The meteorological alert had been given shortly after my arrival. No one could know the trajectory in advance, we just knew it would come from the Atlantic ocean and fade as it reached the American continent. If we were lucky, we’d only get a tropical storm (winds under 55 knots). If not, that would be the “real: hurricane. And if we were particularly unlucky, the eye of the hurricane would pass directly above us.
Hurricanes (named typhoons in the Pacific), are like tornadoes, except that they are gigantic and form on oceans. The eye is in the very center, around which the wind turns. If you reach this point, it means two things: first, you have seen the worst of that cyclone since the strongest winds are near the eye, and second, you’re only half way to safety.
Back to St-Martin, a few days before the storm, the air was strangely still. There is normally a constant breeze on the island, but not this day. I decided to go on a beach where I saw an incredible thing: the ocean was flat like a mirror. Not a single wave, not a single ripple. I had, and still have, never seen anything like this. I thought I should try to swim in this mirror-like sea, but when I entered the water, the water had not yet reached my thighs that I quickly tried to get back out on the beach. Even if I were standing, I could feel the currents from under the surface pulling away. They seemed incredibly strong, and had surely dragged me out to the sea.
I didn’t swim that day, nor the following days as the storm winds had finally decided to unleash their furry. I had been lucky in that the friend I was staying with lived in a sturdy concrete house. A lot of the locals’ houses were just a few sheets of metal nailed to wooden poles. We taped the windows and patio doors, making big X’s; in case they shattered, the take could limit the amount of shards that would fly out and inflict injuries. And we gathered water bottles, a radio and batteries.
I remember staring at the patio doors bending under the weight of the wind, thinking at every moment: “That’s it, they’re gonna break gonna break, there’s no way it could bend more than that.” And it lasted hours and hours.
After the exhaustion of being alert for a long time, the wind suddenly slowed down. We were in the eye of the hurricane, at it’s heart. I ventured outside, it was as if time itself had stopped. Everything was almost still, with just a light wind and thin rain. All the grass, leaves, flowers, usually vibrant with colour, was brown, burnt by the sea salt that the rain had been pouring. Because it hadn’t been normal rain, it had been sea water ripped off from the ocean by the strength of the storm, that fell on us. Then, the wind started again. On the other direction this time, sucking the patio doors instead of pushing them in. At this point, I knew I would survive.
The cataclysm lasted about 48 hours. When we got outside, after it had passed, appeared a post-apocalyptic world. Where roads had been before, mounds of sand with enormous shells and sea-creatures blocked cars from moving. Where a marina used to welcome boats, only white masts protruded from the water. Where there had been humble dwellings, there was nothing, all had been blasted away. And where had been the beach I had seen the endless mirror as the sea, there was no nothing. No beach! No more sand, not even a single grain. Big boulders that had been covered in sand were now visible through the waves, much lower to the level of the original beach.
On another beach (that kept it’s sand), stood a huge ship – too big to normally enter the bay. As if the arm of a giant had lifted the enormous vessel and thrusted it, like a javelin, on the island.
For a few days, after that, there was no electricity, the army came to distribute fresh water. And I remember the chaos when, the first time a bakery reopened. People ran for a piece of bread, fighting for a piece of food, as the brutal animals we came from. The radio announced the number of dead bodies found, or was asking for news of missing ones.
But then, people started to work together to be able to drive around, to distribute food ans water. And nature, very rapidly, started to bloom new flowers.
I certainly did not get the vacations I expected. Instead, I witnessed the overwhelming strength of nature, as well as it’s resilience, and the determination of humankind to live in places that, however paradise-like, can be deadly.
Here are a few numbers I got on the wikipedia page for Hurricane Luis:
- caused 19 fatalities.
- cost 3 Billion dollars (in 1995) damage across all affected lands.
- cost 1.8 Billion just in St-Martin
- peak wind gust recorded in St-Martin (at Grand-Case airport), was 325 km/h (202 mph)