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In St. Thomas, storms bring magic, take power

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By Carol Bareuther

Some of the prettiest days in the Caribbean are those in the 48 to 72 hours before a massive hurricane makes landfall. This was certainly true before Irma’s hit of St. Thomas on Sept. 6 and Maria’s on Sept. 19.

Both times, there was a bright blue sky and razor-sharp horizon, a definite change from the normally hazy skies created by the Sahara Dust and humidity of late summer. The sun was intense and spotlighted all the beautiful green foliage, and the air had a brief hint of coolness than comes from what feels like a lessening of the usual tropical mugginess.

This makes me wonder how people decades ago knew a hurricane was coming. Old timers do talk about a bell by the dock in Charlotte Amalie that was rung when a hurricane was coming.

Author Carol Bareuther and Dean Barnes pose for hurricane-style American Gothic at their home on St. Thomas with their dog, Jesse. PHOTO/RIAN BAREUTHER

Waiting is a big part of experiencing a catastrophic hurricane. First, there’s the ‘is it or isn’t it’ phase of looking at weather reports as soon as you wake up each morning to find out the storm’s projected path. I remember having lunch with a friend at the Fat Turtle Restaurant at Yacht Haven Grande on Monday, Aug. 28, and showing her a National Hurricane Center site on my phone that revealed potentially ominous clouds coming off Africa.

Three days later, at dinner with another friend, the question on everyone’s mind was, ‘Are we really going to get this storm – or not?’ Labor Day weekend was filled with hurricane shopping. But, there was also time to just enjoy the long weekend in the same way you enjoy the last day of vacation before having to pack up and travel.

By Tuesday, Sept. 5, the airways and weather websites were filled with news of the impending storm. Yet, Tuesday’s weather was exactly as I described above.

The first hint of storm came as we woke on Wednesday morning. There were a few gusts of wind, clouds darkened the sky and then the power went off, still yet to return. The only communication at that point was a battery-operated radio and the forecast was for Irma’s eye to pass over neighboring St. John by mid-afternoon.

Living through a hurricane is a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’. Hurry up until it really starts and it’s finally time to button up inside. Hurry up and count down the hours until the eye approaches and hope that the roof doesn’t blow off. Hurry up and wait until the winds, that sound like a roaring freight train that makes conversation all but impossible, finally die down.

The first part of the storm, there’s a feeling that it’s not so bad. By eye time, ears are popping badly from the drop in barometric pressure, a drop to 918mb in Irma, and there’s a feeling of just wanting to get out of the situation alive.

Then, after the drama of the eye passing, the winds abruptly make a 180-degree turn and hammer the house just as hard from the opposite direction in what seems like an hours-long encore that will never end.

The next morning, the first sound we heard was tapping at the door. It was our neighbors, checking to see that everyone, despite structural damage, was physically ok. It’s that spirit, in spite of just wanting to close my eyes and wish the old life was back, that will be top of mind during the many months of recovery to come.

We didn’t get power restored at our home until Christmas after Hurricane Hugo struck in mid-September of 1989 and Marilyn in mid-September of 1995.

With Irma, and now Maria, Christmas may be optimistic.

Carol Bareuther is a freelance writer in St. Thomas. Comments on this story are welcome below.

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