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Unforgettable Luis

1By Clive Hodge

 

I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already, but I still vividly remember every detail as if it were yesterday. Who can ever forget Hurricane Luis? It has made a lasting impact on all of us.

 

I had, as usual, mischievously teased my wife. She had gone food shopping, stored up on candles, matches and Duracell batteries; had filled every available bucket and all the big bottles she could find with water. She always starts her food shopping shortly after the first storm leaves the coast of Africa. “Honey, what are we going to do with all those buckets of water?” She also has this habit of ignoring the stupid questions her husband asks every June – the start of hurricane season.

 

I HAD DONE my part, making sure the hurricane shutters could close properly, (happily, I had invested in hurricane shutters, the ones you can close 15 minutes before the hurricane arrives) and had walked through the yard, removing all loose objects I found. But I was not at all worried. I only became anxious when – a couple days before we were hit – a well-known Miami hurricane expert was asked for his opinion on the hurricane that was heading in our direction. He confidently replied: “A hurricane of this magnitude will leave its toll.”

 

When it did hit us, the winds were devastating from the start. Hour after hour after hour, it mercilessly pounded our island. “Lord,” I kept asking, “when is it going to end?” My family in Miami, who had been anxiously monitoring the weather channel, told me afterwards it appeared as if the hurricane had become stationary directly over St. Maarten, like it had come to stay.

 

We were glued for hours to our battery-operated radio. Thank God that most phone lines remained intact. People kept calling in with reports of what was happening in their districts; several called in desperately asking for help, only to be told that rescuers could not possibly come to their aid and were advised to seek shelter in their neighbour’s house.

 

AFTER THE relentless pounding had gone on for hours, I was longing to hear Glen Carty announce that it would be over soon. Instead, I heard that … the worst was yet to come. At midnight, when they went off the air, I remember thinking: “What are we going to do now?” I can’t express how dependent we all were on Carty and his team. I wonder if they have ever been given an award for the invaluable help they provide this community during every hurricane.

 

The unthinkable happened at about 4:00pm, when our roof, which had survived many hurricanes, just couldn’t hold on any longer and was suddenly gone; not zinc by zinc, but the entire roof lifted off the house in one piece and was, well … gone. Only the rafters, which were embedded in the concrete walls, remained intact.

 

MY WIFE grabbed our seven-year-old daughter and we fled downstairs. At the time, downstairs had not yet been completed, no doors, no windows, no protection, just a dirty concrete floor. We, together with our dog and six newly-born puppies, lay downstairs on a piece of carton for what seemed like forever. None of the puppies survived the ordeal.

 

Prior to the hurricane, we used to hear rodents running around the ceiling at night. Not long after we had fled downstairs, my seven-year-old put a smile on our faces when she asked her mother with concern in her voice: “Mom, where did the rats go? What happened to them?”

 

The entire time we were downstairs, we were exposed to hurricane-force winds that came through the opening at the front of the building and exited through the back. The noise was terrifying, it sounded like a jumbo jet passing through our house.

 

AS WE LAY there, we could hear the high winds destroying everything upstairs. I learned that once the roof is gone, everything else goes. I do mean everything; furniture (including a new living room set and a China cabinet, I had bought on my wife’s birthday a week before Luis), fridge, stove, TV, computers, microwave and clothes. A couple of times, I wanted to run upstairs to see what was happening, but my wife hollered at me each time I tried to leave.

 

The next morning, when we dared to venture out of the house, we were amazed at the extent of the destruction all around us. Our yard was completely full of broken branches and lots of debris. I looked for the remains of our roof, but there were none – must have been spread all over Saunders. The only thing I found that came from our roof was part of the solar water heater. I later learned that the other part had flown over two neighbouring houses and had landed in the yard of a third house 100 yards away.

 

WE HAD TO seek lodging elsewhere. Thank God for a brother-in-law, who still had a roof over his head and a room to spare. However, though very grateful we had a place to stay, there is no place like home.

 

I was appalled by all the looting that followed the hurricane. I would never have expected that our people would resort to looting. I guess you really never know your own people, even if you think you do – either that, or they had lost absolutely everything they owned and were overwhelmed by utter despair.

 

I also thanked God for Aruba. As all the schools on the island were damaged, we sent our daughter to Aruba to attend school there. They sent an Air Aruba plane to St. Maarten to pick up children and adults to take them to Aruba free of charge. This had been arranged with the help of Mr. Hassell of Hassell’s Autozone in Cole Bay. The school my daughter attended in Aruba even provided her with a school uniform in order to make her feel at home. I was told that the Aruba government even offered a monthly allowance to the families, who were taking care of the St. Maarten children.

 

ARUBA HAD received our children with open arms, though they were no longer part of the Netherlands Antilles at the time. On the other hand, the schools on Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, our “sister island” were not happy at all about having to put up children from St. Maarten. The Minister of Education in Curaçao publicly complained about the arrival of all these children from St. Maarten; they were a burden to them.

 

Curaçao, however, along with Aruba and Bonaire were very helpful in fixing downed wires and helping us get electricity back. It was nice seeing an Aruban electrician working in my neighbourhood.

 

EVEN WITH all this extra help, we were out of running water and electricity for about three months. I daily had to hoist water out of my cistern with a bucket tied to a rope. We spent many a night sitting on our front porch listening to the monotonous sound of a large number of generators. After a week or two, we got used to the nightly humdrum.

 

We were cut off from communication with the outside world for about three weeks, and not able to call our children overseas to let them know that we had lost most of our home but were still alive and well.

 

I HAD FORGOTTEN what cold water tasted like. Then one day, I saw a gentleman walking the street with a cold beer in his hand. I promptly stopped him and asked where he had gotten it. With a smile on his face, he told me the name of the supermarket where he had bought it.

 

We had problems finding a contractor to repair our home, and when we did, the repairs cost us four times as much as it did to build the entire house. For months after moving back into our home, I gave God thanks. When I had it rebuilt, I made sure we would never be homeless again. So I put a five-inch concrete roof over all the bedrooms and bathrooms. God forbid, if another Luis ever comes along and removes my zinc roof again, we will still have half-a-home and won’t have to seek shelter elsewhere.

 

TWO DAYS AFTER the devastation, we took a drive around our neighbourhood and I saw a depressing sight in Ebenezer that made me fight back tears. I saw three teenagers sitting on the sidewalk; behind them was a foundation on which their home had once stood. The only thing that was left was the toilet bowl, which had been firmly fastened in the concrete foundation. The utter shock and despair on their young faces were clearly visible.

 

I have to mention that our government deserved a lot of credit: they did an outstanding job of cleaning up the island in a hurry.

 

God is good, people! Did He not recently protect us by turning dangerous category-3 Hurricane Danny, which was heading our way, into a pussy cat by the time it reached us? Lord, may we never again have to go through another Luis.

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