Hearing about Tropical Storm Debby makes me think of my best friend when I was growing up in Cleveland, where storms with names meant nothing. I didn’t know anything about hurricane season – it was snow days I always looked forward to. But when I moved to the Caribbean in the late 1980s, I learned all too quickly about the dangers of the season. And as a new mother, I also had to learn how to deal with the preparations, my anxiety, and the impact it had on my two young children.
I only knew hurricanes were about to reach Haiti when I received frantic calls from my friends and family in the States. Back then, hurricanes weren’t a priority on the news radar in Haiti. Besides, daily living there was in and of itself a natural disaster in terms of preparing for hurricanes because of the uncertain political conditions. It was expected that those who could had extra propane tanks for the gas stoves, extra five-gallon containers of water on hand always, shelves of provisional food, batteries, flashlights and a back-up power source.
There was no such thing as boarding up windows or such in our house – we lived in a house that had open metal grates as opposed to glass windows, so when the rain came, as it did frequently, and winds blew hard, we got wet, and found odd objects blown in through the windows. For my young son and daughter, we just made a game of it, hiding in a room with toys as the rain pelted the roof, trying to come up with musical rhythms to match. I can’t remember a single time when there was any sort of panic.
Then came our move to Miami. It was a whole new ballgame. We were several years out from the devastation of Andrew, but hurricane preparedness was all the news, all the time when a storm was approaching and caused my daughter to ask why the hullabaloo and my son to question why the season couldn’t be timed to the school year so he could stay home more.
For the first season or two, we had no reason to be concerned – we filled our hurricane box with the essentials and didn’t give the named storms much thought. Status quo, until the year when we flew up north to drop our daughter at school and had to return a day early because of an impending hurricane. We’d left our son with a friend who lived on the other side of the city, and didn’t realize that we should have stayed on that side of the city until we crossed over the bridge to our home on Key Biscayne and saw that everyone, and I mean everyone, was heading off the Key. We were living in an evacuation zone. Our son got a crash course in putting up hurricane shutters.
That storm never hit but when one did, it was my son, then 14, who saved the day. At this point we had a routine with the shutters and pulling in the patio furniture. We had bought a generator that he was in charge of starting, which he’d had much practice with since electricity was one of the first things to go.
During this particular storm, the lights went out early; the rain was relentless. I tried to keep my cool but I was anxious because the pool was already full and water was starting to seep through the patio glass doors. My son took towels and rolled them up to plug the gap, squeezing them dry as they soaked up like a sponge. He sensed my concern and started with the musical rhythms from Haiti, which I latched on to until there was a terrible sound from the bedroom and we discovered that the water had entered into the air conditioning vents and pushed right through. The point of entry was smack in the middle of the ceiling over my bed.
I wrung my hands; my son, just pushed the bed out of the way, got a plastic sheet and covered the carpet. When the hurricane passed, he helped me put the mattress out to dry, and picked up the downed branches and debris.
He’s been at college for the past few years but will be spending this summer at home. We’re both a bit out of practice with the shutters and patio furniture, and we haven’t gotten our hurricane box together yet but I already know that it’s going to have a lot more food in it – he’s a lot bigger, and stronger than he was when we first started this routine. I also plan to put that brute force to work if we have to move the patio furniture again. It might, however, be just a little bit harder to come up with games if we’re stuck inside. Shoots and Ladders has nothing over the video games he’s become accustomed to playing.