Saturday, September 18, 2010

September 18, 1989

In September of 1989, we survived Hurricane Hugo. We weren't in the much publicized Charleston area. My family and I endured the fury of Hugo on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. We were living on Naval Station Roosevelt Roads near Ceiba, in the southeast corner of the island. My husband Mike's job, with the Navy, sent us there in July. We moved lock, stock and barrel, so to speak.

At the time of the storm, the barge with our "barrels" had not yet arrived. We were waiting for our household goods, living in our Navy quarters with borrowed mattresses and cheap Navy-owned rattan furniture. As the week progressed, so did a tropical depression. It was only a matter of time before it became a hurricane.

Mike's job was to be second in command for the base and the rest of the Navy's interests throughout the Caribbean. We were accustomed to his long hours and weekends in the office already. However, nothing prepared us for the actual hurricane readiness AND aftermath.

When it became evident we were a target on Hugo's path, Mike showed us how to use a hand-held radio, kissed us good-bye and left in our only set of wheels. Being the parent-in-charge, I felt the need to put up a brave front for our children, ages newly 6, 3-1/2 and 1. After all, I was raised in the Midwest and saw countless summer thunderstorms and tornadoes. I kept telling myself this was just going to be a really big thunderstorm, right?

We lived on a cul-de-sac with six other houses, all inhabited by other senior Naval officers with important jobs. A couple wives had Red Cross volunteer duties and left to help man the shelter where they would be helping folks from town, tourists, boaters and other Navy families who needed a safe place to be.

While the winds picked up, I stepped outside to look at the water churning in the bay below the cliff where we lived. Naturally my camera at the ready to document and make it all seem more routine for the kids.

When I closed the door to come back to the house, we heard a large rumbling crash. The kids and I turned to see the patio cover, which once sheltered us from the blazing midday sun and most recently me, strewn on the cement patio. This was the moment I knew we weren't in Kansas anymore!

Fighting the need to panic, I walked across the street to one neighbor I knew was still home and shared my trouble. Together we picked up the splintered 2x4's and roofing materials and threw them down the cliff. We had to remove anything that might become a projectile during the storm. He helped me tape "x's" on our window panes to prevent them from shattering. We secured trash cans and double checked our storage area. Once our task was complete he returned home and I went back in to the kids. The skies were darkening and the winds were increasing. I was so grateful for the help. Doyle was a veteran tropical storm survivor and I found his presence calming.

The kids and I spread out sleeping bags in a safe corner of the dining room, away from the direct line of the storms and windows. We watched the base TV station until the power went out. With my trusty mini-mag flashlight for illumination we sang songs and I tried to recall their favorite stories. It wasn't long when we heard a knock on the door. It was Mimi, from across the street. She too, was sticking out the storm by herself and insisted the kids and I come join her in her well-furnished home. I loaded up kids, their blankets, a couple of toys, some snacks and diapers, and braved the now increasing winds to cross the street.

This radar actually shows the storm after it passed over the Island. It went right over the southeast corner of our paradise.

I was so thankful for the company. Our children were absolutely perfect - settling in to bed. We listened to her radio, heated water over Sterno for tea and waited. The noise was deafening. It was like a train screaming by the window for hours on end - eighteen hours to be exact. I was amazed the kids were able to sleep through any of it.

It wasn't at all delightful. We were shifting furniture away from the walls and soaking up the endless water pouring into the house through the seams of the windows. We wrung towels until our hands cramped and blistered. I prayed it would soon end but that wasn't to be. We watched out the window, expecting to see it clearing and instead noticed the palm trees were now blowing the other direction!

Quickly we were moving furniture to the other side of the house and once again struggling to keep up with the never ending supply of water. During one check out the window, I could see the rising storm surge. It was near the top of the cliff, almost 30 feet up.

As morning approached, our well-rested children were awake. I fed them pop tarts and juice boxes in-between the bucket brigade. I realized then how truly blessed we were with our children. Somehow, even at their tender, young age, they knew how serious the situation was and did exactly what I asked them to do... Gosh, if only history would repeat itself from then on.

Early afternoon we heard a knock at the door. It was Mike. He was out inspecting damage on the base. They would soon be giving everyone an "all clear". He helped me carry the kids back home before returning to the Operations Center. It was then that I realized what had transpired. The damage was incredible. The beautiful hibiscus hedges were stripped clean. Paralyzed palm trees and coconuts laid about like giant Tinker toys. The houses had a yellowish-green tint, stained from the foliage blown around.

Our beautiful paradise looked as if someone dropped a bomb in the middle. It brought tears to my eyes. Reality was cruel. The strength of the wind hit me when I saw our upright freezer laying on it's side in the driveway. It started out under the fallen patio coverin back of the house and traveled through the carport, some 25 feet. Even our new vehicle took a hit. The peat gravel, from the top of the building where Mike worked, scattered around in the wind and shattered the glass and pitted the paint. There was glass embedded in our son's car seat. I kept telling myself, "we are OK, thank the Lord!". I wanted to believe it. I didn't realize there was more to come.

Our glass-free windows. We weren't alone. There weren't many vehicles on base left with glass.

We slid the freezer back up the driveway into the carport and then stopped to get a grip on what happened.

Looking out from our cul-de-sac across the bay just before the official 'all clear'. .

Without our furniture, we were also without the necessities such as candles, flashlights and portable radio. We had five beach towels. Not nearly enough to start cleaning up the water awaiting me in our house. I opened our closet door and watched a river of shoes float down the hall. There was muddy water standing in most rooms. The screens in the laundry room had no chance of survival, thus flooding the kitchen. In anticipation of our furniture's arrival, we had recently purchased large area rugs to cover the Navy-issue floor tiles. Our new rugs were soaked and dirty. I wasn't sure where to start, but chose the kitchen. We had no running water, only bottled water and the water in the tubs which we filled before the storm. We had no electricity nor phones. I felt so isolated. Just me... and 3 small children. I slowly wiped up and pushed water out the door. As the neighborhood returned to life, someone brought over extra towels and a cooler. Another brought over a bucket and mop. Yet another dropped off an extra flashlight and radio. Navy families looking after one another. I was thrilled with their gestures of kindness. It would be hours before I would see my husband and I was feeling very anxious to get cleaned up before dark.

We spent our first night on a mattress on the floor. I wanted my children near me. Sometime during the night, Mike returned, but his sleep was interrupted in less than an hour, when Base Security came to tell him of an emergency. He was up and out again. This became a way of life for the next few months. But this night, people were being medivaced to the base hospital from St. Croix, which was hit hard. Again, I realized the potential of what could have been.

We had an option to leave the island temporarily until utilities were restored. We chose to stick it out as a family, taking advantage of any free time Mike might get to be together. Our progress continued throughout the coming weeks. We were part of a community pulled together, helping one another. Base personnel moved outside of the secured gates and continued to help the smaller, less fortunate communities surrounding the base. The Navy provided bladders of water and generators. Neighbors helped strangers. It was like a family pulling together.

One day when I was struggling to pull a large, wet carpet outdoors, two wives wandered over to assist. As tears of frustration streamed down my face, I found their helping hands and hugs both comforting and reassuring.

Another time I saw coconut rats running across the patio on the fallen palm trees. I called Mike on the radio, our only means to communicate. I couldn't permit the kids outside with rats running in the lawn. My anger with my inability to make everything right got the best of me and I told Mike to either come help or get me off the Island. It wasn't long before a van load of young men pulled up. Dressed in their work shorts and little else, these tan, muscular UDT Seal team members came to my rescue. With axes and chain saws they told me to 'sit down and relax', while they took care of everything. I was overcome by an incredible sense of relief (and the view wasn't bad either). They worked their way around our house, cutting and stacking the trees on the curb and later returning to haul them away. They even carried off the coconuts the kids and I had gathered into a pile.

Each day I continued to try the phone lines. When I finally heard a faint dial tone, I wasn't sure who to call. Both my parents were working and Mike's were retired but seldom home. I called my in-laws and was elated when I heard Mom's voice. She called my family to let them know we were okay. It would still be several days before I would speak with my own parents. A week later we received a care package from family - lanterns, flashlights, candles, matches, batteries (and two large electric oscillating fans - but it's the thought that counts). It was heaven sent!

We were treated to meals under tents at the main chow hall. The food in the chow hall freezers was thawing. Families, stranded tourists and civilians were permitted to eat for free. We didn't have much in the house that hadn't spoiled without electricity. Finding ice, to keep what little we had cool, was a challenge. We had to wait in long lines and quantities were limited. Before sunrise one morning I heard a light rap at the door. I hesitated to answer because of the house, but wondered if Mike had sent someone out with a message. Much to my surprise I found one of the senior SEAL team members holding a large bag of ice for our cooler. This became a regular event. I didn't even care what the neighbors would think about my pre-dawn visitor. I was able to buy milk and juice to keep in the cooler. There was always more ice than we could use in a day and it was a pleasure to share my new found wealth with friends.

We heard news of the turmoil Hugo left behind in Charleston. We were sympathetic but knew they would find comfort in their adjoining 47 states while we were dependent on what could be brought in by sea or air. How fortunate we were the runways were undamaged and barge traffic was starting up again.

The wives from Mike's work group stuck together One was to celebrate her birthday, without her husband, in primitive conditions. We put our heads together and created a unique birthday party. We had a recipe for no-bake cookies. Between the group, we were able to come up with enough ingredients, some fruit, sun tea and chocolate! It was a special uniting event for all of us!

Eventually (read. months) the Navy was able to fly in large semi-trailer sized generators which were capable of providing several hours of electricity and air conditioning to the housing areas. Water mains were repaired and running water was restored. It was all temporary and went out without warning, but it didn't matter. We survived the worst of it. Even our furniture arrived safe and sound - in November. Step by step our lives returned to normal. We truly had much to be thankful for Thanksgiving of 1989.

I've never forgot the way an isolated island of people joined together to survive. Now back in the states, with the Navy just a memory, kind acts and thoughtfulness remain a big part of my memory and something I want to pay forward. I will make sure of this!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aww the things we live through... Inspiring! You always have such a way with words.