There used to be a time when losing your roof during a hurricane in Anguilla was an anomaly. Anguilla (which rhymes with vanilla) is a small, little-known island but, as the northernmost Leeward, built with the threatening shadow of a heavy storm in mind. As such, hurricanes which would wreak havoc in other islands or the US mainland rarely blow over our houses or take our roofs. I remember during Hurricane Lenny when someone in our village actually lost their roof. Everyone went out to look at the tragedy, offering assistance to the distraught family and listening with rapture to the story of what it was like for the hurricane to go with the roof. When I meet people in the shop now, in this post-Hurricane-Irma life, they greet me with “Vanessa, what the storm do you?” and I respond, “We lost our roof.” Half the time the person replies, “We, too, but God is good and we have life.” Indeed, we do.
I knew that Hurricane Irma was going to take our roof when I stood in Savannah’s bedroom looking at my children sleeping through the force of the storm. I had woken up because the rattling of the stainless-steel shutter on my bedroom window had become too rhythmic for me to lie there any longer. I went into the living room where my best friend, Samantha, (who had come to spend the storm with us) was lying with her son. All our storm shutters were closed and the electricity company had turned power off to the island around 2:00am, so the only light in the house was coming through the small panes of glass in the allegedly hurricane-proof metal front door of my house.
The light was tender in the force of the storm. It had just begun to attempt to penetrate the thickening wall of hurricane swirl. Outside, the trees had already been stripped of every leaf; some were bent to the ground in prayer. Rain fell, but never touched the earth because the wind whisked it sideways before it had a chance. I moved away from the door to go check on the children while Daryl did a round through the house to ensure all the shutters were holding on the windows. At that time, our only worry was that the storm would rip a shutter off. I had seen two friends update their Facebook status to say it had happened already, so we were maintaining vigilance in this regard.
Savannah’s room was pitch black. I used the flashlight Sam had given me to illuminate the slumbering bodies of my two peaceful children. As usual, they were sleeping at right angles to one another. I think I may have allowed myself the small flip of a mother’s heart that occurs when standing over her babies. I’m not sure, because it was right then when I heard the slow creaking of metal on metal. I switched off the flashlight and tensed in the darkness that moved in. I was not mistaken. There was a measured grating sound coming from above me in the northern corner of the roof. I called out to my husband in that parent-voice that conveys urgency without alarming children, although it didn’t matter since they were asleep.
“It’s taking the roof.” I said, my voice level despite the threat. “Listen.”
Above us the grating sound turned to a wrenching noise punctuated by the plink-plink-plink-plink of the galvanize peeling off. I would later find the roofing nails in the yard, straight as arrows looking like the day they were bought; no bends. I think I had jumped to action at this point. Daryl woke the children and we forced them into critical movements instead of the usual sleep-hazed drowse of a recently roused child.
I knelt before Savannah and looked her in the eyes. “Put your sneakers on and put your brother’s sneakers on, then take him into the bathroom.”
For once I was met with no pre-teen angst or resistance. She could sense, in some animalistic way I suppose, that this was serious business. I gave her the flashlight.
In the kitchen, Sam was putting our canned food and water in a bag to take into the bathroom. We worked in an assembly line quickly and quietly to move things of importance into the room where we thought we would be safe. All three of our dogs sat in the shower peeping around the curtain watching us with questions in their eyes. There is no language barrier for fear. Around us, the wind tore holes in everything it could grab. There was a whistle of it coming through the exposed wooden ceiling in Savannah’s room, whining to get in.
Sam was in the hall between the kitchen and our hidey-hole bathroom with a can of tuna in each hand. “Vanessa,” she sounded terrified.
I went to stand next to her and looked where she pointed. The hurricane-proof metal door was bent completely into the house in a stunning dun-silver arc. The glass in the four panes warbled in and out. The concrete house shuddered with Sam and I in shared fear of Hurricane Irma. Daryl joined us in the hall and I wrapped my fingers around his forearm. I think he said to me, at this point, that I should get what I wanted out of the living room. The thing is that this suggestion came at the same time Sam said, “it’s raining in your bedroom” and Savannah called from the bathroom “Mommy, water is coming in.”
We moved in an orchestrated dance of salvation. Above us, it was snowing plaster and paint as the hurricane struggled to pull the rafters out of the concrete. I brushed some of it off of Sam’s head and felt its powdery texture as it rained around us. Ironically, it was the only dry thing in the entire house. The structure of our home quaked in query to what was happening. The next day we would hear the stories of others who experienced equally spectacular phenomena.
The front door gave up before we did. It popped in four loud, glassy bangs as we stared, dazed by its traitorous defeat. Wind twirled with water on the stage of my living room. My furniture began to sag with the magnificence of their performance. This was when Daryl moved the kids to the laundry room; it was the only room in the house that was not attached to the same roof which was hopelessly failing us. We eventually stopped caring about the water. It was everywhere.
“Are we going to die?” asked Harrison from his perch in the corner.
“Of course not,” I lied.
Savannah eyed me with more knowledge than her five-year-old brother.
It was around 6:30am when this all happened. We spent the next three and a half hours listening to the louvers in the garage throw themselves to the mercy of the hurricane’s persistence. Waterfalls initiated on the walls and the stairs and anywhere that gave an appropriate angle. We made a dam out of clean linens to keep the water at some sort of stalemate on the stairs.
Miraculously, I was able to maintain cell phone service throughout the entire ordeal. A friend in America texted to say we would not receive the eye of the storm. A friend in West End texted to tell us that the storm had torn off first her hurricane shutters, then her front door. Their fridge was ripped out of the kitchen and they couldn’t see it anymore. She was hunkered in the bathroom with her boyfriend and infant daughter. Another friend texted to say her French doors were gone and she was trying her best to protect her aging parents in a back bedroom as Hurricane Irma ravaged their home. My landlady called to see how we were faring. She told us her windows and doors had all blown out and she was battling water from every angle. I divulged that the roof had gone, a fact that shook her as the hurricane was shaking our house. The roof had held through Luis, a 90s storm that had rocked the nation of Anguilla so horribly that every other weather occurrence was held up to it for comparison and quickly dismissed.
Until September 6th, I had always feared fire. Would you take it with you in a fire? You assign importance to material items with this issue. Fire belongs to The Devil. Fire is the mighty element capable of ripping life from your hands no matter how tightly you hold on. Fire is associated with violence and destruction. Fire is the familiar of most Disney villains. When faced with fire, it has been proven that a human being will jump to their death rather than being burned alive.
Consequently, water is the essential element for life. Water can save you from fire. Water is used to heal, to placate and to cleanse. At no point did I ever think water would ravage my home from every crevice. At no point did I ever think that I would see water as vile and intrusive. When the winds began to lose intensity and Hurricane Irma called a truce, I was surrounded by wetness. It wasn’t the placid sparkling water associated with cleaning, but a dank dirty disarray of water polluted by bad intentions.
Everything was sopping. Books clung to themselves shielding middle pages and sacrificing everything else. Family photos drizzled on the walls, the ink pooling inside the glass frames. The earth peeled away from the globe in the corner of my living room. Kitchen appliances were pregnant with the yellow water of the storm. Light pricked through the holes in the wood that was left on the roof. Somewhere a flap of well-meaning galvanize repeatedly cried out as it mourned the departure of its mates. It rained indoors.
When people ask now, I tell them we lost everything that could not withstand water. Incidentally, this is not limited to possessions. I won’t forget the smell of the water. Each day following the passage of Hurricane Irma and all my earthly goods, we went to the house to salvage what we could. It all holds this moist dark smell no matter how much I wash it or put it in the veins of sunlight to dry.
I fancied myself a superior mother, buying my children Melissa & Doug toys because they were wooden and better than plastic. They are in the garbage dump now because wet wooden toys create the perfect environment for the growth of mold. I always scolded my children for bending the pages of their books, but the books themselves are bent under the pressure of adaptation to an aquatic existence. They are also at the dump now along with the shelves which housed them. Hindsight: don’t buy from Ikea if you live in Hurricane Alley.
Not many things could withstand the water. When we drove into town my eyes could not hold back the liquid sorrow of seeing our capital ravaged by the fury. Around us, others drove with the same saturated glazed look of mourning. A man walked in the opposite direction asking people if they had seen a blue Nissan March; the wind had taken his car out of his yard. Poles were down in the road lined up like Lincoln Logs, their wires stretched at strange slopes which caused drivers to limbo underneath. A forty-foot container had exploded, its contents a colorful flurry in the brown that was the aftermath. Huge trees were either snapped off or completely uprooted lying in the road like burly mammoths.
The weather people said a new category of storm needed to be made to classify Hurricane Irma. The wind gusts reached upwards of 230mph they said in the floating cadence of television. Someone from the Associated Press contacted me to use my footage and sent a release form. My social media visuals of the storm popped up on The Weather Channel, USA Today and The Guardian. All over the world people were suddenly aware of something: how to pronounce “Anguilla”.