"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Aug 30, 2012

A Hurricane Story

In honor of Hurricane Harvey, currently whipping around my RV in Austin, Texas, let's revisit my encounter with Hurricane Georges in 1998.

We arrived in Puerto Rico on Ruff Life, my 1971 Tradewinds trawler, earlier that Spring. My nerves were shot from the ordeal of the trip from Florida, but I was assured that Puerto Rico was the safest place to be in the Caribbean, and secondly we were on the Southwest side of the island. Hurricanes tend to bounce off the north coast, so San Juan gets more of a scare than the rest of the island.

While finding our way on the island, having literally just dropped out of the ocean, I worked part-time in the local supermarket, El Muelle, as a clerk, cashier, stock-girl, baker and office assistant. Hardest work I've ever done for 5 buck an hour. The store was the anchor for the little strip mall, which was the heart of the community for many years.

Cap was working as a sub-contractor on a local building project, but there wasn’t much call for my marketing skills around town.

I remember returning from one shift particularly cranky and barking,

"When we were in Oregon planning this Dream Life in the tropics, baking 110 loaves of bread on a Saturday morning wasn't part of the picture!”

You do what you have to. In addition to learning some basic Espanol, the eighteen-month experience taught me to better appreciate those on the other side of the counter; often verbally abused, as I was plenty of times. It's not that hard to be nice to a cashier.

The upshot was the number of local families which adopted a couple of Gringos. In a small community it’s difficult to be accepted, especially if you don't speak the language. Cap extended his hand to absolutely every man he encountered on the street and some would grudgingly oblige, but he persisted. It took over a year before those ‘old timer’s would make the same overture first. I keep that in mind in new places.

Market-owner Dave had television monitors throughout the store, tuned to then-cable channels CNN and the Weather Channel. All eyes were tracking tropical storm-turned-Hurricane Georges for the days before it hit landfall, and I tried my best to avert my eyes walking through the market, but terror is riveting.

It’ll turn; it’ll turn; they almost always do, I heard over and over, but it didn’t. Hurricane Georges left the African coastline and steadily made a beeline for us, period.

Another thing I learned was that experienced people rarely prepare for the emergency until the last day or so. Cap experienced hurricanes while working on oil rigs in the Gulf as a chopper pilot, but it was new to me and I was terrified. People invariably ask if we stayed on the boat.

Hell, no! Weeks earlier we'd accidentally gotten our anchor wrapped around an abandoned concrete mooring, so we zipped over and claimed it before the crowd arrived. We tied 4 more lines to additional anchors and the mangroves, allowing the boat to swing somewhat. Dave put metal shutters up along the strip mall, let the employees slip inside for some last minute provisions, then locked the place up tight.

Annette was the local Postmaster and my first friend in town. She offered her cement home as a sanctuary for an assortment of friends and family, which quickly turned into a party. I relaxed with mass quantities of Don Q and Cokes. By 8 pm the sky was dark but calm, and while waiting outside I thought to myself,

“This isn’t so bad.”

The electricity was out by 8:30 and by 10 pm so was I. While the party continued in the next room, I shivered next to annoyingly-confident Cap until around midnight, when suddenly there wasn’t a sound to be heard.

The eye of the hurricane. I was barely conscious, let alone able to stick my head outside to see the bright stars twinkling in the clear sky. I wish I had but I just couldn’t. It lasted about 15 minutes, and then,

WHOOSH! Around came the second half, worse than the first. That’s when most damage tends to occur, and why the boat needed to be free to swing.

In the living room I watched in horror as Annette’s strong, oak door concaved inward. Glancing at the pieces of flimsy-looking plywood nailed to the windows I assumed we would all die, and staggered back to where Cap slept. I hit him just for good measure.

“We don’t have a boat left,” I whimpered as the wind howled terrifyingly.

“Probably not.” If nothing else, Cap was calm in a crisis.

Georges was finished by 7 am. Trees and power lines were down; wooden structures looked like matchsticks. Damage indiscriminate; tiny shacks left standing next to substantial structures now leveled, usually from waterspouts (photo of our sister ship, Pleiades).  All you can do is keep your fingers crossed and pray.

Standing on Annette's balcony, there was an otherworldly feeling in the air. The roosters weren't crowing. Trees were pointed in the wrong direction. Dave drove by after checking on El Muelle, which remained intact.

“Andrea…I saw your boat…it’s fine.”

I burst into tears like a baby. Ruff Life sustained relatively minor damage, mostly due to our inexperience with battening down the hatches. Our black-hulled sister ship in Parguera, Pleiades, was a newer model being restored. She survived, too.

La Parguera was left without power for a week and water for almost three. UPS trucks loaded with generators were hijacked. When the ice truck hit town, a veritable paranda would follow; two bags per household the limit for fairness, but of course people cheated.

We'd wait for the water truck to come to town and lug our 5-gallon jugs back and forth out to the boat. Bathing was done off the swim platform, but since the ladder was damaged in the storm it was difficult getting back aboard, you can imagine.

Within two months, Hurricane Mitch reared its ugly head, followed by more boat repairs (and a new paint job, while at it.) After that first season I learned not to pay much attention to hurricane warnings until Cap declared,

"Time to move!

Over the years countless tropical storms and hurricanes passed through, but nothing like those first few months. You pick up the mess, hope Uncle Sam declares the place a Disaster Area and keep going. I’ll never forget my co-workers coming in with stories of roofs torn off and belongings scattered to the wind, making me ashamed to be complaining about my lost radar dish. Where was I going anyway? They laughed off their troubles and shrugged like I’ve done with bad snowstorms.

And bounced back. Like Texans will do this time.

2-29-2020 Note:  I decided to post my Ruff Life at Sea story online, free to enjoy, so take a peek at midlife in Paradise, c. 1997.

1 comment:

  1. Only earthquakes to worry about here. Glad you made it through those frightening times.


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