Battered by Hurricane Georges

A survivor's account of the monstrous Hurricane Georges which battered Antigua and Barbuda with sustained winds of 120mph relentlessly for 12-hours in 1998

by Tim Hector
Editor, The Outlet Newspaper

This Georges was my fifth hurricane. I had sworn that I dd not want to see another. But with ample warning I could not run away. There was a sense of home. Home as somewhere to stay, home as somewhere to defend, and therefore, Georges as something to endure.

Reality had compelled me to think with sober sense. Where could I go, but here? Wherever I went now there would be the sense of cowardice, of having left other to endure what I dreaded. Wherever I went my thoughts would be about nothing but home.

How were they faring, the known, Jennifer, my three sons here, Dada, Aunt Ruth and all my numerous cousins, friends, comrades, brothers and sisters, colleagues, as well as the unknown, the old man in his shanty which he would not leave, it being the most prominent sign and symbol of his passage between birth and death. The old lady with all her keepsakes, looking to me like bric-a-brac, but to her a timeless treasure, more valuable than sapphires and rubies. How could I leave? I dared not. A thought wasted.

When I was but seven years old, in 1950, I had my first experience of a hurricane. How I longed to see what a hurricane was like. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. The luminosity of the sky, with fluffy white clouds laced with silver, and the sea and the sky in a unity of blue each reflecting the other in a blue-blue likeness. I remember though, it was a birdless day. Where had they all gone? My mother tried to hoot the idea out of me that a hurricane was something to see. She conjured up word pictures of the sea rising mountainously high, the sky growing darker yet, and the wind remorselessly lashing house, and man and beast, even beyond the point of surrender. I cringed, but still I wanted to see. For seeing, after all, is believing. And I did see! And I did believe!

The little boy that fateful 1950 night, heard the winds crack their jowls and blow their thunderbolts. Galvanise could be heard crashing and falling all about, as they peeled of roofs as easily as banana skins on lack spitted fruit. The rain came heavily and fell in floods. That night seemed an eternity. I slept and woke and still the winds howled vexatiously.

And the day after, the morning after when we boys roamed the land harvesting on bounties of plums made ripe by the storm, the night's rain still bejewelled on the oh so sweet juice-running-down-the-chin mangoes. The night's dread followed by the morn's pleasure. But hurricane, I did not want to see another. And never saw another until 1989, the year of Hugo. And them monstrous Luis, and the milder, gentler Marilyn. And now furious Georges.

And what was my enduring memory of the 1950 hurricanes, in which year there were two, back to back, so to speak. One memory is of eating "honey dew", a variety of sugar-cane, so soft and juicy and mellow. The other is that the day after the hurricane there was no argument. The sea on High Street had washed all the way up to Anjo's and there was a boat anchored there on High Street where Esperanza was and Bank of Antigua is now. It induced awe. Such awe, it seemed to me, that for once Antigua suspended its favourite sport then - not cricket but argument.

The day after the hurricane there was no argument, by neither man nor woman or woman and man. The hurricane, perhaps, had inspired such awe. But back then in 1950 whenever people were arguing others, as in a spectator sport, would gather round to watch and laugh at the colourful language used, as the "hurtful" words, like spitfires bombing, were sent at each other. Blows rarely resulted, even though the intent was to cuss your mother so brutally that you would submit and slouch away. Or you were demonstrated to be a sexual misfit prone to the perverse, either in clintonesque style - it was a perversity then though commonplace now - or worse, the animal kingdom. If you could not match with stronger accusations and appellations, you were laughed out of town. But in 1950, after the hurricane there was no argument, not even between families who claimed the other had salvaged their galvanise blown from their roof. The losers only murmured of their loss. There was no argument.

And years, many years later, like 15 years later, I would thing of the sugar cane I ate and enjoyed the morning after the hurricanes of 1950. Here was I, the here and now, faced with Georges. I appreciated the forecasts as Jeremiah, mason, Destin as modern prophets foretold with compelling accuracy the path of Georges, with its fluctuating wind-speeds, the force of its winds, its likely movements to north or south. What a piece of work man is. This hurricane was no unknowable and mysterious act of God. It was an act of nature, calculable, knowable, and comprehensible to all, as science became poplar, within the reach of all.

Forecasting wind-speeds of 120 miles per hour was one thing, experiencing them was quite another. With the forecasting over, the experience began in earnest. Last time Luis had concentrated my mind first upon a verandah then upon a door, which, despite being barred and boarded, gave way in midstorm giving rise to the unthinkable, of me and wife and children, books and papers, heirlooms and gadgets being blown hither, thither and yon, on the merciless wings of Luis. We fought back then, with table top replacing door, n the face of the storm's relentless and bellowing force. And won. This time I knew the veranda would last. The architect, Lowell Jarvis, is an acknowledged master of hurricane proof roofs and verandahs or patios.

Now we had a double french door, which opened upon a vista of rolling hills with the sea, as it were, lapping the valleys, ad the villages at the foothills in the foreground. It was a source f visual pleasure. And through the door, we did not see dark, but clearly the absence of agriculture or industry and so our national darkness illumined by tropical light, glaringly.

That door pre-occupied Jennifer and I, in the coming onslaught of Georges. It had been boarded over with the thicket plywood, the nails going deep into the wall. And yet at the onrush of Georges from north-east, the door, despite the covering plywood, danced a jig as if for a fig, in the howling winds of rockband Georges.

Jennifer knew at once, that this five-foot wide french door was not dancing a modern romance to Georges remorseless strumming. This was a war dance. Not even Nijinksy could have followed the choreography of it. The door danced not from the top, or bottom, but without moving either, from the belly. At one stage, whether illusory or not, we saw the glass in the door bend, head back to heel, as in the preparatory moves of the limbo. Something had to be done.

We pulled a love seat behind the door, not out of any romantic notion, all such thought, let alone action, long-suspended. The libido, it seems, goes dead in the on-rush of a storm. Jennifer's face was grim. No kind of humour brought a smile from her smiling nature, far more a laugh. Not even Shari, the youngest daughter of our house and a master of the comic gesture or one-liner, could coax a smile from her who looked determined to out-grim the Grim Reaper himself.

But Georges had other ideas. In one almighty gust which I swear, had to be over 200 miles per hour, swept chair, Jennifer and I away from the door. But, mirabile dictu, the door held. Masking tape was called for. Summoning my long forgotten physics I was going to reduce the tensile strength of the door. One instruction Shari taped away, with the exuberance and cheer, that makes youth the loveliest time of life. Storm or no storm, Shari's enthusiasm and joyful sense of living laughed Georges' perilous intention to scorn. I flattered myself, for want of something better to do, that the old physics had worked in knowing where exactly to tape, Jennifer was not impressed. The winds blew and the tape held and the door held.

The Georges gave one mighty heave of his lungs and, not roared, but bellowed, and masking tape, tensile strength and latch and bolt of door, plus chair and Jennifer and I all swooshed away. All cast aside as if by a maniac brushing a fly off its menacing but inscrutable face. But the lock of the door held the door in place. The carpenter had placed it well. Jennifer grew even glummer, the garrulous had become wordless. She had seen and foreseen all her effort being blown away in one toss of the dice. It was too cruel for words. And then the eye of the storm with its deceitful lull came.

After the hour-long eye of the storm, exactly as predicted by the meteorologists, the winds blew from the south-west and the door was sturdy. Jennifer slept the sleep of the becalmed safe in a fortress.

And not a few as we went around Potters, where we live, asked how is it that hurricane ravaged St. Kitts/Nevis, and all the other islands have their radio station going but not Antigua. The second time in a row they queried, knowing the answer to their own rhetorical question, namely, government's incompetence. One man essayed that for the second time Radio Caribbean Lighthouse stood u, and broadcast bulletins and updates throughout, but not so ABS Radio, he felt it showed, without a doubt, the superiority of private over public.

Others said that the question of shelters, for the second time in a row, was chaos. This one was not opened. That one was opened but ill equipped. Everything was last minute, though there was time aplenty to prepare.

Not a few people I spoke to (including Jennifer) who felt that though Luis was more powerful and longer than Georges there was something feisty about Georges which Luis did not have. Luis sat there at very slow cruising speed, and wrenched and reeked its havoc imperturbably. Georges accelerated with a spiteful force, and gusted with terrifying fore like an armoured truck blasting the battlements.

A very good friend of mine passed his house and it looked virginia intacta. Roof in place, no mopping, no quick-fix repairs being done. Then he said, oh no, nothing happened to the structure itself. But Ryan's Antigua Motors, Georges took everything it could take and hurled it at his house, as if in anger that his house had withstood all the power Georges packed.

And Georges did not only do that. It aimed the weight of the stuff from George Ryan's Antigua Motors, at my friend's 87 year old grandmother's bedroom. It so happened as Georges was readying himself to hurl, the grandmother had gone to the bathroom and behind her heels came this crash of wood and steel landing on her bed where she lay moments before.

Georges, ever spiteful, took at another point, destroyed a friend's garage, then took pieces of the destroyed garage and pelted them full force at another neighbour's house, smashing wall and all, and leaving the reinforcing steel in the wall, bare and mangled. Georges reminded of plunderers who plunder hurricane relief and all.

Georges though left me with some moral tergiversation of my own. Where I live in Potters, save for commercial generators there are no domestic generators. Yet my work is reading and writing, usually late into the night, and sometimes to first light. I have some of the best neighbours I have ever come across wherever I have lived in this world. The Richardsons, whose politics I do not know, go beyond the copybook in good neighbourliness. They welcomed us to the area, extended a settle-in hand, and the milk of human kindness flows still from them in gestures large ad small, without thoughts of reward. It is a generosity and spontaneity native and nature to their personalities. How could I disturb those people with the incessant whirring of a generator? Yet I do not have pipe-borne water from the government and must depend on electricity to get water from my cisterns. The governments power does not bring the water up the hill where I am. I am, to be sure, electricity dependent. What to do now there is no power supply. Get a generator and stand out like a sore thin among my fellow villagers. How it go look? It looks gross. Jennifer thinks so too and more so. What to do? Take arms against the sea of trouble and get a generator as a bow to necessity. The neighbours will understand its desperate use. This bowing to necessity disturbs me. But I could survive three days, in my context, without electricity, but not three weeks. What to do? Get a generator. Not so simple. It might suit me, but how will it affect others? There is no short answer to such moral issues that go to the hear of living, and, therefore, living harmoniously with others.

Under the stress of Georges, Antigua pulled the choke and people lent a self-helping hand here and there, one to another, naturally, good-humoured, readily. Was this a sign and a symbol for a new self reliant dispensation, in contradistinction to old bird-picked, worm eaten, foreign dominated, Lester Statuesque? Time, not Tim, tells.