Remembering Ivan

 After the passage of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, I was asked often about my experiences.

Emails and telephone calls poured in from friends and family overseas, asking about what it was like. People who had fled the Island in advance of the hurricane and returned later would ask. So would the newbies; those that came to Cayman to work after the storm.

After a while, I got sick of talking about it, as each rendition seemed to pick the scab off the slow-healing wound. Now days, however, I can look back at it almost with a sense of nostalgia.

As far as Ivan is concerned, I have always looked at the bright side: I lived through it.  There was a time during the height of the storm when I actually wondered if I would; a position in which I had never found myself before.

Although I believe I’ve fully recovered from the effects of the storm, I would also have to say I’m different because of it.

Ivan affected me in many ways, psychologically, financially, materially and even romantically.  But more importantly, Ivan changed me in some fundamental ways; it helped put into perspective what matters to me most.

I firmly believe that all people are the sum of their experiences and living through something as powerful as Hurricane Ivan was an experience that marked my life.

Fear, anger and resilience

I spent Hurricane Ivan with my significant other Lori – who is now my wife – and her then-10-year-old daughter Ally.

In a very unwise decision, we decided to ride out the hurricane at her ground floor apartment at the Sunrise Condominiums at the eastern end of South Sound on low-lying land that was only a stone’s throw away from the ocean. It wasn’t a very smart place to spend a major hurricane.

We did have a Plan B, however, in that the people who lived in the second floor apartment directly above had given us the key to their place to use just in case the storm surge got bad. They all spent the hurricane at the George Town Hospital, where the wife worked as doctor.

We might have gone up to their apartment right away, but there were four dogs and two cats up there, and Lori wasn’t comfortable with dogs, especially big dogs.

Had we known what was coming, we would have done things differently. But then few back in 2004 seemed to really know what to expect with Ivan. It had been some 72 years since the Cayman Islands had really been hit hard by a hurricane.

The other problem with Ivan was the fact that it wasn’t supposed to hit Grand Cayman at all.  Through Friday 10 September, Ivan was going to move northwest and give the Sister Islands real problems.  We expected tropical storm force winds here, but nothing else.

Saturday morning, however, brought the knowledge that Ivan was coming much closer to Grand Cayman than expected. By that afternoon, the expected track had moved almost directly over Grand Cayman and the realisation sunk in that things were going to get bad; very bad.

I prepared my apartment the best I could, grabbed a suitcase full of clothes – which I smartly moved to another friend’s house – and headed over to Sunrise. As I was walking out the door of my apartment, I looked back and thought it was probably the last I’d see of a lot of my possessions.

the time I arrived at Sunrise, the wind had picked up and the rain had started. Tropical storm force winds began shortly thereafter.

The three of us ate a nice dinner and before the dishwasher cycle was finished, the water was turned off. A couple of hours later, the electricity went off, too.

Just after 1am, I looked outside and noticed about a foot of water right outside the door.  We rushed into one bedroom and found water pouring in through the bottom of a window it was the same in the other bedroom. We threw towels down.

Returning to the living room, we now found water rushing through the crack in the door.  In a matter of minutes, the entire floor of the apartment had an inch of water.  Within 15 minutes, there was six inches of water throughout the apartment and we knew it was time for Plan B.

We had already moved some supplies upstairs in the event we needed to move, so we grabbed our other bags, two flashlights and the cat and opened the door to go outside.  Other than the fact that we were sloshing through shin-high water and driving rain, it didn’t seem too bad.  Once we turned the corner to make our way to the stairwell, we felt the wind.  Climbing the stairs wasn’t easy.  We turned the corner on the second floor and found it difficult to even move forward in what was just the beginning of hurricane-force winds.  I arrived at the door of the apartment and turned and saw Lori being blown backwards in the wind.  She struggled and made it to the door along with Ally. I turned the key to the door and pushed, but the door didn’t want to open because of the pressure differential.  I then threw my shoulder into the door and it popped open.

As the hours passed, the wind picked up, bringing with it a loud howl.  Sometimes during a gust, we’d hear a creaking in the rafters as the wind pushed upward on the roof.  We could almost hear the roof raising, trying to break free from the building, and we could only pray that it didn’t.

Toward 8am, the storm was at its worst.  At one point, the front door started bowing inwards, so I jammed a chair under the knob to give it some support.  Wind-driven rain was coming through the crack of the door and water, from rain that had gone through the soffit vents, was dripping down from the ceiling fan.

Eventually, the winds started to ease up and we knew we had gotten through it.  We could only see a little of what was happening outside through the shuttered windows and doors and it wasn’t until around 4pm that we had the courage to open the door and look outside.

What we saw shocked us.  The entire condominium complex was emerged in three or four feet of brown water. Debris, from furniture to major appliances to personal belongings, was floating everywhere.

Trees were down and the windows of nearly every ground floor window were smashed.

A couple of hours later, just before it got dark again, I decided to go down stairs and see what the apartment looked like.  I went alone and what I saw was beyond my imagination.

Lori’s apartment was ravaged.  The sofa was half-way out the broken living room window.  There were large gouges in the walls where wave movement had flung heavy furniture against it.  The refrigerator and the bed were floating around.

The following day we learned that both of our cars were also destroyed, and that my apartment was destroyed as well.

When I went to check out my apartment, I made a trek down South Sound Road over broken pavement and by the destroyed “millionaires row’ of oceanfront homes.  The power of the sea was almost unfathomable. But even more shocking was the fact that I walked by the street I lived on without even recognising it.

Trees were down everywhere and with the exception of palm trees, the ones left standing had no leaves.  All the vegetation had turned a sickly grey colour and everything seemed to smell of sewage.

Even though I lived in a second-floor apartment, Ivan tore the roof of the building and the side wall as well.  As a result, pretty much everything I owned that could be damaged by water was destroyed.

Officially homeless, Lori, Ally and I stayed in the upstairs apartment at Sunrise on Monday night and then with other friends for the rest of the week. We shipped Ally off island – Cayman was no place for children then – the following Saturday and moved in with other friends right after that.  We relied on the kindness of others for more than a month until we were lucky enough to find an apartment with running water and electricity.

Although Lori and I had only been dating for the course of that summer, the necessities of Ivan brought us together much more quickly.  Looking back at it, we officially started living together the night Ivan hit and we’ve been together ever since.

The challenges of the days and weeks after Ivan were almost worse than the hurricane itself.  There were long lines in the hot sun for fresh water; long lines and short business hours at the grocery store; there were long, hot and restless nights with little sleep; there were heat rashes and poor hygiene because of the excessive heat and no water; there were flies everywhere; there were plastic bags for bodily functions; there was running outside with a bar of soap when it rained, just to take a shower; there was the dusk to dawn curfew; and there was suffering in the community from people who had it much worse than us, and who had lost much more, too.

Ivan did bring some moments of kindness and a spirit of togetherness in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Neighbours helped neighbours. Strangers even helped strangers.

Once, after standing in line for more than an hour to by a few rolls of roofing felt for one of the friends’ homes at which we were staying, we were told that the cost of the particular felt we were buying was more money than we had. So instead of getting four rolls, we could only get two.  As we started to take the other two rolls off our cart, the Caymanian man who had been standing behind us offered to lend us $200 to pay for the other two rolls.  We had never met the man before.

We accepted his money. He gave us his name and address and later that day we drove to his home in a borrowed car and returned it to him. It was random acts of kindness like that helped people on the island who had stayed to get through it all.

In the five years since Ivan, the possessions that we lost and really needed have been replaced, along with some we don’t really need.  I regret losing all my photos, some of my books and some of my music collection.  Every once in a while I still start looking for something I own, only to remember I lost it in Ivan.

When it came to my possessions, in some ways I found Ivan liberating.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t really own our possessions as much as our possessions own us.  I moved to Grand Cayman with two suitcases, 43 boxes of stuff and a car jam-packed with even more stuff.  Once here, I set about buying more things and when Ivan hit, I had an apartment full of things much of which I didn’t really need.  Ivan freed me of much of that burden.

 By taking away most of my possessions and making me keenly aware of what was important in life, Ivan ended up making me less materialistic.

Although I like to think I have completely recovered psychologically from Ivan that might not be the case.

During subsequent hurricane scares from Dennis and Emily in 2005 and especially with Hurricane Dean in 2007, I found myself increasingly apprehensive as the storm approached.  Interestingly, that didn’t happen with Gustav or Paloma last year, even though it probably should have.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t hold a new respect for the ocean.  I’ve seen firsthand the destruction an angry sea can cause.  When I read that 20 people were swept out to sea in Maine a couple of weeks ago while watching waves spawned by Hurricane Bill, I just shook my head and thought “how dumb of them’.  Then I remembered I was equally dumb, but just luckier, five years ago this weekend.