Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Wind is Blowing and the Water is Rising

As I mentioned in my previous post about my medical school journey, I was living on Grand Cayman when a Class V hurricane (Ivan) hit the island.

Here is the view from our apartment before the hurricane.

It all started around the 9th of September 2004 when the weather reports started talking about a hurricane that was traveling north from the mid-Atlantic towards the Caribbean. On that day it hit Carriacou and Grenada and began its track toward Jamaica. From the paths of previous storms we were pretty sure that if it hit Kingston then the storm would turn to the west and miss Grand Cayman all together. However on the 10th the news came that the storm had bypassed Jamaica and was headed straight for Cayman. On its way to us it would pass over the warm waters of the Caribbean and gain strength. At this point many of my fellow class mates evacuated the island on a plane chartered by the school but since they refused to allow family or pets to travel on the flight we made the decision to stay on the island. Two classmates of mine (Kevin and Dan) also decided to ride out the storm and stayed with us because the school closed the dorms where they were living.

Here is what happened to us.
9/10/04 – Early that afternoon Kevin, Dan and I went to my house to prepare for the storm, stopping by the grocery store, on the way, for provisions. Brian was at work trying to prepare the radio stations and grocery stores. Later on that afternoon Brian arrived home and we continued preparations by putting up storm shutters and picking things up off the floor.

Around 4pm the police came around and said that the power and water was going to be shut off to our area and that we were being evacuated from the house. The four of us packed our stuff into the Alto, grabbed the dog and headed for a friends house. We arrived and settled in at the home of Jamie and Karl, two of our good friends from the island. All told there were 8 adults, 1 child, 3 dogs and 2 cats in a 1000sq foot condo. We continued to have power until about 8pm but we were able to keep the internet going for another 2 hours using Universal Power Supplies (UPS). We used our computers, played cards, imbibed a little alcohol and had dinner. When the UPS finally died at about 10pm we all tried to get some sleep curled up around the living room. The wind was picking up and it was raining a little but nothing serious.

9/11/04 – At around 9am Jamie’s and Karl’s son woke us up complaining of being wet. We all woke quickly and found that the water outside was about a foot up the back door and leaking in around the door jam.

We just kind of hung around for a while until the water started rising more and then the men started moving anything they could from the downstairs to the upper floor. Being guys they grabbed the electronics (computers, TVs, video games etc...) first and then remembered that we might need food. At about 1pm, before anything had been retrieved from the kitchen, there was this loud cracking noise that turned out to be the wood from the door frames splintering. The doors were being ripped out of their frames. Water rushed in and was quickly 4 feet deep. All people and animals were safely on the upper floor as we watched all kinds of items (coolers, furniture, medications, tiki gods) flow through the front door and out the back.

Over the next several hours the rain continued to pound down, the wind continued to howl and the water continued to rise as the waves grew bigger and stronger. It was at about 2pm that the water level peaked as it was lapping at the bottom of the top step. At this point we were trying to figure out what we would do if the water rose any higher. Luckily it did not eventually started to recede. As night was approaching we ventured outside to survey the damage and commandeered the vacant bedrooms of neighboring townhouses in an attempt to get a good night’s sleep. It was hot and muggy, the bed linens were wet and there were bugs everywhere but we tried to sleep as best we could.

9/12/04 – As the sun rose the next morning the heat increased as did the humidity. We all packed up our stuff and decided to hit the road. Kevin and Dan headed for the dorms and eventually the airport. Brian and I with Lucy in tow headed first for Brian’s office with plans to go back to our own house later. After an hour or so of walking over crumbled streets, climbing over fallen trees and surveying the destruction we arrived at what had been Brian’s office.

With nothing to do there we continued on to the grocery store the company he worked for owned and already there were looters. Brian and some other employees took up what ever they could find to fend them off until the building could be secured. We then began our trek towards home which took us a couple of hours even with the kind people who took us (with our dirty and smelly dog) about 1/3 of the way. We were shocked to discover that while we had significant water damage it was all from the roof because the storm surge did not reach it. We cleaned up what we could, chatted with our neighbors and eventually raided the freezer for anything still good and had a grand barbecue. Here is the view from our apartment after the storm passed.

Over the next several days we spent our days at the grocery store helping out, mostly because they needed the help but also because they had air conditioning and fresh food. At home, we had no electricity or running water. We bathed in the ocean because the cisterns had filled with sewage. And I waited to hear about what would happen with school. Two days later word was given that my school would relocate temporarily to Windham, Maine and we began trying to figure out how to get me back to The States. Brian was going to have to stay for a couple of months to help get the island back together before joining me in Maine.

Every day there were long lines of people waiting in a hanger at the airport to get on one of the relief flights to Florida. Many people were told to go home each night and return the next day to try again. Brian and several of his co-workers convinced their boss to charter a plane for the families of the employees who agreed to stay. So on the 16th I was at the airport at 9am waiting to board the plane along with a friend and her 5 month old baby. After all documents were verified we were allowed to board the plane and since we had the baby were giving the bulkhead seats. A little while later when all the employees families had gotten on board the flight attendants were doing their head count and reported to the pilot that there was 20 vacant seats and he decided he would not take off empty. So this began our 6 hour wait on the tarmac with no air flow, no beverages and no food until the airline could find additional 20 passengers. During this time we were all hot and uncomfortable. The baby got very upset and overheated and began vomiting and finally the pilot agreed to let the people with children have water.

At 5pm the flight finally took off and about 80 minutes later we landed in Fort Lauderdale. After getting through customs, immigration and baggage claim it was 8pm. With no money, I called my family and had them book me a hotel room for the night and wire me money so I could by a plane ticket to Atlanta where my family was. The hotel room was great and I think I took about 5 showers that night. I was so glad to be out of the disaster area that was Cayman but I was incredibly sad that I had to leave behind Brian and Lucy.

I am glad to have had the experience and to have come out a better person on the other side but if there is ever a hurricane ever coming anywhere near anyplace that I live I will take the fastest route out of town.

(To see more video of the hurricane and it aftermath click here for Brian's YouTube)

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