All things held captive
I first became aware of Carlotta when she was still young and innocent. Just another tropical storm, like so many others, far out to sea, slowly following the warm ocean currents to the northwest, making landfall, if at all, far away up the coast.
But unlike all those others, Carlotta was not drifting northwest. She was drifting due north, straight for the coast. Straight for us.
Oh well, she was still a day and a half away. Lots of time for her to swing up away from the coast like she was supposed to.
But Carlotta was being precocious. She was refusing to play nice. She was still making a bee line straight for us, like some sort of heat seeking missile. And she wasn't so young and innocent anymore. She had grown up. She was now a fully fledged hurricane, only 24 hours away, and growing bigger and stronger by the minute. Even if she finally did turn away now, we'd still be hit by some very nasty weather.
So now what? I'd never been through a hurricane before. What should I do?
I thought about boarding up my windows. I'd seen people doing that on the news. It seemed to be a popular thing to do in hurricanes. And I had one very large, potentially vulnerable group of windows.
It was my big, beautiful view wall, two sliding glass doors with a large archway of glass above them, and it was suddenly looking very flimsy. All that glass held together by thin strips of aluminium, and nothing else. You could actually push the whole thing back and forth a little with your hand. But it was all semi protected by a big palapa covered patio, and had been through some intense tropical storms over the years, and other than a little shaking, come through it all just fine. Besides, I had no boarding up materials, and there was no time to get any, and I'm not even sure of the proper boarding up procedures. If it was done wrong, it could make things worse instead of better.
So my wall of glass was going to have to get through the hurricane unprotected. It would probably be okay. I would keep an eye on it, and maybe open the doors a little to relieve the pressure if I needed to. Besides, a hurricane is just a tropical storm with a little bit higher winds, isn't it? What's a few miles per hour? It would probably be okay.
So I basically did nothing, and waited, like the poor, dumb, ignorant fool I was, while the bitch bore down on us. Why was she doing that, anyway? Did we have a target painted on us or something! And now she was predicted to be a category 2 hurricane when she hit us, with sustained winds of 105 mph. Jesus!
Oh well, it was just wind wasn't it? How bad could it be? I'd been through some pretty horrific blizzards up north. Whiteouts. Winds you couldn't stand up straight in. Surely I could handle a little tropical hurricane. The waiting was murder, though.
All day Friday was overcast with dark clouds and a steady drizzle of rain. It was hot and muggy and there was not a breath of wind. It was just about as eerie, gloomy and foreboding as you'd expect the proverbial calm before the storm to be.
The first winds arrived around 6:00 PM, and the rain started falling harder. By 6:30 the rain was horizontal, trees were coming down, and the power was out. And the winds just kept getting stronger and stronger. By 7:00, the world as I knew it had ceased to exist.
Imagine being in the middle of a pack of snarling, frenzied, rabid dogs, leaping on everything in sight and ripping it to pieces right in front of you, and all you can do is stand there, completely helpless, and wait for them to inevitably turn on you. That was basically what it was like - except of course, much worse.
It was worse than all the other storms I'd ever experienced, all put together, and then some. The wind was beyond anything I could have even imagined. I didn't even know wind could move that fast! It seemed impossible. It was the most violent, frightening thing I'd ever seen in my life.
And I had a front row seat. It was still light enough to see, and as I stood, hanging on to the handles of the sliding glass doors, the mayhem was raging right in front of me, right in my face. Because the winds were full of rain, shredded leaves and other flying debris, they had visible form and substance, like living things, snaking and racing all around me, completely overwhelming everything in their path.
The winds swirled and gusted from all directions, but the main, driving force of the hurricane, and the strongest sustained gusts were coming from the direction of the mountains behind me. It was the best possible direction for the wind to be coming from, hitting the back of the house, the strongest part of the house: solid, rounded concrete, with only a couple of small windows.
The winds were rushing around the back of the house so fast they actually created a vacuum in front of the house that pulled and bowed my glass wall outwards, and I found I had to open the doors a little and pull back on the handles as hard as I could to prevent them being sucked outwards. The fate of that glass wall was literally in my hands, as I held tight to the handles of the sliding glass doors, pushing or pulling with all my strength, and adjusting the size of the opening to relieve the pressure.
If the sliding glass doors had been left closed, that wall would have come down in seconds. My strength alone would not have had a prayer of holding that wall up against the hurricane. Nobody has that kind of strength. The opening was the key. Controlling the size of the opening was like controlling the relief valve on a runaway steam engine. The problem, of course, was that the relief valve was pointing right at my face. I've never actually been hit in the face with a fire hose, but I imagine it would probably feel much the same.
So by opening the doors a few inches to prevent them from coming down, I was letting a little bit of the hurricane into my house. And a little bit of a hurricane can do a whole lot of damage - and it did. Unfortunately, the only other alternative was to have the entire wall come down in an explosion of twisted metal and broken glass, and let the full fury of the hurricane into the house. As bad as the damage was, it would have been orders of magnitude worse if Carlotta had had the twelve foot wide opening of the entire wall to charge through.
So I had a pretty important job to do, and I think that helped me survive the ordeal. I was too busy to dwell on the fear and the panic.
At some point during that initial onslaught, I realized that all I was wearing was boxer shorts, my usual garb for that time of night, which suddenly seemed drastically and dangerously inappropriate for the current situation. What if the wall came down despite my efforts - and that was a very real possibility - or I suddenly found myself outside (heaven forbid!), or I'm knocked unconscious, and I wake up in a hospital somewhere?
Talk about not being prepared! I didn't even think to put some clothes on. How stupid was that! And how do I go get clothes from the other side of the house without abandoning my post, and risking the collapse of the wall? All I could do was wait for a lull, and sprint to the dresser, and sprint back again. And it must be understood that the word "lull" is a relative term only, referring to a few brief seconds here and there when the winds were ever so slightly less terrifying. I figured that to leave my post for more than four or five seconds was asking for trouble, so it took a few sprints back and forth before I had gathered socks, shoes, jeans and a shirt. Then to try to get dressed with one hand while I held on to the doors with the other.
I lost track of the time completely, but I remember when the winds finally stopped it was still light enough to see - just barely - so it must have been somewhere around 8:30.
The winds quit quite suddenly, and the relief that washed over me was palpable. I had survived! The glass wall had survived. The house had survived. The world had survived. Everything was going to be okay.
For the first time since the hurricane began, I became aware of Reyna, my six month old puppy, quivering and whining at my side, and I figured I'd better take her (and myself) out to pee.
In the deepening twilight, I could see that the property had taken quite a beating. Trees and pieces of trees were laying around everywhere. The sixty foot Internet tower behind the house had come crashing down, as had the twenty foot antenna on the roof of the house. Happily, the huge palapa roof over the patio was still in one piece, although it had a few holes in it. The other two, smaller palapas were beat up as well, but basically sound. So things could have been a lot worse.
But as I stood there congratulating myself on my good fortune, I realized there was a very strange feeling in the air. It was deathly quiet, and not even the faintest whisper of wind. It was so calm and peaceful, so other worldly, that for about half a second I thought maybe I'd died and this was some kind of wispy afterlife, or alternate existence. But then I had another thought. Isn't this exactly what the eye of a hurricane was supposed to be like? Was it possible this was not the end, but only the middle of this horrendous experience? No... it couldn't be. I didn't have the strength to go through more. It couldn't be. Could it?
About two seconds after the thought struck me, I was hit in the face by a gust of wind that almost knocked me over. I yelled for Reyna and the two of us ran back inside the house just as the hurricane leaped back upon us.
And right away the winds were even stronger than before. I wouldn't have thought it possible if I hadn't been right there. But the worst part was that these winds now were from the exact opposite direction. They were coming straight off the ocean. Straight at the front of the house. Straight at me and my glass wall. This was the worst possible thing that could have happened.
I could tell right away that my previous strategy was no longer going to work. There was no way I was going to be able to stand up and hold on to those doors with the full force of those winds hitting them head on. It would have been suicide. Panic began to set in big time. What could I do? Where could I hide? The little storage room under the stairs? It had no door. If the glass wall came down, the hurricane would roar straight into that storage room unimpeded. But maybe if I crawled into the very back corner, and covered my head. There was nowhere else to go. Then I looked at my big, wooden, kitchen table, seven feet long and obscenely heavy.
It was too heavy to lift, but if I could push it onto its side, and wrangle it up against the doors... would that help? Well, it couldn't hurt, I figured, so at the first hint of a lull, I muscled the table onto its side and over to the doors.
It didn't work at all. There was no way the table could lean tight enough against the doors to do any good. I had the doors open about a foot, and the wind and the rain were just screaming through the opening, pulverizing and soaking everything in the room.
The onslaught of wind and rain was so brutal, I had to crouch down behind the table to get out of its way. As I knelt there, I found if I pushed on the table with my shoulder, I could keep it tight against the doors, and maybe exert just enough pressure to keep the wall from being blown in.
It was worth a try, anyway, I thought, for at least a few minutes. So I crouched behind the table, and every time a big gust would hit (which was almost continuous at this point) I would push with my shoulder as hard as I could. I had no idea whether my pushing was actually making any difference or not, but at least it gave me something to do. It was the opening in the doors, the hurricane relief valve, that was - so far - taking the pressure off the doors just enough to keep them from collapsing.
But I could only open them so far. More than about a foot of opening and the force of the wind would start pushing the table - and me with it - back away from the doors.
There were many times I thought the wall was going to come down on top of me, and I would think about making a run for the storage room. But somehow the wall didn't come down, and I couldn't rule out the possibility that my efforts were actually helping, impossible as that seemed.
By this time, of course, it was pitch black, and all I had was a little "AA" flashlight with failing batteries. So much water had come in the house I was now kneeling in a lake about two inches deep. My clothes were completely soaked.
Then I heard the hurricane breach the upstairs doors that led onto the roof. Bang! Bang! Bang! as the joined wooden doors were broken open and slammed back and forth. Horrific banging for about ten minutes, until they were finally ripped right off their hinges, and the hurricane was able to roar right down the upstairs stairwell into the house. When I shone the flashlight in that direction I could see water pouring down the stairs like a waterfall.
At one point, when I was pushing as hard as I could against the table with my shoulder, I suddenly realized there was a bit of a lull and I didn't need to be pushing right then. I was so far beyond rational thought I was on auto pilot. Push as hard as you can. Keep your head down. Push as hard as you can. That was my whole world. And when I realized I didn't need to be pushing right at that moment, it was hard to stop!
When I finally got control of myself enough to stop pushing for a few seconds, I suddenly became aware there was a little six month old puppy trying her damnest to crawl inside my skin. As I knelt there on the floor, crouched behind the table, she was pressing herself so tight against me it hurt, and had probably been doing so the whole time. And she was shaking so hard, it was like she would shake herself to pieces. Then I realized I was shaking as bad as she was. Now that my body wasn't pushing any more, it felt like it was coming apart. It was a horrible feeling, that severe, uncontrollable shaking. It was almost a relief when the next gust hit, and I could go back to work, pushing again.
The fact that I had completely forgotten about Reyna mortified me. I loved that little dog as if she was one of my own children, and I had completely abandoned her. I only had one other soul to take care of besides myself, and I couldn't even do that.
I guess there comes a time when a situation becomes so life threatening, a person has to make a choice, whether to save themselves, or their pet. Although I certainly made no conscious decision in that regard, my unconscious apparently did, while the rest of me was busy.
Of course all of that changed as soon as I became aware of her. I hugged her tight, and tried to comfort her. From that moment on, it was no longer just me against the hurricane. It was me and Reyna. Whatever happened now was going to happen to the both of us, together.
I have no idea how long that second hurricane attack lasted. Others who also went through the eye told me later the second attack lasted about three hours, and that sounds about right.
At one point I even resorted to prayer, in my own, irreverent, agnostic way. Okay, you can stop now. I'm impressed already. Please! Enough! Stop! Really, I get it. I get it! You don't need to show me any more. Enough already! No More!!!!!!
I borrowed a mantra from my old LSD days, when I would find myself on a trip that wasn't going so well. Just hang in there, man. This will NOT last forever. This WILL end. Just hang in there for a little while longer, and this will all be over. Just hang in there a little longer...
And the winds did end, sometime in the middle of the night. But I was too tired to celebrate. I was totally exhausted, and completely drained. I had used up all my chi and then some. I was so tired I was nodding off, but there was no dry place to lie down. Everything in the house was soaking wet, including my bed. I fumbled around in the dark and found some towels in the dresser that were only semi wet, and spread them over the bed. I fell on top of them and everything went black.
I returned to the land of the living just as it was getting light enough to see, around 6:30 AM, thinking, did that really happen? I swung my feet off the bed and they plopped down into two inches of water. Yes, it really happened.
By the dawn's early light I looked around at the mess of soaking wet debris that used to be my comfy little home. The kitchen/dining room was the worst, where the semi open glass doors had let Carlotta reach into the house like some sort of monstrous puma stretching her arm through the bars of a rabbit cage and swiping her claws at everything in reach.
But the glass wall was still standing. It had not fallen and allowed Carlotta full access into the rabbit hutch. The rabbits, although heavily traumatized, were still alive, and the hutch was still secure, although it was one sorrowful soggy mess, to be sure.
The lake that used to be the kitchen floor was filled with broken glass, and other broken things that had been swept off the counters, or ripped off the walls.
Then I looked outside, and I felt like Dorothy waking up in the land of Oz. Everything looked different, and it took a minute or two to figure out why. The jungle that had surrounded my property had been levelled. The few trees that remained had had all their leaves stripped off, so that instead of only a few glimpses of the ocean through the trees, as was normal, the entire coastline was now laid bare in front of me. The huge palapa roof covering my patio had finally succumbed to the storm, and collapsed. And when I saw what the hurricane did to my tennis court, my pride and joy, it was like someone punched me in the stomach, really hard.
But first things first. I spent the next three or four hours working with buckets, squeegees and towels trying to get the water out of the house.
Then I went to check on my next door neighbours about a quarter mile away, right on the beach. Their acre or so of beautiful, lovingly cultivated tropical garden was completely decimated. It looked like it had been bombed. It was difficult to even get to the house through the maze of fallen palms and fruit trees. The palapa above their front patio had completely collapsed, almost entirely blocking the front door.
Their front room had a glass wall much like mine except more sturdy, and protected by a screened off sun room. Still, half of it had blown in, and the other half was cracked and broken. Their living room, like mine, was full of water and bits and pieces of belongings. It was a very sad sight. Fortunately neither of them was injured. They had spent the storm hunkered down in a bedroom in the centre of the house.
The house next door was much worse. Its glass wall had not been protected by anything, and Carlotta had obliterated it, roaring unimpeded into the house and destroying everything inside it. The good news was there was no-one in the house at the time, but it was a horrific example of what would have happened to my house if my glass wall had come down.
My other neighbours had no glass wall to worry about, yet still their house was completely flooded. They said that even though their windows were locked shut, the wind forced water through the tiny little cracks around the edges of the frames with such force it stung the skin, and they had to retreat into the relative safety of their bathroom, where they rode out the storm.
It was a miracle no-one was hurt or killed. But we were all severely traumatized, stumbling around in a state of shock. We were like a community of zombies, with glazed eyes, and stunned expressions, wading through the debris, wondering where the hell do you start, trying to clean up a mess of this magnitude?
For the next few days and weeks, all anyone talked about was Carlotta. Never was the axiom misery loves company more evident. Never was there more of a sense of belonging, of brotherhood, of community. Nothing like a large scale disaster to bring people together. People who had never before met were hugging and consoling each other, and sharing similar stories of flooded homes, and crouching in the dark, listening helplessly to the terrible sounds of the winds tearing their home to pieces all around them. In the poorer neighbourhoods, there were only piles of rubble where homes used to be. How the people living in those homes escaped death is beyond me. I can only think that most of them had managed to get themselves to shelters before the hurricane hit.
In the days immediately following the hurricane, the entire community suffered a type of group wind phobia, where any kind of stiff breeze would suddenly bring the fear and the panic right back again.
Trying to explain a hurricane to someone who's never experienced one is impossible. How do you explain the trauma of a rape, a mugging, to someone who's never been through it? You can't. It's impossible.
All I can say is that I never, ever, want to go through anything like that ever again. The next time I find myself in the path of a hurricane, I will board up my windows, and run!