The following is a passage from the diary I kept of my time on Salt Cay, but due to its mostly unedited state I feel the need to clarify a few things beforehand. In total, there were five people in the studio where we stayed during the hurricane. The family of three, here referred to as Michael, Lucy, and Freyja, were who I was staying with during my time on the island. Ce Celia was a resident of Salt Cay that stayed with us that night. There were three cats and three dogs with us. The Sun Room, as I refer to it in the text, is the room at the back of the house that overlooks the swimming pool and portico. However, I also use it to refer to the living room of the main house, as I was unaware at the time of which room in particular was the Sun Room.
Below is a rough map of the main house (including the studio). The family’s house was a detached property to the left of the main house:
7th September: Hurricane Day
Mosquitoes suck. In other news, the hurricane’s arrived. Currently, I’m sitting on the front terrace outside my room with everyone. We’re planning to move inside once the storm worsens. For now, it’s certainly rainy and windy, but nothing a gin and tonic can’t solve.
Today was an early start: 6am (or near enough. Not that I’d slept at all the night before.) Spent the morning taping up windows, wrapping up suitcases, moving mattresses, packing bags, chasing cows out of the garden (freaked me out last night when it started munching grass directly outside my open door), making final provisions, and securing the animals. Some of the roofs are rattling, rather menacingly too. We’re getting anxious, and have started to remove the ‘minibar’ from the crate holding the cats. A bamboo tree’s already been blown over. I ran out shirtless into the rain earlier because it was so hot, and lifted it up to be a cool guy. I felt like a demi-god, like Odysseus lifting up the burning poker to blind the cyclops. (P.S: POLYPHEMUS! Can’t believe I forgot that.)
As oppressive as the wind and rain can be, it’s also pretty liberating. Just sitting outside, ignoring everything to watch the weather, both idle and attentive at once. Having said that, it’s difficult to decide when to actually go inside. As fast and as powerful as the wind seems right now (1:20pm) when you actually step out into it, it doesn’t feel any worse than a stormy day down the Old Town in Hastings. Ooh I would love a good piece of haddock after this. The roof of the neighbour’s house is threatening loudly to come off. The cat is meowing incessantly and vies between backing into the corner of her cage and trying to break free. Not sure you’d really want the latter little guy. Just hang in there.
2:15pm: The roof of the shed is being peeled off. The rubbish dumpster just gave up and folded in on itself, and slid lazily to the ground.
3:10pm: Took a power nap on top of the pile of mattresses. Really needed it too. It was not the most stress-free place to sleep, what with the noise from outside and the 4ft drop off the top mattress, but it was flat, and comfy, which was good enough for me. When the storm worsened around 3ish, I was woken by the wind, and then by the urgent need to shut the doors to the studio. The dogs were already inside as Michael and I worked quickly to secure the sandbags and hold the door closed with a length of rope.
5:05pm: No room for bravado or clever words. This could well be the last night of my life. The house is pouring water. The front door feels like it could come off at any point. I’m sweating constantly, from fear or the work we’re doing to shore up cracks, I don’t know. This is the only thing I can think to do to calm my thoughts right now. The bathroom feels safest right now. One shuttered window, with a closed door leading to the rest of the house. I can feel the roughness of my fingers.
8th September: Aftermath
It is difficult for me to fully convey what happened in the house last night. We were right on the edge. One bad gust of wind and we would certainly have died. To be able to write this now, 6pm the next day, is a woefully understated measure of how grateful I am. Even this pen I’m writing this with now, I found only after the contents of the backroom was emptied. I found it resting on the soaked sofa, under every single suitcase. What follows is an account of the events immediately after 5:05pm yesterday, and the aftermath of the hurricane.
Halfway through the last sentence written (‘I can feel the roughness of my fingers’), Michael asked me to come with him into the Sun Room, the main room of the house my studio is attached to. I dropped this book and pen onto the sofa before entering, and was immediately struck by just how much water was coming through the roof. To call it leaking would be misrepresenting it; it felt as if the roof was about to collapse under the sheer volume of water pouring through the shattered first floor windows. Michael wanted to show me the doors leading out to the swimming pool in the back garden. The wooden portico that had collapsed earlier was blown away as he explained how the glass doors had severely weakened since the last time we checked. Wiping water out of my eyes I told him we should consider what to do once the doors inevitably burst apart, and we agreed to find something to hold fast the door that separated the Sun Room from the studio.
Just as we stepped back out of the Sun Room, the doors were blown in. We later discovered that the doors themselves had remained closed; it was the frame itself that had been torn away from the concrete wall. The rush of wind was incredible.
We immediately turned to push back against the door, against the full force of the hurricane. But Ce was still inside. She had been further away than Michael and I and was taken completely by surprise. So I shouted to Michael to wait, Celia was still in there! Once she had made it out we threw all our weight behind the door, fighting with everything we had. Lucy came to see what had happened, and I told her to get Freyja into the bathroom. If we couldn’t find a way to keep this door closed, then it was her last, best chance to survive. Without warning, Michael left the door. He left Lucy wailing and paralysed by fear, whilst I now had to hold back death by myself. I remember thinking:
This could be it. I’ve got to hold this door. I’ve got to hold this door.
It became a chant in my head. I’ve got to hold this door. I can’t die like this. I’ve got to hold this door. I was screaming with fear and anger. I’ve got to hold this door. With each blast of wind that blew me back I pushed back with all my force. As my shoes lost their grip on the flooded floor and I started to slip, all I could think was I’ve got to hold this door.
I called to Lucy. Push the sofa to the door! Stack as many things as you can on it, anything! Move the drawers behind the sofa so it’s wedged between the wall and the door! No, wedge it first, otherwise the sofa will be blown back each time the wind gets through. Lucy was released from paralysis and quickly tried to help. She threw every bag we had on that sofa. It wasn’t enough. All the while I was shouting ‘where’s Michael?! Where is everyone?!’ Then Lucy left too. I was stuck with the door again, unable to leave and unable to hear anything from the others. I couldn’t even feel the muscles in my right arm anymore. It was going numb.
But Michael came back, trailed by Lucy, and he had a hammer and nails. We began to nail wooden planks over the door, Michael hammering, Lucy readying the nails and holding the light, and me pushing the door closed. We were all fumbling with fear. Though Lucy was the only one to show it, I knew we all felt it. Plastic chairs and pool noodles were wedged in, and my guitar case served as a workbench. At once point I asked Michael what his plan was if the reinforcement failed to keep it closed.
‘What happens if it blows open again?’
‘If it happens again…we’re fucked.’
It was the pause and the eye contact that made the last part so sincere. I was half-inclined to believe him. For what felt like hours we hammered away at that door. We broke apart shelves, we broke apart anything that could be used to keep the door from blowing in. Nail! Light! Nail! Light! It was rhythmic when it went well. But every dropped hammer that fell behind the blockade, and every nail that bent, there was that moment of doubt. I heard Michael say ‘fuck it’ many times that night in that back room.
Finally we secured it enough that we could take a minute to breathe. The studio itself had been seriously damaged by the sudden pressure when the Sun Room burst. One of the doors had been broken, the top lock bent out of shape. The other door was held fast by the rope tied between the handle and the sink. The floor was covered in water. The cats were crying the entire time, but considering the circumstances they should have been thanking us. It was maybe five minutes before the frames shot off that we moved their crates out of that same room. If we hadn’t then they most certainly would have drowned in their cages, or been broken against the concrete.
Lucy had an idea, or more of a lament. If only the front door of the main house was open, the wind wouldn’t put so much pressure on our studio. All we had to do was go outside into 195mph winds and find a way to unlock a heavy-set wooden door in near total-darkness. Typically, Michael and I both told each other to stay whilst we went alone. I deferred to Lucy’s protests and let Michael go. The wind under the covered porch was surprisingly slow which allowed him to easily remove the sandbags blocking the air from escaping. A small victory it may have been, but it raised our spirits a little.
From then on the rest of the night was spent in the studio, with people veering between broken sleep and anxious watchfulness. Lucy began to pray at one point. All Freyja did was complain how boring it was whist she was in the bathroom, before falling asleep for the entire night. All of our feet were pruned to the point we could probably have held a coin neatly between the creases. But once the immediate fear had been resolved, I started to notice all the other little details. One easy thing forgotten was that in a studio full of scared cats, dogs, and people, the atmosphere was intolerable. The toilet brimmed with piss and tissue paper, since there was no water to flush with. The cats had left faeces inside and outside their cages. The dogs were sleeping in stagnant water. It was truly one of the most miserable nights I’ve ever experienced.
But then dawn broke. Clear sky appeared on the horizon. The wind dropped and it stopped raining. Had we been less tired, our celebration would have been more than small smiles and sighs of relief. In the light of the sunrise we viewed our sorry quarters. The main house was destroyed. The whole interior was blown out, and the side rooms had suffered as well. The roof nearly came off completely. The skeletous wooden planks were exposed and would definitely have been ripped off if the hurricane had lingered a little longer. The family’s house, on the other hand, was practically intact. It was farcical almost, how little it was impacted. Apart from some flooding and a shattered window, it was just as we left it. Not even the cups left out were knocked off the table. Unfortunately this was the exception rather than the rule, as I discovered when I went to look around town.
The salina had flooded. No, flooding is an understatement. It looked like the ocean had split the island in two. It genuinely appeared as if the hurricane had ploughed a channel through Salt Cay and the Atlantic Ocean was now cascading down the salt flats. The devastation was immense. Telephone poles were split in half or missing altogether. Some were only suspended by tangled wires and power lines and creaked eerily in the breeze. The road to the right was flooded, but it seemed like a puddle compared to Victoria Street. The water from the salina was pouring over the road, creating an impossible ford and separating the south from the north. Dead fish littered the road and scum blew around. I used part of a fence to navigate the red mud that had already claimed one of my sandals. The bar where we had the barbeque was gone. The village shop I’d bought supplies from the day before was surrounded by water. It looked like a literal houseboat, which would have been charming under different circumstances.
The conch shells that covered the bay floor were now scattered along the ground, making it look like an army of conch had risen up against the humans but given up halfway. Trees were uprooted. It was amazing that nobody died, or was even injured. The most serious ailment anyone got was me when my middle toe started to develop a blister from rubbing against wet trainers all night. Even the animals were mostly fine. I saw a cow with her calf, donkeys with foals, and plenty of hermit crabs too. However, not all were so lucky. We couldn’t tell if the flamingo was injured, or if it was just exhausted. Every attempt it made to get up its legs folded and it fell down again. I felt sorry for it. To survive all that to end up slowly dying on the side of the road was a truly heart-breaking sight to see, so we moved it somewhere dry and out of the wind. Hopefully it can last the night. The rest of the day was spent cleaning, unpacking, and feeling relieved.
It is quite an experience to ace what you perceive to be death in the face and live to write about it the day after. The time spent by that door affirmed a few things about myself, qualities I like to perceive in myself. But having one’s base instincts revealed is never a glorious event. There were no handshakes or cheering to see us through that night. I wondered, as I drifted in and out of sleep, if they would have survived had I not been there. Could Michael have done it by himself? I like to think so, but that would be blind optimism. The pragmatist in me says no, so I am grateful that I was there. This paradox of pros and cons is something I suppose all of us are wondering. Should we have evacuated? Should we have even moved to Salt Cay? Lucy joked earlier about me catching a ride on a Royal Navy ship back to Portsmouth, possibly forgetting that during the night she was the first to raise that possibility for us as a fact. After something as destructive as Irma it can be hard to decide which pieces to pick up first, or whether to just let the pieces blow away. I hope this family can salvage what remains of their life here, as I do all the residents of Salt Cay. For me, all my belongings are in a rucksack and a backpack. I can adapt if needs be; go with the wind as it were. Or just go home. Whichever one lets my family know I am alive sooner. They must all be so worried right now. I love them all.