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Happy anniversary, Earl. You did your worst and it is just a fading memory five years on

As far as hurricanes go, Earl wasn’t a great hurricane. Certainly, it wasn’t the worst,  hardly the worst of the seven hurricanes of 2016. 

But it was our hurricane.

Most hurricanes that year sounded like the cool kids in high school — Alex, Bonnie, Colin, Danielle, Fiona. And then, “Oh, look. It’s Earl. Quick, spread out so he doesn’t come sit at our table.”

Earl might have started as an under-achiever but he was the first full fledged hurricane to reach the western Caribbean in four years. Earl plodded slowly through Belize and the lower Yucatan, making a mess for sure but after a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, he turned into a mean and wet bastard of a tropical storm that killed at least 45 people in Mexico from mudslides.

Earl hit Ambergris Caye, a flat, long and lanky spit of sand and palm trees just a 90-minute water taxi ride off the coast of Belize on August 3-4, 2016. Five years ago today.

Earl stole in during the dark of night, made darker by the loss of electrical power. There was nothing to see out there. You could only listen to the groaning rip and tear of nearby piers, the blind crash of surf, the blender shred of palm trees, the staccato pelt of rain against windows and doors, the agonizing scream of wind bent on vengeance.

We felt none of that on the morning of Aug. 3.

We woke up that morning to a glorious Caribbean sunrise with swatches of blue sky amid the gauzy clouds and golden amber glow. A flat sea, still wind, and barely visible white frothy line of the barrier reef greeted me and my cup of coffee. 

And mosquitoes, the most murderous panicky mosquitoes I have ever encountered. It is like they knew something was up.

Morning of the day Hurricane Earl hit Ambergris Caye.

That morning, I posted on Facebook:

”Tonight, I suspect, will reveal to us one of those many variations of hell that the imaginations of god-fearing mortals have conjured through the ages.

“This hell has a name and it is Earl.”

From weather reports we knew that “Earl is a giant, slothful swath of weather, 90 miles wide on either side of its core, that is slowly — painfully slowly –making its way toward Belize. They say it is traveling at 14 mph and that is not a good thing because it is building strength and shape behind that wall and could well be a hurricane by the time it reaches us.

“We’ve been preparing for this for what feels like weeks.

“On Tuesday, the atmosphere was quietly intense in San Pedro as people went about the business of survival — buying food, water, plywood, batteries, waterproof storage containers. No panic. No stress. This morning, the lines were long to leave the island by water taxi.”

We already knew that Earl had murderous capabilities. Its torrential rains left six people dead in the Dominican Republic. 

Somewhere between that island and ours, Earl reached hurricane status as a Category 1, the lowest bar a tropical storm needed to hurdle.

Still, it was a glorious morning on the island. Or so I said on Facebook:

“Good morning from Ambergris Caye, Belize. If there wasn’t a hurricane bearing down on us, I’d say what a glorious Caribbean morning we have. So calm, the sea is so flat, the air is so still, the humidity hangs on us like a soggy old jacket. The sun spins a soft dewy golden gauze through clouds surprisingly wispy, for an approaching hurricane.

“Earl is on the horizon but this morning the hummingbirds go about their business as if nothing is amiss. We take greater precautions because we are more fragile.

“We wait and wait and try to think of the one thing we have not yet done that will ensure our safety. And wonder if it is not prayer.

“And yet it is almost embarrassing to say “Dear God, deliver us from Earl.”

“Who comes up with these names anyway?

“We’ve done all we can do. We have new flashlights and batteries, lighters, Sterno cans, candles, extra water. Everything loose has been gathered up and put away or tied down. Kendrick and Gilroy [my two maintenance guys at the condo project I managed at the time] spent two days trimming back all the palm trees on the property and removing all the coconuts. Those things apparently fly around like cannon balls in a really strong wind.

“Even though our residence is only 40 feet from the edge of the sea, few of our neighbors here have resorted to boarding up with plywood. Some ground-floor units are boarded up, to protect them from the inevitable water surge. Already you can see that water will play a major role in this weather drama.

“Some of the more experienced pier owners on the island have been removing planks so that the surge has some place to go, other than launching boards up into the air.”

By afternoon, we had the first inkling that there would be problems.

“Yikes, the water is pouring into our condo! Wait. That’s not from Hurricane Earl. It is from our upstairs neighbor’s bathtub. They were filling it as a precaution but I think the overflow valve is not connected.”

The bathtub in the penthouse condo turned out to be a full-size jacuzzi and whoever installed it indeed neglected to install an overflow pipe.

As the afternoon slouched toward evening there were worse things to consider. I took a bicycle ride around the town of San Pedro to get a feel for what the rest of the island was up to.

“The barrier reef surf that was barely visible this morning is now roiling white foam, framed by tall North Shore-class waves. The first of the waves have  reached shore — crippled by the reef, modest things that barely break over the retaining wall — but we are expecting seas five to six feet above normal, which means eventually the reef will do little to slow them down. Some spectacular crashes into the retaining wall are expected soon.

The accompanying rain, too, will be extraordinary — as much as 18 inches in some parts of Belize. That means flooding in the flat and low north and flash flooding in the more-mountainous south. And no part of this country is likely to escape unscathed.  Earl’s reach is 90 miles on either side of its core — which seems to be bearing down for a direct hit on Belize City.

The last of the water taxis and the last of the airplanes have left Ambergris Caye for the day, until the ersatz hurricane passes. I’m told the municipal water supply is shutting down at 2 p.m. for the duration of the storm. Shops, banks and government agencies are locked up tight for the most part, except for emergency staffing.

 Hot shopping item on Tuesday in San Pedro. Almost every hardware store has plywood out front. Inside batteries and flashlights are selling like crazy. Some folks were gathered around the portable generators at Costillo’s looking ready to buy.

At Caye Supply, plastic containers of all sizes are selling. Food stores are all busy but we didn’t see any frenzied shopping. All the places I went into at mid-morning, to pay bills and do banking, were almost completely empty.

Finally, a slight breeze is picking up, sending dust everywhere but the storm is coming. You can feel it advancing like the Dark Army from the east, building pressure as it marches inexorably in our direction.

What kind, how powerful and how damaging is still to be seen. — at Ambergris Caye, San Pedro, Belize.

I scan the Internet for the latest wire reports from the acronym-laden world of weather and disaster response — NOAA, NEMO, NWS, etc. — as Rose prepares food, including some extraordinary oatmeal cookies. We both keep an eye on the TV reports which are growing annoyingly repetitive.

The Kindles are charged up and loaded. The flashlights ready for the inevitable power failure. There is extra ice in the cooler.

It is hunker-down time. And time for reflection.

It had been a nice gentle ride for two and a half years.

This day was inevitable, as much a part of Paradise as everything else.

Be safe. Hunker down.

By suppertime, the existential reality is unavoidable. Earl is beginning to flex his muscles. My next Facebook post:

“Still a few hours before the serious side of Earl begins to show himself but already he’s making his presence known.

Already some planks on our dock are showing an independent streak. There will be some gaps before this night is done.”

The beach and pier were mostly gone by morning.

[We had a long and graceful dock with a nice gazebo at the end. We sit there in the shade and watch pods of dolphins flip by. Supply barges barely clearing the waterline would push slowly up and down the coast. Kids would come to fish. The coastal water taxi would frequently stop to drop off passengers. It had a lower step from which you could slip into the water in snorkel gear — if it wasn’t in use by smooching teenagers. There was a nice staircase into the water as well.]

“Mostly it has been intermittent drenchings and bigger than normal waves. Already our little retaining wall is proving no match for the waves, and fairly modest waves at that. The sky is a somber gray but the light still projects an eerie brightness, as if the air itself is burning phosphorescence. That, and the constant rumbling as the Caribbean’s massive waves trip over the barrier reef.

At this moment, Earl is 100 miles off the coast and moving toward us at a maddening slow 14 miles an HOUR. What did Weather Channel say? Another six to nine hours before landfall.

Argh.

… Soon it will be dark and all that we will know is the rustling of wind through the palm trees, the roar and crash of waves against the retaining wall, the staccato pump of rain on the roof and — soon enough — the shrill scream of 75-90 mph winds.

In the dark, we can only imagine.”

When night settled, the intensity of the storm was clearly growing. Of course, there were doubts about the decision to stay on the island. We were in a concrete building, on the second floor, and felt pretty secure. Sort of secure. Kind of secure.

Well, not that secure. And there was no Plan B.

In truth, we were surrounded by reclaimed land barely an inch or two above sea level — during normal times. In fact, on a full moon during normal times, the sea would overrun a big piece of the land between us and downtown San Pedro. Sometimes driving to town in a golf cart was futile. Even on a bicycle, you could pedal into a deep hole and end up wet and muddied.

Predictably, by design I think, the power went off all over the island after dark. A precaution against electrocution and fires.

Around 10 p.m., Rose felt secure enough to go to bed in the room farthest from the waterfront and the approaching Earl I decided to stay up and “protect” the apartment, as if there were something I could do if Earl decided to kick ass.

There was zero visibility. Sound was everywhere. And as long as my iPhone batteries held up, I had an internet connection to the outside world.

So, this is where I was at, still able to read postings on Facebook from other islanders and post my own through a MiFi connection I’d bought from a friend two weeks earlier.

What was salvaged from our pier.

“I sit here in the dark and I can hear the power of Hurricane Earl all around me but I can not see a thing. Wind is growing angrier and angrier, like a mad man throwing himself at a wall, over and over. I can hear it pulse and attack, pulse and attack harder. But I can not see a thing. 

The sea, too, is pouring in, wave after wave. I can hear it rush along the dock, slam into the retaining wall and crash across the beach until it slaps up against our building. But I can not see a thing.

It is all blackness. And power. And force.

All around us.

And I can not see a thing.”

Up until around midnight, the wind blew down the coast from north to south. Because of the construction of our building, I could step onto one of the patios safely sheltered from the full force of the wind. 

I could hear everything and feel nothing. I could see nothing –almost. In the distance, I could see the solar “running lights” recently installed on the pier so people wouldn’t fall off in the dark. They were flickering, which I took to mean that the waves were washing over the top.

The lights suddenly lifted up, and then arced to starboard like a ship keeling over. In a flash, they were gone. “Well, the dock has tipped over,” I thought to myself. “There will be work to do in the morning.”

The wind shifted at some point, turning directly into us, probably the effect of the hurricane’s rotation. 

This is when the sliding glass doors and windows began to pulsate. I didn’t know glass could bend so much!

The roof was leaking but that was not unusual. Everybody’s roof leaked, even in the best of times.

I kept hoping for the gentle sunny eye of the storm with its dead air, sunshine and bluebirds but it must have landed farther south, if at all.

In the midst of it all, I decided that was as bad as it would get, we were safe, and I drifted off to sleep.

We awoke to this:

“This morning, first light, at The Cloisters, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

There is debris everywhere from docks that were wiped out, up the coast. Ours is gone too.

Looking south, The Palapa Bar is gone too

Hardly any docks are standing, including the brand new one built just north of us at The Dive Bar. Some of the debris shattered doors on first-floor units, sending sand and water inside and driving the occupants to the second floor.

I can’t imagine what the toll must be in downtown San Pedro or in the low-lying wooden-structure villages like San Mateo.

I hear Ramon’s [a resort} and Ecologic [a boat excursion company] lost their docks as well. Someone said there is hardly a dive shop left.

What’s up dock?

This morning, I found the owners of Ak’Bol Yoga Retreat down shore, retrieving canvas curtains and polls from their lovely palapa studio. Which no longer exists. Later some friends told me that the top to the gazebo that once crowned our own dock was down shore and intact on a beach.

“It still has its light fixture.”

A dive shop owner told me he was able to find his compressors underwater and about half of his 60 air tanks.

Everywhere you looked today, people were off in search of their docks, their gear, some remnant of their life that blew away in the Category 1 hurricane Earl last night.

The winds blew from north to south, stripping the shore of almost everything. What is left is badly damaged.

Among the casualties are Ak’Bol which the owners will rebuild after the hurricane season ends in November; the Palapa Bar on Boca del Rio; Fido’s dock which was home berth for the YOLO excursion boat; both water taxi piers were badly damaged; Ramon’s Resort dock; Ecologic Tours; the pier leading out to the Tackle Box restaurant; the water slide El Diablo at Caribbean Villas and so much more. Add the gas station dock to the list.

The Dive Bar lost its almost brand new dock but the restaurant only looks devastated. Tuua [my friend and a bartender there who bills himself as “the Hawaiian Myan”] says he’ll have the bar and kitchen up and running by tomorrow lunch — two days at the outside.

One dive shop owner says not a single dive shop over the water survived. Many lost tanks. All three shops with air compressors lost their equipment, making future dives difficult for a while.

Everywhere, vast swatches of vegetation were stripped away, too.

My beautiful walk north through the lovingly landscaped properties north of the bridge have almost all been stripped away, replaced by remnants of docks from up the coast, like carelessly scattered piles of kindling.”

Earl came down the coast like a razor down a stubbled face. One report said more than 60 percent of the docks along the coast facing the Caribbean were either completely destroyed or unsafe. 

That’s a lot of docks.

Most buildings over the water suffered damage. The Palapa Bar, only recently re-opened after extensive renovations, blew up like a bomb detonated inside. It’s elegant two-story frame was kindling on the beach. Much of its inventory landed in the shallow water just to the south and within hours snorkeling islanders were filling their kayaks with beer, bar booze, and other such treasures.

Ak’Bol, the lovely over-the-water yoga studio, was also destroyed. 

One of our floor level condos was flushed through, front to back. Many of the resident’s possessions, including a very embarrassing DVD collection,  were splayed out in the courtyard for all to see. A couple of others required digging out, as sand and saltwater did them in.

We lost a huge swath of the sandy “beach” on the waterfront. The dock completely disappeared, although parts were found a quarter mile south.

Our beachfront became a collector in the night for other people’s piers. Or parts of them.

Seriously, it looked like a used pier lot. The most interesting landing was an 8 by 10 chunk of dock that cartwheeled between two buildings and came to rest perfectly at the base of our bar/restaurant, forming a perfect patio deck far from the water.

The owners came to claim it a couple of days later.

In fact, little of that lumber remained on the coastal beaches for long. Resourceful islanders carted off what they could and incorporated it in their stilted houses in the lagoons “backa da island.”

Up until Earl, my “job” consisted of paying a few bills for the condo association, replacing an occasional water pump, paying the maintenance guys and security once a week, and just keeping an eye on the place. All very casual and under the table.

After Earl, I became a full-time project manager for a while — restoring the beach, rebuilding the entry road, replanting lost vegetation. When we moved out, the owners were still debating the merits of rebuilding the pier.

By the time we left Belize for Mexico in 2018, there was little evidence of Earl’s dirty work. Nobody died,unlike previous hurricanes. Boats, mostly moved to the backa da island, rode out the hurricane well. Because of the way Earl hit, the piers took the brunt of the force and there is still some skeletal wreckage to this day.

Tropical islands are beautiful but can be tough places to live.They are populated by amazingly resilient and resourceful people. Storms and hurricanes are just an organic part of life. They knock you down, you get up and rebuild.

Build back better, as someone likes to say.

Happy anniversary, Earl. Your best punch was no knockout. 

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