And The B.B. Wolf Said . . .
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
And the b.b. wolf said to the 3 little pigs:
“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”
August. The dog days of summer. Thoughts beginning to turn to the coming fall with its cooler weather (a welcome prospect after this broiling hot summer and, yes, we can tell the difference in our seasons. That 10 degree drop between summer and winter feels great!), annual back to school trek (not quite such a welcome prospect), and, most important to some, the start of the football season. But first we have to get through August.
In the Caribbean, from a point extending from Barbados in the south to Cuba in the north (and, of course, all up the eastern seaboard of the United States), August is the month the residents start concerning themselves about hurricanes (as I was so reminded when I took a quick glance at the weather report this morning and saw a guy by the name of Felix spinning away out in the Atlantic). The official season runs from June through October but early storms are usually reserved for the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Our turn at bat is slightly later in the game. The Virgin Islands’ annual holiday to pray to be spared from the wrath of the season’s storms – Hurricane Supplication Day – doesn’t even occur until late July (don’t look for the churches to be packed though – you’ll find all the supplicants – government employees almost to a man – at the beach. There is another holiday in November – Hurricane Thanksgiving Day – for them to celebrate at the beach).
Anyhow, mustn’t be snitty about our hard working government employees (who account for about 35% of employed adults here) – their smiling countenances, cheery demeanor and speedy efficiency make dealing with governmental red tape such a pleasure. You bet.
But back to the subject in hand – hurricanes. Now is the time of year when islanders start watching The Weather Channel’s Tropical Update (ask just about anybody here what time it’s on and I’ll bet you get the right answer) with a certain degree of regularity (after hurricane season it will revert to occasional viewing – usually when one is planning a trip off island or when the north is being hammered with snow and we want to gloat). And there’s lots of action to watch this year – predictions are for a busy season (we’re already up to Felix and it’s only early August!) with storms rolling off of Africa like ducks on a shooting gallery conveyor belt. (FYI: Africa is responsible for more Caribbean weather than you might guess. Every year we have a week or so of a phenomenon called Sahara Dust. From them to us with love.)
Don’t get the wrong impression though. Just because the weathermen like to play up the drama of the situation (can’t really blame them though, can you? Ours get to say, “sunny with some cloudiness, slight chance of showers,” 350 some days of the year so it must get a little tedious) doesn’t mean that the islands are sitting like bowling pins waiting for an expert shot. Most storms veer north, a few pass to the south, and much excitement is generated by a near miss. (Actually, near misses are a real godsend – they’re often referred to as “cistern fillers.” Kind of gives new meaning to the old adage of every cloud has a silver lining.)
In reality, the Caribbean is not nearly as badly situated in the hurricane track as many people think (and if you compare us to the not so pacific Pacific we really look good – just think of our sister Territory of Guam, who had 5 typhoons and an 8.2 earthquake in one year (`93) alone!). Usually it’s only after they leave these warm waters that they really build up their muscle. Lots of storms that go on to fame and destruction further north spend their sojourn here as babes in the nursery. Case in point: Hurricanes David and Frederic, categories 5 and 4 respectively (biggies in other words) when they went on to clobber the East Coast, were puny weaklings when they arrived here just a week apart at the end of August 1979. They were Tropical Storms with lots of rain, a fair amount of wind, a few days of no electricity, and a general air of thrills and chills. (And why do I remember those dates oh so well? It was during the 3 day interlude between those storms that I managed to get my wedding invitations printed!) We’ve even had storms born here. In 1984 Klaus was hatched on our doorstep (6 November to be exact – what a shock to all of us that was – hurricane season was over! Again there are indelible memories linked to the date – it was election day and the ballots (paper marked with pencil – a joy to read even under good conditions) were counted that night by the thin light of oil lamps and candles. Unbelievable that in these litigious times that no one demanded a recount!)
When it comes to heavy duty storms performing a tap dance right on top of us – those occurrences are rare and logged in every islander’s consciousness forever (not just those printing wedding invitations or counting votes). There have been 3 major hurricanes this century and most of us know when they happened even if we weren’t gleams in our fathers’ eyes or they in their fathers’! The early ones didn’t have names (a nice touch added in 1953) so it’s the dates that are remembered – 1916 and 1932. There are tales of the harbour emptying of water and rushing back in a tidal wave (`16) and of people holing up in rock crevices to escape the wind and torrential rain. Then, after a peaceful interlude of more than half a century, there came Hugo.
After such a tranquil (i.e., setting you up for the big one) period, a happy feeling of complacency becomes the order of the day. Well, folks, take a lesson. Never feel too smug and comfortable when it comes to the whims and vagaries of sweet Mother Nature (dwellers along the Madrid Fault might take note). Not to dwell too long on an event that I hope never to have repeated in my lifetime (and it probably won’t considering our record), suffice it to say that that night will probably top my (and a lot of others’) personal terror list for a long time. But think of the great stories to tell children and grandchildren! To experience an event like Hugo (or Andrew, or Gilbert. Have you noticed how many of the notable storms have male names? Maybe they should have started that non-sexist practice long ago instead of saddling the female gender with the bad rap) seems horrific at the moment but time blurs events and fairly soon you can see the brighter/funnier side of things. (I’m told childbirth memories work this way too – that’s why the typical gap between children is about 3 years. You forget.)
Now, smack dab in the middle of another hurricane season, memories of September 1989 are again poking their way forward. Memories of camaraderie and ingenuity are just as strong as those of inconvenience and loss. It’s true that adversity brings out the best – and worst (witness the looting rampant on other islands) – in people.
Some of the best? A certain esprit de corps formed while standing in long lines for a rationed 5 lb bag of ice – a shared experience that goes a long way in breaking down normal cultural barriers. (Hugo was a common denominator providing plenty of conversational grist for people who would have stood stony-eyed, staring into space, not long before.) Traffic that moved better than ever when signals were out of commission and things were left to the natural politeness of the Virgin Island drivers. Neighbours that really had to be neighbours, banding together to clear roads, repair houses and sometimes share their roof with someone whose roof had blown away.
Life took on a Swiss Family Robinson flavour. No electricity means no long term food storage (there were some sections of the island that went months without power) so shopping on an almost daily basis became necessary unless one wanted to exist solely on PB&J sandwiches. And if you were among the 50% or so of islanders with electric stoves you soon made friends with someone who used gas or you became proficient at outdoor cookery. Canned food gained a palatability never dreamed possible (that, however, was soon forgotten).
Things that we all take for granted in normal life soon became “if onlys.” Hot showers, flushable toilets, reading in bed. This is where the resourcefulness of the ordinary person comes into play. Showers, although not hot, can be luxuriously long (the cistern is nice and full after all that rain) and, if taken at the right time of day (mid-late afternoon), refreshingly cool. All it requires is a hose into the cistern overflow and a bathing suit (or lots of privacy). As for Mr Crapper’s invention – he did a brilliant job designing something that works quite well using an unintended water source – a bucket. And for that reading dilemma (avid readers know that candlelight doesn’t cut it for more than a page or two and forget the small print) – try taking the battery out of the car at night and wiring it to an old lamp (it does need a special light bulb and an understanding husband) – true happiness. Yes, generators did come into play after a while (a little relief from the SFR lifestyle became necessary for sanity’s sake – we are creatures of the 20th century after all) but they are not a total panacea (have you ever spent any length of time in close proximity to one while it’s operating? Silence really is golden).
These are some of my memories – probably not quite what you expected from one of the century’s worst storms, huh? I told you time cures all. So, Hurricane Felix or whoever your successor might be, we know what you can do (and you’ll have to be one really big and baaad wolf to match Hugo) and we know what we can do. Wanna take bets on the winner?