Ten days after finishing my memoir, Tales of an Ikut Swami, all hell broke loose in St. John and the Virgin Islands. Within 12 days we were ravaged by two Category 5 hurricanes – Irma hit on Sept. 6 , and Maria on the 18 . Irma was the biggest hurricane to ever hit the Atlantic with sustained winds of 185+ mph for 8 solid hours. It also had gusts of over 220 mph, and we experienced it all. I started writing up-dates as a record of all the shocking changes that have become our “new normal.” I started this book with revealing my Noise Patrol nickname. Remember that sound of a cricket, rooster or mad drumming that could drive me crazy? Well those days are done.
I now thrive on the back-up beep of a truck, the sounds of buzz saws and of yelling men. They mean recovery, and electricity, which we haven’t had for 13 weeks. There is over 700,000 cubic meters of vegetation debris, and 1.3 million cubic meters when the building debris is included. Chain saws mean clearing roads, and removing debris, and progress. We won’t have electricity for another 5 or 6 weeks if we depend totally on the local power company, WAPA. Fortunately, we’re maybe 2 to 3 weeks from having power thanks to the solar panels we installed years ago. Just waiting for the power wall to arrive and be installed, then we’ll have solar power. Yahoo! It’s great to have something to look forward to since every day is a challenge, and we are amongst the minority of people with minimal damage. Our little wooden house on stilts at 940 feet took a direct hit from Maria, and stayed intact. We lost a shutter, a plate glass door blew in but didn’t break, our septic system got messed up, the wind blew a supporting beam into our cistern and drove a bolt through it, our dart board cupboard was destroyed, the terrace railing missing pieces – and we were lucky. We know lots of folks who lost everything, and over half the permanent population has departed.
We walked home the day after Irma after staying with our friends Dorothy and Fernando. It was a walk from hell – over huge piles of debris made of trees, mangrove, buildings, roofs, power poles. And a continuous stream of shocked faces. It was like being in an apocalypse film, our faces as distressed and overwhelmed as all the ones we encountered. Gov. Mapp announced the next night on the radio, “If you can’t live without power, water, communication, tv, conveniences, then leave now. We don’t need complainers,” he said, “because STJ has been thrashed and trashed and it’s gonna take a long time to get back to “normal””. He encouraged parents to send kids away because they were going to miss a lot of school this year on STJ. Again, he said, “Anyone who can’t contribute needs to leave.”
I’ve seen many friends who have lost everything. We are so lucky and so blessed. And so sad. It took two days to clear our driveway of trees and leaves so we could access it with a vehicle. Then it took two more days to clear the road from our driveway, where Ajax Peak begins. That road also took days to clear, but we hired someone else to do that. And we are the lucky ones. I took out the stitches Joe had in his hand from a biopsy that had been done before Irma. That was a first for both of us.
Five days after Hurricane Irma I fell on my knee replacement, on a two-foot wall onto a paved driveway. The swelling was immediate, but I was lucky because our fridge was being powered by a neighbor’s generator a few hours a day, and so I had ice packs. We went to the clinic the next day, after the 6pm to 12 noon curfew lifted. The clinic was a wreck and has since been condemned and closed. I sat in the doorway for light and air with a doctor and nurse from with DEMAT, a medical emergency team from Colorado. He said only an x-ray could determine if I had damaged the implant. He also said I had a contusion under the knee cap which was bruised and bulging from the side of my knee. I spent 8 days on two crutches, and then 10 more on one crutch.
Not the most convenient time to be on crutches. One of the best things that came out of it was I got a new nickname, when Rupert, the deli guy at Starfish Market (who also wears a backward cap) told the long line of people, “I have to help Cris on a Crutch first.”
Then there was the drama of breaking a back molar in half, grinding my teeth during my sleep. Or maybe I did it during Maria, when we went to the giant cement house above us and I sat in a closet from 2 am to 6:30 am. Joe brought the only chair in the room into the closet for me because I couldn’t take the furious sounds of the wind wrapping around the front and side walls of the room we were tucked into. I never felt at physical risk, for the house is a cement fortress. What got me was the audible definition of rage, the sound of fury. Maria, the second Cat 5, went for 12 hours, through the night. Darkness magnified the intensity of wind and rain and sound. Irma had been during the day, and at one point I was looking out a tiny bathroom window that had lost its shutter. We were looking out on the backside of our friends’ house, at the driveway, and suddenly a tall, broken tree flew in. A double mattress followed that, and then a surfboard arrived. Seeing the madness was better than being battered by the sounds in the darkness. Maria went on and on in the dark, for 12+ long nerve-racking hours. It formed a double eyewall during its peak, something not seen before. We were in the bull’s eye. As I sat in my tiny walk-in closet I could see lightning flashes in the crack on the shutter opposite the closet. No wonder I’m still on the thin edge of the wedge…
And during all this madness some sweet moments popped up, and they all involved local women. The first happened on the ferry, coming back from St. Thomas after getting my x-rays. I had to wait for two weeks after my fall for x-rays on my knee. The building that had the machine was being repaired, and actually two weeks was very fast! The x-rays were good news, showing no indication of damage to my titanium knee. It was on my return trip that a woman came up to me on the ferry. I didn’t recognize her, and still don’t know who she is, but she put the first smile on my face in weeks. We were just pulling away from the dock when she sat beside me and said, “I am so happy to see you with your backward baseball cap on. It makes me feel normal.”
She could see my amazement and joy, then said, “So thanks my dear. Normal is good.” She patted my knee then scooted down the bench to talk with a friend across the aisle.
While waiting to get off I told her, “Thanks for telling me that. I don’t know why I didn’t wear it for a while. But now I’m really glad I have it back on.” Then as an afterthought I said, “How did you know I usually wear one?”
“I see,” she said, “I see.” When we parted ways, I was smiling like I hadn’t in weeks. It was also my first day without crutches, so the best day since Sept. 11 , five days after Irma hit. And then I remembered a woman in the hats group that had told me my backward cap represented a bad boy, bad girl persona. That had me more determined to wear my hat, but the good vibes from my new ferry friend makes me even more determined to never leave home without it. It just proved that good overpowers negative.
Six weeks after Hurricane Irma we got on a plane to Paris. We had a trip planned for months to go to a friend’s wedding in Brittany. It almost didn’t happen.
The airport on St. Thomas was in an emergency repair state working on the aftermath shambles. Then American Airlines cancelled our flight, claiming that they had called and emailed, only we didn’t have access to either thing. We eventually left on Delta, but I didn’t believe it would happen until I was in my seat. As we took off I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and Joe took my hand. Going from hurricane-ravaged St. John to rural France was like jumping on a rocket ship and changing planets. Brittany was beautiful, with tall green trees, cold sharp air, and no destroyed buildings. I spent most of the 10 days sitting by, and tending a roaring fire. The wedding and all its variety of activities were a little overwhelming, as I wasn’t really in a social mood. But it was a great break from the mayhem at home.
If dealing with my knee wasn’t enough, I complicated things by having to have a tooth pulled. I woke on a Tues. with a slight toothache. By Wed. it was out of control, and so on Thurs. I got on a ferry to St. Thomas, took a taxi most of the way to the dentist in the middle of the island. The traffic was so terrible with all the debris in the roads and crews working that I finally just jumped out of the cab and walked the rest of the way – uphill in a scorching sun. When I arrived in the dentist’s office, sweating like Niagara Falls, face as red as a ripe strawberry, contorted in pain, the receptionists were shocked and concerned.
I was in a dental chair within 5 minutes, obviously desperate enough to just gate crash their office. The dentist was great, although he was also shocked by my sudden arrival and scary appearance. A few numbing shots later he announced that I needed to have the tooth pulled. I was distraught. He then ground it down, so it didn’t hit any other teeth. I left in shock, walked back to the road and waited in the sun for another 20 minutes until a dollar taxi appeared.
Traffic flow was very sporadic as flag crews controlled who went in what direction at any given moment. I told Joe that night that if I had seen me on the roadside I would probably have passed by too – for being way too scary looking.
On my wait at the ferry terminal on St. Thomas, discouraged and in shock, another woman lifted me from my gloom. She had her hair piled high on her head, and lots of gold bling on her wrists. Her deep chocolate skin didn’t have a wrinkle, although I was pretty sure she was my age. She kept glancing my way, and I wondered if my shorts that used to be too snug had dropped too low or something, as my weight loss had reached 14 pounds. Her repeated looks were finally explained when she pointed to my arm and said, “I’m so happy to see that beautiful African bracelet again.” I normally wear a beautiful wide black, red and white beaded bracelet. It’s as much a part of me as the backward baseball cap. But during my 18 days on two, then one crutch, I couldn’t wear my bracelet. Like the cap lady, she said, “It makes things more normal.” And once again her friendly outreach made me forget briefly the total devastation of our beautiful little island. The numerous friends we have that had lost everything. The destruction of Joe’s Friends of the Park office and the amazing day spent moving from there to a much smaller, but a safe, dry and electrified space.
And through all the emotional turmoil of viewing destruction daily, the woman mentioning my bracelet brought the second big St. John smile to my face.
We were 10 weeks into no electricity, roads lined with huge piles of debris, sadness and a tough community showing lots of grit, that the comment about my bracelet, from a total stranger, broke my funk. That night I told Joe, “I feel like I’m not nearly under the radar like I thought. Two women have commented on my style, or lack thereof, so I must not be totally invisible like I thought I was.” And through it all I was anticipating my tooth pull. It was a five-day wait for the pulling, so my diet of soup, yoghurt and mashed potatoes had made me 16 pounds lighter – and boy did that make my knee happier.
Getting the tooth pulled was easier than the five-day wait. Joe took me and brought me back, which was still a long afternoon, taking four hours to get back to St. John after waiting for a barge. But then another little miracle happened as the barge we were sure we wouldn’t make took us on at the last moment. Maybe the woman loading the barge could sense my pain and despair at the thought of waiting another 90 minutes. All I know is that she suddenly turned and waved us on. We finally got home, and it was back to the ice packs.
But still the dental drama wasn’t over. It was like my mouth went into protest, and the next thing I knew I needed a deep cleaning because the gums were infected. I couldn’t believe it, and tears poured down my face. It was embarrassing because we still had a house, and a generator, and a functioning fridge, and yet there I was playing the pity game. The next day another woman I didn’t know told me, “You sure are looking good.” Tilting her head full of tight grey braids adorning her scalp she said, “You have a nice color and look fit.” That was thanks to the 16 pounds I had lost due to dental challenges. In that moment I realized the opportunity I had to lose that 20 pounds I had planned to lose for months, maybe even years. With a 16-pound head start I could take advantage of the weight loss, or not, but it was my new friend that had spoken unbidden about my appearance that gave me the determination to carry-on purposefully to lose that next four pounds.
Again, a woman I didn’t know but obviously had seen before spurred me onto a new positive decision. “Women do that for each other,” I told Joe that night. And while I was making these decisions arguments raged in the bigger picture about the governor wanting to set fire to the 700,000 cubic yards of vegetation debris. Ecology groups, health experts around the states and local environmental groups fought against it. National and local environmental groups are strongly fighting the burning option, saying the smoke could cause many health problems. One tree, the manchineel tree, also known as the “death apple” for its extreme toxicity, can cause severe respiratory distress and irritation of skin and eyes. The health and ecological groups want to chip and compost, which would be quite a massive amount of stuff, but safer. Thirteen medical and public health officials from across the states have written to Mapp discouraging the burning of debris. Let’s hope sanity wins out on this one, but doubtful since he announced he will burn 35% of it starting Friday of this week. Hoping for the best.
And through all of this madness another woman brought big smiles to Joe and my faces. We were shopping in town when this lovely West Indian woman, as tall as me and easily my age but very stylish, tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned to greet her she said, “Every time I see you I think of twiga.” We were both very surprised, because twiga is Swahili for giraffe. I asked why, and she said, “Fifteen years ago I taught at Sprauve School. You came in and did your Power Point presentation of Africa, and told us about the day that seven silent giraffes surrounded you during a picnic, munching on trees, and stayed for a few hours.” Shaking her head, she said, “I never forgot it because I had never seen those kids so quiet. And when you left twigas are all they talked about for days. It became their favorite animal too.” Patting my arm again she said, “And so when I see you, I think twiga.”
I gave her a big hug and said, “You have no idea how happy I am you told me this. I love twigas and I love you too!” We both laughed and once again, a woman’s kindness to tell me something totally unexpected gave me a boost out of the hurricane brain syndrome we are all experiencing here.
On the day I went to have my gums deeply cleaned I arrived at the dentist and told him as soon as he came in, “I don’t think I need this. My gums are feeling fine and my dental hygiene has improved significantly.” He laughed and said, “It’s all part of the process. We’ve prepared and now we’ll finish the job.”
I wasn’t happy, but what were the choices? When he finished and left the room, his dental assistant, Oona, told me, “You know I never speak up for myself. What you did is what I need to start doing. My generator isn’t working, and I can’t even figure out where the dipstick is. And my 24-year-old son is no help.”
Not really knowing for sure I said, “Look on the side for a little ring on a wire. That should be a dipstick.”
As I got up to leave she said, “Myself, I’m about ready to give up.”
I hugged her and said, “Please don’t do that. Get your son to help you.”
With a smile suddenly creeping across her face she said, “You know you’re right. I need to tell him what I need instead of hoping he figures it out or just staying silent. Speak up for myself just like you did. You’ve inspired me, and I’m telling him tonight to man up!”
And that’s what women do for each other. We encourage, inspire, support, and hug.
Thank you, Joe, for encouraging me to be an independent Ikut Swami. It’s led me down all kinds of unexpected paths, and into projects that I never knew I could or would do. And the bottom line is if Crusieamatic Cristina can do these things, so can you. Women are powerful, and as an African saying goes, “Women working together can do anything.” And we do!