caribbean, and remember it is always about the people.

Island Strong

October 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

This is a story about a woman who lived on a rock in the Caribbean 130 years ago when the US Virgin Islands were under the Danish crown, and the dannebrog flew proudly from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern. Her name was Anna Clausen, and she was born on St Croix on a sugar plantation called Anna’s Fancy, so named for her maternal grandmother, the first Anna.

Our Anna, at age sixteen, was taken by her mother to England after the devastating hurricane of 1867, when the tidal surge on the western tip of the island had been so huge, the American warship Monongahela had been thrown ashore at Frederiksted. The storm had been the final straw for Anna’s mother, who was determined her daughter have the opportunity of a ‘good’ marriage, and the benefit of cultural activities that, to her mind, only London could provide.

Anna lived, unhappily, in London for ten years until after the death of her mother she returned to the island she loved. Her father, who had remained on St Croix, was ailing and alone after the death of her brother the previous year. Ivy, a girl from the East End of London accompanied Anna, filling both the role of lady’s maid and chaperone.

The homecoming was not as she had imagined, and the great house of Anna’s childhood was no longer the imposing, air and colour-filled home of her memories. Emiline, a surly woman was now the sole servant and was resentful of the young mistress and, more particularly, her white maid. “Chuh! I tell she, soon as, me not de maid. Me de housekeeper,” she mutters as makes up a bed for Anna.

Fireburn, the name of this story, tells of Anna’s struggle to keep the plantation afloat, with the help of Sampson, the foreman. It tells of a turbulent time on the island, with worker discontent high at the lack of progress in conditions since emancipation 30 years earlier, and which culminates in ‘fireburn’, the event in which Frederiksted was burnt to the ground. The rebellion, also known as The Great Trashing, stoked by women who became known as ‘the queens’, was brutally quashed with ringleaders executed or jailed, and the women sent to prison in Copenhagen.

Our heroine, Anna, faces personal heartache but with the support of servants whose trust she has won, both in the great house and in the fields, she becomes the chatelaine of a prosperous estate. Willing to take chances and challenge the conventions of the day.
At the core of Fireburn, the novel, is the resilience and determination of those who call Anna’s Fancy and St Croix home to weather any and all storms, both natural and man-made. To rebuild. To adapt. To strengthen.

In effect exactly what so much of the Caribbean is doing right now, after the wrath of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The islands will recover from the aftermath of these violent storms, they will prosper again. Their natural beauty and the overt friendliness of the islands will draw tourists, and their much-needed money, to choose to recharge on the pristine beaches, swim and dive in the vivid seas which filter through aquamarine to indigo to emerald, to sip rum – the staple upon which many of the islands first found prosperity – and to marvel at the resilient buoyancy of those who call these islands home.

Just as fictional Anna did.

The Caribbean and her people are, despite what is tossed their way, Island Strong!

Fireburn cover 72

Purchase Fireburn here!

VI Strong!

October 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Once upon a time – long, long ago – I lived on a beautiful little volcanic island, covered in jungles of ceiba, mahogany, palms and giant stands of bamboo like rows of drill pipe that lie in neat piles in oil service company yards. Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea. For those who may not be familiar with West Africa, Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, is on that island though President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo would dearly love it to be in his home town of Mongomo, well away from the threat of a coup d’etat, perhaps staged from the sea. Think of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and you’ll get the picture.

Living there for nearly three years was arguably the most challenging experience of my life – not least because of the lack of culinary supplies though boatloads of San Miguel beer were regularly unloaded at the docks. A ‘keep the man on the street drunk and he won’t worry about basic human rights’ sort of ethos. And what I couldn’t do with an aubergine was nobody’s business.

Cement and sand were also in short supply. Both, as the most inexperienced builder will attest, are fundamental to construction of any kind. One might struggle with the concept of sand being unavailable on an island, but believe me when I say you do not want your home built with black sand. It might take a month for streaks of black and a purplish grey to leach through any number of layers of paint – rather like varicose veins creeping uninvited up aging legs.

Cement was in fact the tipping point for signing a contract on our home. The tawdry monetary details had been settled, but still, but still, the landlord – a crafty and not entirely reliable banker – held out. In the round about way of African negotiations it became known that a bag of cement would seal the deal. Not the size of one from say, Home Depot, or B&Q. No, no, the bag in question needed a forklift and a crane to maneuver it into place.

Why this fixation on building materials?

Well, on our walk along Buffalo Bayou this morning, Clyde and I noticed one such bag of cement. It was large enough to cause a certain amount of consternation, and a lot of barking for my companion. It is being used in the construction of a much-anticipated cycle and walking path around the University of Houston Downtown. It will allow a pleasant circulatory ride, or amble, and negate the need to back track to one’s starting point. Across the banks of the bayou, by Allen’s Landing, which as any Houstonian will tell you, is the birth place of Houston, are mountains (I exaggerate only a little) of soft yellow sediment sand. Deposited by the swirling wrath of Harvey as rain pelted into already soggy land and overflowed already swollen waterways, the sand left the banks of the bayou looking like naked dunes. It has now been scooped up by dinky little red backhoes and piled underneath the bridge, presumably to be used elsewhere.

Now I have a home on another island, this one in the Caribbean. St Croix is also in need of building materials. Not because of poor governance as in our West African home, but because she has been ravaged by nature. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped roofs, stripped trees, tumbled power lines and crumbled walls as she blew in all her rage across the edge of the island. Remember a fury of her magnitude can stretch 150 miles with hurricane force winds and another 150 miles of lesser winds. For an island of just under 83 square miles that is enough to wreak catastrophic damage – which Maria did.

And so sand and cement, or lack thereof, again take on an importance not necessarily commensurate with their normal value, in one of the places I call home. These seemingly simple commodities delivered promptly to our Virgin Islands, will help rebuild the infrastructure. So too will jungles of ceiba, mahogany and palm regrow to once again entrance and shelter the resilient inhabitants who, despite Irma and Maria’s ill-temper, have remained VI Strong!