How to survive the storm: A British perspective on hurricane safety
The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and Irma has been momentous. The two storms have battered Atlantic coastlines, tearing up whole communities and turning brick and timber to rubble and matchwood. Some people have lost their lives as a result of the disastrous weather, while many thousands have been left homeless. Supply lines and aid have been cut off to more remote regions, and even the United States has not escaped unharmed. The last Atlantic hurricane to strike the US coast was Hurricane Wilma, and it seems as though Harvey has overtaken it; which is something that makes me feel very anxious indeed. I say this because, even as a Brit living safe and sound in the temperate zone, I myself have some knowledge of hurricane safety. In 2005, even though we were utterly clueless, I managed to survive Hurricane Wilma.
Staying with friends near Cancun, Mexico, we were expecting two weeks in the sun on white beaches and not much else. There was no indication that my family and I were about to be cast as extras in The Day After Tomorrow. However, on our second day, we received a letter informing us that a category five hurricane was heading towards us. At the same time, we noticed that our neighbours were taking hurricane safety precautions: tipping their garden furniture into their swimming pools and taping up windows.
We asked our Mexican friend Marisol whether we should be worried. He told us that most hurricanes lasted only a few hours before they blew over and that as long as we stocked up on supplies and stayed in a room with no windows, we’d be safe and sound. This news placated us heartily. “We’re from Scotland!” my dad declared, “We wrote the book on bad weather. This’ll just be a wee bit of rain. We’ll be fine!”
Oh how wrong he was.
For starters, getting provisions was difficult. The day before the storm was due to hit us, we found ourselves dashing around the supermarkets, trying to find something, anything, to eat. The majority of stores had already been ransacked by desperate shoppers, so most of the water was gone, and the supplies of canned food almost completely exhausted. Everything else was perishable, and would have gone off quickly in the stifling tropical heat. Trust me: when seven people are sheltering in the same bedroom, you really don’t want to deal with diarrhoea. Eventually, we managed to stock up on beans, rice, ham, Nutella, toilet paper and bin bags. Everything else had either been bought or looted.
We spent the rest of the day hammering plywood against the windows, and charging phones before the predicted power outage. I don’t know why we bothered charging the phones: they were completely useless once we lost signal. Nonetheless, we felt comforted by the ritual. The sky got darker and darker. My mum cooked a large pot of rice and beans, we snacked on ham, and all seven of us piled into the one bedroom, and waited.
By 4pm, the storm was upon us. If you strained your ears you could hear a distant wailing, like a performance from some kind of hellish choir. But this wasn't a cosy catastrophe. We were totally out of our depth. It’s difficult, even now, for me to describe the experience of half a week of 180 mph winds. The howling would become a noise as constant as a heartbeat and when we were brave enough to creep downstairs and glance outside, we were treated to what looked like the end of the world. The ocean was tossing and rolling. Those white, sun-kissed beaches had been washed away by waves. Buildings along the coast had been crushed by the water and swept aside. We could see an apartment complex where the wall had collapsed inward as if the concrete were less durable than a biscuit.
Palm trees were bent like longbows by the wind, and the air around our villa had become something solid and impenetrable. Our friend Colin witnessed a colossal python being tossed around by the tempest like a length of old rope. By the end of the first day, all the upstairs windows had been shattered and sucked out into the vacuum, and the bottom floor had flooded completely. Even more worrying were the thick cracks in the walls and leaking rainwater.
But the worst part of hurricane Wilma was how relentless it was. None of us knew how long the storm would last, and a combination of severe boredom, stress, claustrophobia and cabin fever made the experience seem interminable. Put it this way: it’s much, much easier to put up with something if you know how long it will last. For us, it seemed like it would simply never end. Since then I’ve been just as damp, cold and hungry at various times in my life, but never all at once for so long.
On the third day, the rain had even managed to penetrate our bedroom, and I’d completely forgotten what it felt like to be dry. I couldn’t remember a time when my feet hadn’t been wrinkled, sore and soaked. The only book I had which wasn’t now papier mâché was an old copy of The Hobbit, which was my own entertainment for 72 hours.
Eventually, the wind died down and the sun came back up. We emerged, bleary-eyed, grotty and smelling of stale sweat, onto a golf course which had turned into a small lake. Splintered trees and telegraph poles had cast up roadblocks, and dead animals were necrotising in the overflowing gutters. It seemed like the combined trash of 18 Glastonbury festivals had been tipped over the street. The airport no longer existed. The city of Cancun had been obliterated.
Our only option was to drive two hours westwards to Cupul airport. The two-hour journey ended up taking six hours, because of how many roads were destroyed and how many diversions we were forced to take. One section of road had been completely flooded, but there was no other option but to plough through it, at a rate of two miles per hour. At one point the water was so deep that it had come right up to the windows, and as my dad floored it we all anxiously craned our necks out and wondered if we were going to be left stranded.
Eventually we made it through the water, and carried on. By now we were all so stressed out and exhausted that nothing could faze us anymore. We reached Cupul in a catatonic stupor, only to be greeted by the sight of a veritable refugee camp outside the airport. Hundreds of people were sleeping in the street or in the car park in makeshift tents. People congregated into groups and ghettos based on their nationality: the Brits, Germans, Americans and the French all had their own little communities. Each person was desperate to the point of hysteria to get on the first available flight back home.
It seemed as though every hotel and spare room was occupied. But my dad managed to find a small motel which had rooms available, which seemed uncharacteristically lucky of him. Suspiciously lucky in fact. We moved into the squalid room, which seemed like the height of luxury to us. (Dry floors! Flushing toilets! Even a gas stove!) However, we soon noticed that there were sliding panels in the walls, and a large mirror fixed right over the top of the bed. Also, there seemed to be a lot of very tired looking young women staying in the motel. Yup, we were staying in a brothel. No doubt about it. It was an eye-opening experience for an adolescent boy, but apart from the occasional sound of coitus, our neighbours were very quiet, even if their leopard print outfits were extremely loud.
Eventually, we managed to catch a plane back home, after another three days of loitering in the Mexican bordello. When we finally arrived in Gatwick we discovered that all our luggage had been lost. We didn’t care. The hurricane had actually given us all a completely new experience: for the first time in our lives, we were grateful to come back to Scotland after a holiday.
Seeing the scenes of anarchy and wreckage in Texas and the Caribbean reminds me so forcefully of my own experience. The eerie keening of the squall is still strangely familiar to me, and sends a ripple of fear through my guts. Hurricane Wilma was once the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and the most intense in the western hemisphere. It cost an estimated $29.4 billion in damage.
However, Harvey seems to have completely eclipsed it. I’ve got nothing but sympathy for the poor people who have suffered and are still suffering through it. I had a home to come back to at the end of my ordeal and beyond that, security and an infrastructure to support me. Many people now have nothing. I urge anyone reading this to donate to the Red Cross’ Hurricane relief appeal immediately.