The Most Harrowing Night of My Life

“You are stronger than you know.” ― Lori Osterman

It was September 17, 1989, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I remember it like yesterday. My sister and I were playing in the back yard with umbrellas. We were pretending to ride the wind like Mary Poppins. We had survived many hurricanes before and didn’t think much of this one.

The house had already been boarded in preparation for the storm and the refrigerator, freezer and cabinets stocked with goods. Candles, matches, flashlights and bottled water were also ready for use. As the day progressed, the wind became stronger and rain began to fall. One hour led to the next until I became weary enough to turn in for the evening. But all attempts to use the howling wind to lull me asleep failed.

You can only do so much

I tried to drown the sound by covering the screen with the blanket that had nurtured me through much of my childhood. I curiously watched for a moment as the force of the wind held it there. I knew if I could just get to sleep, it would be over soon and I would be OK. But that wasn’t to be the case. Not that night.

The blanket I placed over the screen soon became soaked and the rain began to target me. I accepted there would be no sleep this night. The sound of the wooden shutters being ripped from the windows with an anger only mother nature could deliver quickly confirmed this.

Small things matter most

Shortly after I arose, my mom said “We have to leave.” Looking at the ceiling, I noticed wet spots indicating its weakness. I went back for a small bag of sentimentals (mostly items from my boyfriend at the time) and we left. We got into the car and began the 100 yard drive to our neighbors, but fallen trees, branches and downed wires prevented us from getting there.

My mom was in the driver seat. My sister was next to her holding her newly adopted kitten. I was in the back seat behind my mother with my foster brother to the right of me. The car shook as lightning flashed, thunder boomed and debris flew through the air. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I wasn’t sure if I was going to live or die. As my mom prayed, I slid my hands between the seat and the door and lightly grasped her arm. The warmth of her skin was a comfortable reminder I wasn’t alone.

There is strength in numbers

The eye of the hurricane brought just enough relief for our neighbors to come out and rescue us. Along with 10 others, we spent the rest of the night in a hallway taking turns sitting on paint cans.

The sound was like being in a jungle with every wild animal belting at the top of its lungs. And my ears constantly popped from the difference of pressure inside and outside the hallway. It was like a plane descending too quickly from the sky. Later, I would learn the winds were upwards of 200 miles per hour and during the storm, the island wasn’t detectable by radar.

You can handle more than you think

A beautiful sky greeted us the next morning. My first observation was how clean the house looked. It took a moment to realize it looked so clean because I was looking through it. The doors and windows had been ripped out their frames, the ceiling had fallen and the roof was nowhere to be found.

As I neared the house I could see the cabinets doors had also been torn off, the refrigerator doors were open and the stove was in a different position than the night before. The devastation was more than I could wrap my mind around. It is the kind of devastation that changes you on a cellular level. The kind of devastation that permeates every pore of your body and you know you’ll never be the same.

You’re alive and that’s something to celebrate

The four inch water that covered the tiled floor was brown and smelled like sewage. Bat remnants previously imprisoned by the ceiling, food and other possessions floated by.

The back yard was barely recognizable. Beams, ceiling fans, couches and pieces of galvanize decorated it. As I looked around, I realized the furniture had come from a fallen apartment complex three quarters of a mile away. Coupled with the leafless trees, it look like we’d been through some sort of nuclear war.

The first night was spent at an acquaintances whose apartment was left untouched by the storm. The second was a bed with my mom, sister and on the floor in a hallway of another acquaintance. My foster brother and dad were in a room with no outside walls and two beds that had a clear view of the stars. My mom said if we are going to stay in a place with no roof, we might as well stay home; at least three of our rooms were still roofed, so we went back.

Rebuilding happens from the inside out

Almost worse than the hurricane was what came after. The prison and hospital were destroyed and looters were running free. We had no electricity, running water, plumbing or food.

There was a 6 O’clock curfew on the island that military police from the mainland enforced. In army fatigues, red berets and guns, they also provided us with food and water. We stood in long lines to fill our gallon bottles and receive freeze dried army rations. Sometimes we ate at a school that had been turned into shelter. But not my school–there was nothing left of my classrooms, but the foundation.

But that wouldn’t be the only bizarre thing I witnessed.

I remember being in the kitchen looking at my mother cooking and then looking up at the sky. Seeing galvanize (roofing) wrapped around the tops of telephone poles, miles of downed wires, animals running rampid, overturned cars and massive flooding were others.

For several months we bathed in buckets, ate by candlelight and tried to rebuild ourselves. By December we had electricity and by April we had running water. That August, I left for college.

Every experience teaches you something about you

I was so traumatized by the experience that for many years rain, thunder, lighting and loud sounds would sent me into panic.

But if I was asked if I would erase this experience from my life, the answer would be no. There is nothing like an experience like this put life’s challenges in perspective. The day before hurricane HUGO, I was an 18 year old swimmer, in love, going to school while preparing for college. The next day, I was fighting for my life.

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