LAURA STRICKLING: Hurricanes Irma and Maria
On September 3rd I sang at a farewell party at the St. Thomas Yacht Club for a beloved local clergyman who was retiring. I put together a short program of songs about friendship, farewell, and the beauty of St. Thomas. I brought my husband and one-year-old daughter, and we took pictures of her stumbling, uncertain baby steps on the beach in the sunset. It was a stunning, colorful sky, and my Facebook feed was full of pictures that my St. Thomas friends had also taken that evening, remarking on the singular beauty. Weather trackers had been issuing “Hurricane Watch” alerts for several days, and the cheerfulness of the occasion was tarnished by tight anxiety in the pit of my stomach.
On September 5th I was on my way to work, and received a call from the head of the Music Department at the University of the Virgin Islands, where I’d just begun teaching voice two weeks previously. He informed me that classes were cancelled and directed me to call all of my students to let them know that they should stay home and prepare for the coming hurricane. I returned home to do likewise, stopping at a grocery store on the way for one more flat of bottled water, one more pack of diapers, one more bag of fresh fruits and vegetables. We have lived in St. Thomas for three years and this was my first hurricane, so I was case of early-onset hurricane anxiety. On September 1st, I’d already gone to the grocery store and prepared for about two weeks without access to aid. Two weeks of water for three people. Two weeks of non-perishable food for two people. Two weeks of formula, baby food, diapers, and wipes for one baby. I was certain I was overreacting, particularly when I expressed my concern to several long-time islanders and my fears were roundly dismissed.
How do you prepare to lose everything?
We were staring down the barrel of a historically unprecedented Category 5 hurricane, knowing that when a Category 3 hurricane came through 20 years ago there was hardly a roof left on the island. So I knew, in my heart, that when we woke up the next day to face Irma, it would be the day we lost everything. We put important papers in Ziploc bags. I put beloved baby dresses and blankets that my mother and mother-in-law had made in double-wrapped plastic bags, and stuffed them into closet corners that might not be reached by the wind and rain if the roof came off. Our landlord also believed our roof would go and, in concern, offered his basement apartment underneath our house for us to hunker down in during the storm, while he went to weather it out with his mother. The night of September 5th we moved all of our survival items into the basement apartment. If our roof went, we wanted them safe with us. The blessing of modernity is that we knew exactly when the storm would come: we could watch its progress on hastily-downloaded iPhone weather apps. The edge of Hurricane Irma would reach us at 7 AM on September 6th, so we planned to spend the night in our own bed, wake up at 4 AM, use what would surely be the last electricity the island would see for months to make coffee and breakfast, and then retreat into the basement by 6 AM to wait.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, jaw permanently clenched, sick to my stomach, staring at my sleeping baby in terror that I would lose her the next day. I’d collapsed in heaving sobs as I hummed her to sleep earlier with the same song I’d sung her every night for months, suddenly done in by the text:
Abide with me,
Fast falls the even-tide
The darkness deepens
Lord with me abide
When other helpers
Fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless,
O abide with me.
In my “disaster survival” research I read about a recommendation to write your social security numbers in Sharpie pen on your arms and on your children’s arms so that injured parties – or bodies – could be identified in a worst-case scenario. I couldn’t bring myself to write my baby’s number on her arm. I brought the Sharpie to the basement with us.
How do you prepare to lose everything?
On September 6th we spent 13 hours in that basement apartment: windows boarded against the crashing, deafening wind, doors straining in their casements, sandbags stacked against them, water sneaking into every crevice. I felt the rushing wind in the marrow of my bones. Pockets of air pressure made my ears pop painfully. The baby gamboled about, blissfully unaware. What a strange day for her. So dark! Playing on the floor by flashlight. So hot! No fans or breezes. Stressed, frowning adults suddenly snatching her up from her play and retreating into an inner, windowless concrete room, pulling the mattresses off of the bed to press them against the doors when it suddenly seemed as though the moment had come – that the house couldn’t withstand the hurricane’s onslaught any more. The hurricane’s heaviest onslaught – Irma’s eyewall – sat over us for three solid hours, three hours that felt like three years. And we watched our iPhone apps as the storm slowly moved away. We felt the deadly wind lessen little by little against our house and finally, around 6:30 PM, we felt safe enough to exit and see what the storm had wrought: sunset over brown that had once been bright green; over broken trees and broken houses. Our closest neighbor’s house was ripped open and we could see into each room as if looking into a dollhouse. We turned around to look at our own house, expecting to see it, too, torn apart, but no! A roof. A ROOF. Our roof remained. Our plywood held fast. Our home was whole and undamaged.
When you survive a disaster, you don’t think about “After” in that moment. You rejoice that you are all alive – that your BABY IS ALIVE. You can handle anything that comes because that one thing is true and it is the only thing that matters.
We had a roof. We had two weeks of drinking water. We had two weeks of food.
“Survival” is hard work. We had no electricity and no running water, and probably wouldn’t for 6 more months. I barely slept for four days, my body intermittently shivering from shock, my mind racing, thinking of all that needed to be done to make sure everyone was fed and stayed healthy, that the baby maintain some sense of “happiness.” The hospital had been destroyed and my waking nightmare was that someone in our house would need medical care and there would be no way to access it. We started to hear rumors of need and unrest. People weren’t seeing help, and they were starting to feel desperate. Would meager supplies be replenished? We saw no one in uniform in the entire time we remained on the island. On day 4 after Hurricane Irma, I got a phone call from a friend who had evacuated to stay with family in Puerto Rico the night before the storm. She had a way to leave, and she begged me to take it. Her plan was for us to sail by catamaran to Puerto Rico, and then fly stateside to stay with our family. I was terrified because, though I live on an island, I have a fear of boats on open ocean. But we weren’t seeing any official help. We didn’t know how long it would take before help arrived. I’d started rationing my baby’s formula. I knew we had to go. We didn’t know then that Maria was coming.
Puerto Rican citizens risked their boats and livelihood coming through debris-littered water to bring civilian-donated supplies for the people of St. Thomas, and to evacuate my family and so many others. They treated us with overwhelming compassion, even though they, too, had suffered (though to a lesser extent) from Irma. And now, both St. Thomas and Puerto Rico are devastated further from a second history-making, impossibly large hurricane that arrived just two weeks after the first, Maria. That our neighbors in Puerto Rico are now desperate themselves – that they gave so much and now have no supplies to survive – is unthinkably unfair and cruel. Our stories are forever linked and there is no way to repay them for what they did for us.
We spent three days in Puerto Rico, taking the first flight we could to Chicago, where our family was waiting with hand-made posters and Starbucks Frappuccinos. We watched Hurricane Maria from afar, experiencing the helpless, frantic worry that our family and friends did during Irma. We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know when we’ll return to St. Thomas, to our house that has a roof and all of our worldly possessions inside of it, but we have this baby in our arms. We have people in our lives who have shown us love, generosity, and compassion. We will be ok. And so will America’s paradise.
We witnessed the strength of the people of the USVI and their unmatched devotion to their community. In the days following Hurricane Irma, St. Thomas’ roads were cleared of downed trees, poles, and power lines, entirely thanks to the efforts of neighbors lending each other a hand. If anyone was in need of emergency medical attention, it was neighbors who got them out. To the extent anyone without a roof, food, or water received shelter or a meal, it was neighbors and local charity groups that provided it.
We are working from afar, joining efforts to provide relief to our community. Many of my efforts have been person-to-person, hearing of a specific need and finding a way to supply it, but I was thrilled when my management company approached me with the idea of holding a concert to benefit the hurricane relief efforts. Music heals the hurting heart in ways that words alone cannot. I’ve pulled together several singer and pianist friends, as well as a USVI-born violinist from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Patmore Lewis, and we’ve built a program of songs about wind, water, fear, sorrow, hope, calm, purpose, and renewal. Puerto-Rican mezzo-soprano Laura Virella will be performing a song cycle by fellow Puerto Rican composer Jack Délano, Cuatro sones de la tierra. We hope you’ll join us live, but we’re also live-streaming the concert via Facebook in hopes that people in affected areas who have internet access might also be able to watch and enjoy, to show them that we are thinking of them during this difficult time – though we who are not there cannot fully understand what they are going through – and to bring our voices together in chorus to tell them that we have not forgotten them. That we will support them, our fellow American citizens on St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico, as they rebuild.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Opera America Center
Marc Scorca Hall
330 7th Avenue
New York, NY
For further information, visit: www.americasparadise.us