Hurricanes at home

September 14, 2011


Hurricane Earl

Hurricane Earl as the storm moved away from the Virgin Islands in August 2010.

People who don’t live in the Caribbean often ask me what it’s like to experience a hurricane. The US media in particular goes wild over storms, hyping their size and destructive power but overlooking important subtleties.

  1. Each storm is different, and the differences matter.  Some storms are compact, with hurricane- or tropical-storm force winds extending a relatively small distance from the center. Other storms are big and spread out, affecting a larger area as they pass. Some storms move quickly and others slowly. The longer strong winds and rain sit on top of you, the more damage you will experience. Storms have different wind and rain profiles: some bring with them lots and lots of rain, others only a little. Some bring rain before, others during, others after, and others throughout. These factors and others make a big difference when it comes to the actual impact a storm will have.
  2. Location matters. My house sits at 18.23 N, 64.40 W (thanks iphone!) and this is vital information during a storm. If a storm passes ‘over the Virgin Islands’ not all locations in the Virgin Islands will have the same experience. When Hurricane Lenny passed near St. Croix in 1999 that island experienced 112 mile winds while the BVI measured top speeds of 85. That’s a big difference.
  3. Watch that north-eastern quadrant: This may be the most important thing to know about hurricanes.  I don’t pretend to fully comprehend the science, but it is a law of nature that the winds in the right front quadrant of a storm are the most powerful (and those in the left front or the north-western quadrant are the least). (The rule is opposite in the Southern Hemisphere – read Wikipedia’s entry on Buys Ballot’s Law for more.) What this means is that two equally powerful storms passing equal distances north and south of the Virgin Islands will have different impacts. In our case, it’s worse if the storm passes to the south, and that worse can make a huge difference.
  4. Winds shift. When the eye of a hurricane passes over you this is what will happen: there will be a short lull in the winds and then they will come back from the opposite direction. If the eye of the storm passes near you but not over you, however, you still experience the same general phenomenon of shifting winds as your position relative to the eye of the storm changes.  When Hurricane Earl passed over us in 2010 the winds first came from the northwest and over the many hours as the storm passed they swung around, eventually coming from the southeast. When the winds had come 180 degrees I knew that the storm was headed away.
  5. Tracking is good for you. When I first saw hurricane tracking maps in stores I thought they were quaint. With computers and the Weather Channel why did I need a tracking map? I was wrong. If a storm is passing near to you, knowing the specific location relative to where you are is very important for the reasons already discussed. And the Weather Channel (which you won’t be able to watch during a storm, anyway) doesn’t report about the position of a storm relative to Susanna’s house. We are all the Virgin Islands to them. Tracking is also good for your peace of mind. It’s really valuable to know whether a storm is still approaching you, whether the eye has passed, and how many miles away it is. There’s a moment when you realise that the storm is now headed away from you—when you can expect that conditions will not get worse, only better—which is a hopeful discovery just when you need it most. Also, it gives you something to do during those long hours that the storm is passing.
  6. Storms are unpredictable. Forecasts are good, but don’t count on them. If you’re pinning your hopes on the National Hurricane Center which says a storm will take a turn to the north, that is foolish.  This is weather forecasting after all, and the most sophisticated models are no match for Mother Nature. This past weekend the NHC forecast that Tropical Storm Maria would pass well south of the Virgin Islands but she ended up passing to the north. In our household we look at the official forecast but also look at the satellite images, the position, the movement and read the detailed discussion to find out more. And until the storm is well away there is always a risk that it will affect you.

So that’s a bit about the particulars of hurricanes, but what are they like? Well, the noise is terrible. The wind rumbles and whines and howls and rattles and not just for an hour or two. I have heard people say it sounds like a train passing over your house, which is not too far from the truth.  For the first couple of hours its exciting and frightening but then it gets old and tiresome and you just want it all to stop.

It’s also hot and boring. Power goes out early (the power companies cut power after winds reach tropical storm force) and unless you have a generator that means no internet, no TV, no fans, no a/c, no light and no refrigeration. IPad batteries only last so long. And remember that your house is all closed up to keep the wind and rain out, so it becomes stuffy and uncomfortable.

This is not an article about hurricane preparedness, but I will say that a little bit of preparedness goes a long way. There is nothing worse than hearing things outside blow around during a storm because you didn’t secure them properly and knowing that all you can do now is wait and hope (only a fool goes outside during a hurricane). Some preparedness inside the house helps too: Water to drink and bathe with, non-perishable food, medicines, a deck of cards – it all really does make a huge difference when it comes to your comfort and health.

I was shocked after Hurricane Earl by the number of people who told me they didn’t have a battery operated radio, which rendered them essentially cut off from the world during the entire storm. During a storm your radio is your link to the outside world, and those DJs who keep you company as the storm passes are hugely important, emotionally if nothing else. Listening to the radio and hearing the people call in (land-line phones are generally pretty resilient in a storm) to talk about conditions in their area or to let family members know they are okay makes you feel like you’re not in this thing alone and as the winds howl and the windows rattle and the rain falls outside, that’s a real gift.

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About Susanna

Susanna is a Tennessee native transplanted to the BVI, and the author of Moon Handbooks Virgin Islands.

View all posts by Susanna

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