Wheaton’s Way

Well, I’m sure I don’t stand alone when I say that Tropical Storm Grace definitely turned out to be more than all of us bargained for.

In the days that followed her passing, I found myself sounding like an old-timer whenever I spoke to people at the supermarket, on the street, or anyone else who wasn’t fast enough to outrun me.

“I tell ya, I was on the island through Gilbert and the big one – Ivan – but I ain’t never been so surprised as when Grace came to town,” (insert puffing sounds from a corn cob pipe here).

Of course, it was nowhere near as devastating as Ivan, yet it certainly gave us a harsh reminder of how unpredictable Mother Nature can be. Seeing beautiful, old trees knocked to the ground and being bereft of power for a day or more triggered memories of those bigger storms. I had forgotten the feeling.

Leading up to Grace’s arrival, everyone was turning to weather websites and local media for constant updates. Weather Underground, the National Hurricane Center, Windguru… I found myself running through a dizzying array of them in heavy rotation to see which gave the clearest picture of the situation. The Weather Channel was also covering the storm’s track. I used to resent the meteorologists who were presenters on that station, particularly when a mammoth system was making its way through the Caribbean. They would almost be excited about it, admiring its formation, strength and size, with its “impressive circulation” and “extraordinarily low barometric pressure”, even as it barrelled towards populated islands. But, then I realised that this is about as close to stardom and a captive audience as they’re going to get. We’re hardly all tuning in daily to hear about the change of tides or “intermittent showers, continuing through Monday”. We’re a fair-weather audience. (See what I did there?)

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Anyway, as I kept refreshing pages on the internet while following the Cayman Compass’s extensive coverage (natch), best friend and housemate Lynne was busy wrestling size ‘D’ batteries out of their multi-packs and sticking them in portable fan receptacles. Out also came the double-burner gas camping stovetop, while I tried starting up the generator.

When the Honda sprang to life, I was transported back to 13 Sept. 2004. Such a familiar sound… and smell.

By 1am, when still much hadn’t happened – apart from a small upswing in breezes – I honestly thought it was probably going to be almost a non-event. A bad nor’wester, I thought. Come a few hours later, it was a different story. I haven’t been out of bed at that hour since Lynne and I decided to revisit our youth at Obar several years ago (the DJ will no doubt recall it was the night when two women asked if he could play something that resembled an actual song).

The wind was howling and there were constant squalls. Even in the faint twilight, we could make out palm trees being bent like drinking straws and loose fronds flying around the garden. Not long after, our electricity went out. Time for lanterns and candles until it got brighter outdoors.

Like members of a British expedition in the deepest darkest jungle, searching for Tarzan, Lynne was still determined to have her hot morning beverage. One must be civilised, even under these circumstances. She fired up the gas stove and put the kettle on.

As the storm raged on, messages from friends started coming in, asking if we were okay and giving us updates on their situation. My main takeaways from those chats were “lots of trees down” and “I could murder a cup of tea/coffee”.

By Wednesday night, we still didn’t have electricity. The CUC trucks were out in force, and pictures were coming in from all around the island, showing the extraordinary damage that no one had expected.

At one point, I was in my vehicle on the main road near our house, and I spied an official work truck with men in hard hats, parked near some poles. Ignoring the fact that I was not wearing anything fit for public viewing (T-shirt, braless, SpongeBob SquarePants pyjama bottoms), I leapt out of my driver’s seat and asked if they had any update for us, thinking they were CUC. Turns out they were Water Authority and I had given them a fashion show for nothing.

By 9pm, it was time to fire up the generator. The living room was starting to get warm, and any amount of movement beyond a slow walk had us perspiring. A couple of friends came around, so we set up a lamp, a fan, and Lynne started boiling water. Then we invited the neighbours to pop by for some boiled water. Seriously, tea and coffee are the great equalisers.

That brought back good memories from the aftermath of Ivan – connecting with people in our community. Immediately after Grace, social media and WhatsApp chat groups were filled with offers to lend a helping hand. Residents who had power and running water reached out to neighbours who needed a hot shower, or somewhere to cool down.

So many moments I recalled from the months that followed Ivan – we talked about them as we waited to have our power restored. Getting up on a roof with tarps to try and cover leaks; learning how to make a three-course meal with a gas burner and a lot of tea lights; and picking up anyone along the road who was hitching, as so many cars were destroyed. Boy, were working vehicles at a premium. Both Lynne and I lost our cars; we’d parked them by our place along West Bay Road. It wasn’t a good sign to return and find sand and a random plastic spoon on the dash of mine.

I had a Lincoln Town Car and Lynne had a Mustang – fairly upmarket models, reduced to junk. The worst part of all – and I cannot stress this enough – was that our friend Carol, who drove a crappy, old Jeep-wannabe 1990 Suzuki Sidekick, still had functioning wheels after the hurricane passed. It was basically untouched, due to where she’d had it near her apartment. We’d teased her rotten for months about her transport, and now we had to eat a tonne of crow or walk. It was the bitterest pill to swallow.

We went to Andy’s Rent-A-Car at the airport, where staff had gone through the decimated fleet to see what was left and rentable, and were now accepting customers on a limited basis. Lynne and I will never forget then-manager Attlee Ebanks standing at the top of a winding queue of impatient renters-to-be, giving a no-nonsense, firm speech about the rules for getting a car from them. One per family, you got what you were given (none of this “I’d like an SUV in periwinkle blue” business), and no moaning or complaining.

He wasn’t rude – it was like your dad, who cared about you and understood your frustrations, but needed to keep order. It was awesome. Everyone was quiet and well-behaved after that.

Yes, those are just some of our memories from back then. Luckily, it wasn’t that bad this time around, but it was a bit of sobering reality, nonetheless.

We’re told to always be prepared for hurricane season until the experts are blue in the face; sometimes it takes a taste of the truth to remind us to stay frosty. Lynne and I are doubling down on our stores, in case there’s a next time… plus preparing a gallon of seawater to pour in Carol’s gas tank.

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