Waiting for Georges
Gwenith Whitford from Dominica
But despite the outward appearance of a perfect tropical day, there were signs that trouble was brewing. In the capital city of Roseau, normally a laid-back place, tension was thick in the air. The local radio stations had recently broadcast warnings that Hurricane Georges was headed straight for Dominica. Citizens scurried to purchase essentials needed to wait out the storm. Supplies of flashlight batteries sold out quickly in some stores. Kerosene oil for lamps seemed to vaporize. The candle factory did a tremendous business that day. The frenetic atmosphere in the local grocery stores was overwhelming. I watched many hands grab packages of powdered milk, cocoa, Ovaltine, canned fish and meats, biscuits and other non-perishable goods. Although the friendly Dominicans spoke courteously to one another while discussing the weather, their faces were strained and their voices quavered upon mention of the name Georges. At a busy intersection, a handsome traffic control officer paused for a moment to raise his white-gloved hands towards the heavens in prayer. Rush hour occurred a little earlier that Friday afternoon as people hurried home to prepare for whatever lay ahead. It would take them some time to board up their homes and fill containers with water to last for a few days.
They had not forgotten about Hurricane David. In 1979 this fierce Category IV storm had practically demolished the entire island. Georges was now considered to be as strong. Back at my home base, 1000 feet up on the edge of the rainforest, I frantically packed up boxes of books, clothes and electronic equipment, wrapped them in plastic and put everything fragile on my bed. Meanwhile, the knots in my stomach got tighter and tighter. In an almost panicked state, I phoned Canadian friends who live in Bequia, a tiny island in the Grenadines, 150 miles south of Dominica. They reassured me and gave me Web sites to check for the latest information. And they cautioned me to seek safe shelter. My cottage did appear to be structurally sound with its concrete walls and wooden roof, but I did not want to take any chances.
After I had tightly closed the metal louvers on Saturday morning, I headed down the hill, carrying my most valued possessions (my computer and related equipment), to the nearby guest house at Springfield Plantation. This stately old wooden building had endured many previous hurricanes and had escaped relatively unscathed. It also had a concrete basement where we could shelter if things got really bad. I settled into my temporary room, but I still felt uneasy. The storm was forecast to strike on Sunday morning. It was getting closer, pumping 150 mph winds. Then I realized what I had forgotten to do: turn off my electricity and water. My neighbor's cat, accustomed to hanging around my place, still had to be found and brought to the guest house. The night seemed endless. I worried incessantly. At 3:30am, I turned on my radio. Georges was making progress, but he had veered slightly north. Now, he was predicted to strike between Dominica and Guadeloupe. High winds extended for almost a hundred miles from his center.
At daybreak on Sunday, I went outside. The air was moist and still. No rain. One of the staff was sitting on a bench with her sack of essentials close by her side. "The storm will mash up Dominica. I'm so afraid," she said. That didn't help me any. To work off my anxiety, I walked back up the hill to my cottage and shut off the power. The cat came out of the forest, but proved to be an unwilling captive. Eventually, an old grain sack and two pairs of hands secured the critter, at least for a while. Back at Springfield, I drank a cup of Ovaltine and speculated with staff and two guests from England about the potential wrath of Georges. I couldn't eat much. My stomach felt queasy. By 10am a few sheets of lightening and blasts of thunder echoed throughout the valley. The rain fell like a solid object. I went back to bed. An hour later, I woke up to silence. One of the staff prepared me a big British breakfast: bacon, eggs, chips and beans, with fried plantains on the side. "It might be a while before you have a big meal again. You'll need the energy," he advised. A radio blared from the dining room. We gathered every few hours to hear the updates. People were now being urged to go to shelters around the island, if their homes were considered unsafe. Police and emergency response personnel were on standby. Now, we just had to wait
By late Sunday afternoon, Georges' course had moved a little more northerly. Now Antigua was its main target. But Dominica was still under a hurricane warning, because this wild animal was no small beast. On the northeast coast, there were reports of massive waves and thundering surf. Some sections of road had been washed out. People were still scared. As dusk approached, the sky's eerie yellowish glow gave a sense of foreboding. Ghostly gray clouds shrouded the surrounding mountains. The wind began to blow in earnest. We sat around and chatted some more. Some people played cards. Others drank tea. I tried to write some letters, but couldn't concentrate. At 8pm, Georges appeared to be well on his way to Antigua. It looked like we would escape the worst of the assault. Many weary souls headed off to bed. I did too, but later awoke to shrieking wind and hammering rain and the unnaturally black blackness of that night. Something was wrong. In a flash, I realized that the power had gone off. My heartbeat quickened. Terrified, I ventured outside. I could hear someone moving around. "Should we go down to the basement?" I yelled. "No, it's not that bad, Gwen. Go back to bed."
A few hours later, I arose to chirping birds and welcoming sunshine. I opened the storm shutters and peered out. With the exception of a few fallen leaves and branches, Dominica's natural beauty and its people had been spared this time. I headed up the hill to my cottage to unpack my things and continue with life in the hurricane zone.
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