08.26.11

Our Visit From Irene

As the hurricane tore across the tiny Bahamian Island India Hicks calls home—ripping palm trees from their roots, leveling beach cabanas, and knocking hummingbirds to the ground—she's reminded that a force much greater than us is in control.

Some people can claim to be a connoisseur of wine, or modern art or wild orchids; I have become rather a connoisseur of hurricanes. You can’t live permanently on an out island of the Bahamas for 16 years without earning a history of hurricanes.

One remembers each hurricane intimately, but not with any fondness, with more a resigned, dull feeling. Rather like past principals of a school. The dread they instilled, their names you never forget.

This week Hurricane Irene arrived out of nowhere. One moment our island was filled with innocent, happy tourists enjoying the last of the summer, the restaurants filled, the dive boats busy, the beach caressed by the bodies of Europeans, smug in the knowledge that Harbour Island was simply the jewel in the crown, there was no more beautiful beach to compare in late August.

But Irene turned her attention on us. The tourists fled, the restaurants slammed shut, and the dive boats sailed to safer harbors.

As the island began to shut down, I found myself in Florida, with a dog having emergency surgery and preparing our foster child for his new school. With four other children, two more dogs, a parrot, and a cat back on the island, I was desperate to get home. After much stamping of feet, I found a pilot prepared to fly the dog, me, and our new chainsaw (oh, the romance of a chainsaw) back to the Bahamas, currently a country being evacuated.

It’s an eerie feeling landing at an airport preparing for a natural disaster. There are no planes, and inside the terminal (although this is possibly an  overrated term for the North Eleuthera airport) there are golf carts and equipment piled up inside, rather than out.

I took the last water taxi running from Eleuthera to Harbour Island. As I watched the boat pull away from the dock, to return across the bay, an overwhelming sense of isolation swept over me. We are a tiny island, in the middle of an ocean, with a 130-mile-per-hour hurricane rushing toward us. We were utterly powerless.

The town was deserted, shops shut, houses boarded up, just the faint noise of tap, tap, tap as Bahamians nailed on their last shutters. Most of the golf carts had been tied down, all of their roofs removed, in case the wind caught hold and flew them like kites. The elderly had been moved into the churches, the young were getting drunk. More babies are born nine months after a hurricane than any other time of year.

David, my other half, had secured most of our property into a hurricane-tight haven. Every window, door, nook, and cranny had been tightly sealed except for one side of the glass French doors in our bedroom and one in the sitting room, which were both sheltered under terraced roofs and in the most distant corners from where the hurricane was predicted to come. Later on during our 32 hours of being boarded in, these two slithers of light became our little life rafts.

We all took one last walk through our pretty garden, past our beautifully manicured ficus hedges and down our exotic jungly beach path shaded by handsome mature palm trees. The sea was raging. It was a nasty clammy gray color. The sky was a nasty clammy gray color. Everything was sweltering. Irene was sucking up every bit of moisture from around us. We limped back to the house.

Despite their protective plywood embrace, the windows, walls, and doors began to scream. Irene had arrived.

Despite their protective plywood embrace, the windows, walls, and doors began to scream. Irene had arrived.

In the early hours of the following morning, the winds dropped, and a strange calm spread across the island. The eye was over us.

We began to slink outside, tentatively crossing the terrace. Our garden was lost. The ancient bougainvillea that had lovingly encircled our home had been brutally whipped to the ground, garden gates had been torn from their posts, and palm trees ripped from their roots. Tears began to slide down my face. I couldn’t bear to look at David, who had spent so much time caring for all these friends for so many years.

The dogs were in desperate need of stretching their legs. We all walked down to the sea. Our beach path was impassable, we found another way on the back road. The beach was a mess, all the steps had been shredded, every cabaña was missing, and the surging sea was clawing away at the dunes.

The skies darkened once again, and we started back toward the house. We had seen armfuls of crabs emerging from beneath the sand on the beach. They also needed to stretch their legs. And now hundreds of dragonflies were dancing about, drying their wings. We passed broken branches hosting dazed and bedraggled pigeons who were so shocked and sodden that when the children ran up to touch them they never moved a feather. The pool had turned a dangerous green color. A family of frogs were swimming around on each other’s backs looking proprietary.

A drizzle started to fall, and we knew that Irene was on her way back to slap the other cheek.

Irene remained an unwanted visitor over our island well into late evening. Mentally bruised, we began to come back to life. Just taking the shutters down and re-entering the world of daylight was a relief in itself. My eldest son, a sleepy teenager, found a damp baby hummingbird, dazed and confused. He protectively brought it back to his room, where he fed it banana and gently wrapped it in a warm cloth. In the morning the bird was dead.

There are many things hard to forgive when nature decides to wield its uncontrollable power—our Bahamian friend Pandora lost the roof of her house, Marissa’s home flooded, and the island’s historic library tragically fared worst of all.

In truth, our garden will grow again, the sun will shine once more, and we will remain island bound. But perhaps after all, hurricanes, volcanos, and earthquakes are a message that something much greater than us is in control, and we should possibly pay more attention to our planet.