In early October last year, Hurricane Matthew was on its way to Jamaica. At one point it was upgraded to a category 5 storm that was looking very much as though it would make landfall on island. Colleagues were full of terrible stories from the last major hurricane to hit, Gilbert, who in 1988 caused extensive damage to houses, farms and infrastructure– and Gilbert was only a category 3.
With impending disaster heading our way, the Embassy was put on voluntary departure and most families with small children headed to the States. Those remaining, like us, were told to leave our homes and shelter at the main Embassy residential compound so we would all be together in a building with hurricane windows, an independent water supply and a generator. That meant we had to pack up our house (as best we could) to weather the storm. I stood in my living room surveying my options: rugs, soft furnishings, book cases, metal items…there were all sorts of things that could be permanently damaged by a flood. The prospect of moving heavy furniture so that rugs could be rolled up was not appealing, but the thought of returning to soaking, moulding furnishings was not an option. We had never been through heavy weather in this house before and had no idea if the windows would leak or from what direction the weather would come, so we had no choice but to move it all. So rugs were rolled and elevated, bookcases were raised on cans of tuna, we dragged big heavy plants inside so they wouldn’t snap in the high winds. It all took several hours.
Around midday we were done. The skies looked stormy and the palm trees were whipping, but the storm still hadn’t arrived. It seemed like a good time to head out for the 30 minute drive before the rains hit. It took 10-15 minutes to load the car with several days of food and provisions and, in that brief time, the rain and wind started up. Suddenly we were in a fierce squall and packed the last few items in high wind and pounding rain that easily found its way under the protective cover of the car port. By the time we pulled the car door shut and drove towards the exit, the windscreen wipers could hardly keep up. “Here it comes…” we thought… but the car started to make a strange rattling noise before we departed the front gate and Robert decided it was better to be cautious and figure out what was wrong with the car, so we headed back to the house. Thirty minutes passed, the car issue was fixed, the squall was over, and we made our second exit.
As we drove through the mostly empty Kingston streets, we could see scattered branches lying in the road and huge amounts of water carrying dirt and debris down the drains. It was easy to see how this city’s draining system could clog and flood the streets. The massive gullies were running hard with water, but not too deep for our vehicle to pass….but things could quickly change.
By the time we reached our destination, the rain had stopped altogether. The sky remained steely gray but the air was still. Maintenance crews were moving everything that wasn’t tied down and we settled into our loaned space to make it our base for the next few days.
We waited and watched. The apartment building has excellent views and we periodically scanned the horizon wondering when it was coming. The national hurricane website gave updates every 4-8 hrs, and the storm seemed to be heading east. By the next day there was still no rain. By the third day, it was clear that Matthew was going to miss Jamaica altogether but was heading straight for poor Haiti, which is still recovering from the earthquake after all these years. This was tragic for Haiti and excellent news for Jamaica, but by then I was suffering from a very bad case of cabin fever. All the precautions, packing and waiting was making me feel very tense. It was impossible to just relax and try to read a book or binge watch Netflix. I just wanted to go home. We returned to a dark house that needed reassembling and the boards needed to be removed from the windows. Amazingly the internet was still working and we set about the unwelcome task of putting everything back where it belonged. Friends reached out to ask if we were ok, now that Matthew was making international news headlines because of the damage to Haiti and the impending implications for the US coastline. However, for us it was over.
After Typhoon Pedring in the Philippines and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, we knew that the odds were real that we could add a hurricane to our list of disasters experienced three posts in a row. This time Jamaica dodged the bullet.