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Hurricane Hugo, St Thomas, September 17-18, 1989

Sara Smollett

September 6, 2009

(An abridged version of this was printed in the Virgin Islands Daily News Hugo 20th anniversary edition)

Just before Hugo hit, one of my friends called. At age nine, we had weathered small storms and felt prepared for a scary night, minor damage, and a week or two without electricity. We'd never been in the eye of a storm, but we knew it would provide a few minutes of eerie calm in what was otherwise the worst of the storm. She said it would be cool to be in the eye; I disagreed. Perhaps it was newfound maturity that kept me from later gloating that I was right, but more likely the conversation seemed unimportant, part of the distant past we came to call "Before Hugo".

Twenty years later, I still vividly remember that "longest night". I fell asleep to howling wind and pounding rain, but my mom soon woke me and led me to her bedroom. Flashlight (and teddy bear) in hand, I saw my dad and a neighbor holding up a sliding glass door. While I kept our cat from running off, my mom raced through the house retrieving breakables, items of sentimental value, and the recently reupholstered couch cushions. Finally, the adults retreated to the bedroom, leaving the door to fall behind them.

We sat in bed for hours listening to the storm: the rain and wind, the shattering of glass, countless unidentifiable crashes, and the constant rattling of the bedroom door -- the only thing between us and the storm. We thought we were prepared: we'd shuttered the windows and secured outdoor objects, but I hadn't believed the storm would get inside. We wondered what was left of the house, and worried whether the bedroom would hold up. The winds increased. We listened to the radio, and my dad and I played cards until they were too damp to shuffle. Eventually, there was the promised calm of the eye, and the winds shifted. My mom peeked out a small unshuttered window, but it was hard to see. Finally, after dawn, the storm ended.

We ventured out of the bedroom, uncertain what we would find. The house was flooded. The kitchen sliding glass door had popped out of its frame and was lying outside, miraculously unbroken. The counter was overturned. The fridge had moved, and its doors no longer closed. Not to be outdone, the oven had locked itself shut and couldn't be opened. Food was everywhere. Peach ice cream coated the walls, providing a vivid contrast with the greens and browns of shredded leaves. We discovered hot dogs in the drawer under the oven.

We trudged through the rest of the house in shock. We had lost a lot of glass doors, and for once, rather than being told not to climb on furniture, I was encouraged to crawl along the dining room chairs to avoid glass shards. We filled buckets with water, glass, and assorted debris, as we assessed which of our possessions were salvageable. Hugo had lasted less than a day, but caused so much destruction that it would take months, even years, to fully recover.

Outside, the remaining trees had been stripped bare, so we could see many houses, nearly all of which were damaged. Telephone poles blocked the driveway. Our belongings were scattered across our yard and down the hill. Among other items, I found the southern hemisphere of a globe resting beside our overflowing swimming pool; we never did find the other half. It seemed appropriate that my world had been both figuratively and literally torn apart.

That afternoon one of my friends came over with her dad (who wanted to check on their boat in the nearby salt pond). While our parents talked, we tried to entertain ourselves as usual, but there was nothing usual about our circumstances. Clearly, life "After Hugo" was very different and would take some getting used to.

For instance, I'd never thought much about ice before, but days later when the first shipment of ice arrived, we rejoiced and stood in line at the dairy for hours. This was the first of many long lines I became familiar with, as until we got power months later, we bought groceries daily, waiting in one line to enter the store and another to leave. We also waited in lines at the lumberyard and hardware store and for gas to run the generator to take showers.

We quickly adjusted to our new routine. I learned about FEMA, looters, politicians, and curfews. I ate Sterno-cooked and barbecued meals, did homework by candlelight, and smelled of the insect repellent I wore to ward off mosquitoes.

Slowly, the island recovered. Every day was, as Addie Ottley assured us, "a little bit better than yesterday". Despite the inconvenience of not having electricity, water, or phones and the Herculean task of rebuilding, life continued.

A month after Hugo, we went on a shopping expedition to Florida. I remember little of the boring hours in Home Depot, but I remember departing from the shell of the Cyril E. King airport and being saddened to see brown hills and blue tarps below, and not green hills and red roofs. Hours later we were in Miami, which seemed more like another world than ever. In the brightly-lit airport, I got a cup of ice. I was surprised that it was free, and the vendor was surprised by my surprise. Caught up in the aftermath, I had nearly forgotten that elsewhere no one had shared in -- or even paid much attention to -- our experiences. Nor had I been following off-island happenings; I was dimly aware of a California earthquake and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but most news seemed irrelevant.

At Thanksgiving, we still didn't have power, so we had dinner with friends. They cooked in their outdoor kitchen, and we did laundry, thankful for their washing machine, one of the many things we no longer took for granted. We had a lot to be thankful for. We had survived Hugo and the trying months that followed.

Last year I returned for Thanksgiving. Of course the power went out just before the holiday. While my parents wondered if the turkey would keep, I thought about those formative months after Hugo and Marilyn. That night I looked out at the darkened hills and listened to the once-familiar hum of generators. It was surprisingly comforting. Despite the years I'd spent away, in some ways this is still home.