Before the Storm
Hurricane Hugo began for me as a simple Atlantic weather report – not unlike several that had come before – that I first heard on Monday, September 11, regarding a tropical wave that had become a tropical storm, thus earning the formal name of “Hugo,” and was crossing the Atlantic, headed, generally speaking, toward the Leeward Islands of the Western Caribbean. The report stated that it was expected to encounter atmospheric conditions favorable for its development into a noteworthy weather concern, and, perhaps, even into a significant hurricane. Having witnessed the effects of Hurricane Gilbert, a Category 5 storm that had struck Jamaica the year before, and brushed St. Croix up pretty good with high winds and eight inches of rain, even though its eye passed a hundred miles or so south of us, I definitely took serious note of the weather statement. But, as did most folks on St. Croix, I pretty much filed it away as just a bit of interesting information; something to watch, not worry about. Not yet anyway.
That changed somewhat a couple days later when it was reported noted Hugo was had grown into a Category 1 hurricane showing clear signs of strengthening and, more worryingly, was apparently on a path that could bring it very close to the Virgin Islands. At that time, people became a bit more concerned and local officials initiated some pre-storm informational broadcasts about recommended hurricane preparations – secure water, fill your vehicles with gas, gather food, get material to board windows, etc – and what people could expect from the government if it struck. And, more importantly, especially in hindsight, what they could not.
By Friday, the mood on the island was suddenly much more ominous as it was reported that Hugo was then a Category 4 storm – and showing signs of growing even stronger. And, worse yet, that it was almost certainly going to make landfall somewhere in the Upper Antilles within the next couple days. I recall seeing TV broadcasts of the storm and hearing the dire predications of forecasters and being almost amazed that such a storm could be bearing down on us, especially since it was just another perfect island day outside my window, with a bright sun shining and the birds singing and a gentle breeze blowing through the palms. But even then I sensed this was going to be a big, big deal – and a dangerous one at that – and began to consider my options and tried to determine what Regina and I should do.
That night, as the weather reports grew ever more threatening, we decided that I would gather what supplies I could and ride the storm out, while she would try to get aboard a flight the next day and fly to the mainland as the airlines began to move their planes out of the storm’s path. Part of the reason for this decision was the fact that, due to her homesickness, we had already made plans to move back to the US and I had arranged to sell everything I had there – from dishes to furniture to the TV and towels, as well as a Jeep and a Volkswagen Rabbit, and also sublet the apartment – to a French guy who was moving to St. Croix to work as a sushi chef in a friend’s waterfront restaurant. And all for one flat price — plus two first-class plane tickets back to the states, which we already had in hand. All that was left to complete the deal was for me to meet him at the airport on Monday, hand him the keys to everything, and board a plane for home, my pockets full of American dollars. However, I got a call later that night informing me that he was going to wait to see how the storm played out and that he wouldn’t be arriving Monday. But while fate might have changed the plan than me, I still had an ace in the hole: I had the plane tickets.
Saturday morning was noticeably worse, with dark clouds racing overhead and a much stiffer breeze, so Regina packed as much as she quickly could and we set out for the airport to check flights and, luckily, were able to get her on the very last plane to depart St. Croix, a flight leaving almost immediately headed to Miami, from which the airline said they could get her further north to Atlanta or Raleigh-Durham. So we said our goodbyes and I sat in the Jeep in the parking lot and watched her flight take off, wondering what lay ahead. I left the airport and ran by the grocery to get some food supplies, mostly bottled water, candy bars, chips and cookies – and some beer and rum – stopped by my old workplace to check on things, then returned back home and set about using shelves to board my windows. And wait. The forecast that night brought the worse news yet as I learned that Hugo had become a Category 4 storm, that it was still strengthening and that St. Croix lay directly in its path, and that we could expect winds of up to 150 mph, with possible tornadoes, and 10 or more inches of rain. And here I sat on a damn rock in the middle of the ocean. I called my parents to let them know my plans and try to calm their worries. And, later that night, I got a call from Regina saying that she was OK and would soon board a plane bound for Columbia and that her twin sister, Rebecca, who lived there, was going to pick her up when she arrived. “Call me at her house after the storm,” she told me. “No problem,” I replied. Boy, was I wrong.
Sunday dawned as perhaps the weirdest day I’ve ever seen. Dark clouds were flying by overhead, with occasional heavy rain showers, and the wind was blowing harder and harder and harder every hour. I remember thinking that it seemed as if the world was angry about something. Government officials were on the radio warning people to brace for the worse and letting everyone know that, by law, the power to the island would soon be purposely shut off to avoid fires. I walked around the Hilty House plantation and checked to see who would be staying where among my neighbors and we all sat and had a few shots of rum together. But it wasn’t a party by any means, more of a toast to each of us, with a few forced laughs and a sincere hope that we’d get through this OK; we all knew that we were in for one hell of a night. I took one last trip downtown to check on the ocean waves and was amazed to see them already breaking over the seawall and to notice that some of the many sailboats out in the harbor had broken free of their anchors and were crashing into the rock jetties. As midday approached, I had returned home and hunkered down in my apartment with my cat, Roy, looking out the one window I’d left unboarded, which faced east – toward the direction from which the storm was coming – and also overlooked the main port town of Christiansted, about a half mile downhill, and listening to the radio. At noon, the DJ, a tall dread-locked guy from Trinidad I’d met named Albert, announced that it was time to kill the power and wished everyone a safe night, then dedicated one last song, ”Rock You Like A Hurricane” by The Scorpions, to everyone listening, and, after it ended, said, “See you all on the other side, mon.” I recall laughing out loud; Albert was a cool guy. Then the station went silent.
As Sunday crept by, it became more and more obvious that I had kidded myself and grossly underestimated how bad things could get. In short, I realized that I had been a fool to stay. By late afternoon – well before actual landfall was expected – I was already seeing and hearing limbs break and watching the rain become steadier and heavier. The sounds alone were frightening, as the wind would whistle constantly, and occasionally roar as outer band hurricane gusts blew ashore and across the island. As darkness neared, I secured that last window with shelving, using the cords I cut from some mini-blinds, grabbed some personal papers and identification stuff, a radio, a flashlight and a raincoat, threw a mattress in a corner to get under, if necessary, and sat back to wait for whatever was to come. And think what you will about animals, but I am convinced that they are acutely tuned in to nature because Roy looked at me and, almost as if saying, “I ain’t staying here, Bubba,” he made his way out the door on the leeward side of the house. I wish I had followed him as, not long afterward, I heard the first panel being ripped off my den roof, which was actually a porch that had been closed in. And with that, it was on. In what seemed like minutes, the front edge of the storm made landfall and I could hear the rest of the den roof being ripped away, as well as limbs and other wind-blown debris being smashed against the main roof, walls and windows. Suddenly I heard a loud crash in the darkness and turned on the flashlight to see that a limb had been blown threw the kitchen window, exposing the interior to the winds. I was amazed to see things being blown around in my apartment, but stunned when I checked the other windows and noticed that they were all bulging inward as the wind buffeted them. Concerned about being hit by flying glass, I climbed under the mattress in the corner and was soon thankful that I did as, one by one, the windows succumbed to the 140 mph winds and blew in, followed by whatever else the wind had picked up. The sound of the wind was unbelievable; it roared so loud it actually hurt your ears. And it seemed to only grow stronger by the minute. I couldn’t make myself believe what I was seeing and hearing. And then it got worse. Around 10:00, the full fury of the storm came ashore and, looking at my roof with the flashlight, I saw that it was lifting up 2-3 inches off its frame and then settling back down. And then doing it again, and again, and again, almost as if it were breathing. By now I guess I was in a state of shock and almost oblivious to what was happening; call it an “out of body” experience or whatever, but I just couldn’t believe it. But then, as I watched the entire roof fly off, with one big rip that sounded like a bag of potato chips being opened, totally exposing the interior of the apartment to the storm, I suddenly realized that this was REAL, and I had to do something. And quick. For some reason, the first thing I thought of was to get under something more substantial…in my case, the kitchen sink. To get there, I bolted across the room and crawled along the base of the wall the wind was blowing against and into the kitchen, where I opened the cabinet doors and raked out all of the supplies that we all keep under the sink, clearing me a space to crawl into, which I promptly did. Once inside, however, the cabinet doors began banging open and closed so I took the drawstring from my raincoat hood and, fashioning a loop, wrapped one end around the pull knob on one door, then over the other and pulled them taut and tied them to the P-trap drainpipe. So there I was, 6’2” and crammed under a single-basin kitchen sink, with the world blowing up around me as things were slung around and into the apartment through the opening where the roof used to be. But I was safe…or as safe as I figured I could be. So there I stayed for a couple hours until, as I was told might happen, the eye of the storm actually passed directly over and everything – the wind, the rain, the sound…everything – just stopped. It just stopped. And it was deadly quiet. I took that opportunity to untie the doors and crawl out for a few minutes, stretch my legs and look around at the damage. I also looked up and, just as they had said, the sky was perfectly clear, with the stars shining bright. But they’d also said that the storm would return just as quickly, with the winds blowing everything back in the other direction, so I crawled back into the cabinet and got ready for the second half. And it was just as bad, if not worse, as everything blew up again. About three hours later, the winds began to subside and I realized that I was alive and the worst was over, so, near dawn on Monday, I crawled back out and was amazed at what my eyes beheld. It looked as though a bomb had gone off. Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – was just destroyed…the refrigerator had been tossed from the kitchen into the bedroom, the TV was outside in the yard, big limbs littered the apartment, clothes had been ripped and were hanging from tree limbs, and small BB-sized shards of leaves had been plastered to the walls, giving them a speckled appearance. It seemed not a single thing had been left untouched. But, that is, by the grace of God, me.
Despite the major part of the storm having passed, Monday morning was still rainy with gusty breezes when I realized that, while I was OK, given the degree of devastation I was seeing, and the scale, the totality of the destruction, I was almost certain that some of my neighbors had most likely not been so fortunate. Fearing the worse, I ran to the apartment of a couple who had become close friends to check on their status, and was shocked to find their home in even worse shape than mine, with the roof missing and several walls collapsed and everything basically piled in the center of what had been their den. Dreading what I might soon see, I began to call their names and, thinking they may have been buried, tried to move some of the debris. A minute or two later, however, I heard voices coming from the rear of the main building and ran around to find my friends, as well as four other residents who had gathered together while the eye of the storm was passing and found shelter in a bathtub, covering themselves with mattresses for protection. Thankful that we were all OK – at least physically, a couple of the girls were pretty shook up – we shared a bunch of hugs, and more than a few tears, in appreciation of the miracle it seemed we had been granted. Walking around looking at what was damaged and what we might be able to do to provide shelter and survive until help became available, we turned a corner and, lo and behold, out from under the roof of my apartment – which was lying in one piece in my front yard, wedged against a garden wall – walked ol’ Roy. And we shed a few more tears. But Roy soon had his own problems because a neighbor’s dog had also survived the storm and, to Roy’s chagrin, he found that the fence that once separated the two – the one Roy would often prance along, knowing he was safe behind it – was also torn down and he soon had to scamper back under the roof to get away from his canine adversary! That brought on some good – and very much needed – laughs. Realizing that we didn’t really have much to work with in creating shelter, we decided to check the big plantation house and found that, while most of the house had been badly damaged, the roof of the Great Room, which was about 80’ x 100’, had survived thanks to the fact that the sliding glass doors which lined each entire side had been blown out, allowing the wind to pass through. This, we decided, would be our new home, and we set about consolidating our supplies, water and foodstuffs. A couple of the guys also went to check on nearby friends and when they returned later that day, they had brought them back to stay with us, since their own homes had been damaged or destroyed. A few others showed up later and, all together, we ended up with about 20 completely stressed out people, including one woman with a baby, camped out in that one large room. We spent most of Monday night talking about what we’d been through and, at times, wondering what the cracking sounds we were occasionally hearing from downtown were.
Tuesday morning dawned bright and sunny and I was determined to check on friends of mine who lived near the beach at Cane Bay on the north shore, so I set out in my Jeep, in many places going off-road to avoid large debris scattered across the highway. However, once I got near the coast I couldn’t get very far due to tall palms that were lying in the road, so I decided to instead try to check on friends who lived nearer to Christiansted. It was once I got to the main shopping areas that I began to notice that a mob mentality was quickly growing with widespread looting of shops already taking place. Disappointed that I couldn’t really get anywhere and somewhat fearful of being alone in such an environment, I decided to head back to the Hilty House. Upon my return, I learned that a radio station on St. Thomas – which had not been hit nearly as hard and was operating pretty much as normal – was reporting that 80% of the homes on St. Croix had been damaged or destroyed. Worse yet, the station also reported that the Virgin Islands Prison on St. Croix had been badly damaged and the fences blown down, allowing all of the prisoners to escape. The sounds we had heard the night before, it was now clear, were guns being fired. And they were stuck on the same rock, in the middle of the ocean, that we were. That changed the equation considerably and, while we were located in a fairly remote and most likely relatively safe area, atop a hill at the end of a long dirt driveway, we decided to gather up anything we could use as a weapon, just in case it was needed. We ended up with a couple shotguns and a pistol that folks had smuggled onto the island, as well as a few machetes, two baseball bats, a BB gun and an underwater spear gun. We also soon realized that we had access to a tank of propane and a gas stove so a few of us decided to go back downtown and see what we could find that could be cooked. We stopped at a grocery and a couple of the guys went in and looted a turkey and a few other items while me and another friend hung around near the Jeep so it wouldn’t be stolen. And while we were waiting I noticed a guy with something on the bed of a pickup and a few folks walking up and giving him some cash for whatever he was selling. I walked over and learned that he had three cases of dry Winston Light cigarettes and, after more than a decade of being a die-hard menthol smoker, specifically Salems, I took advantage of the opportunity to get my hands on a carton, the first smokes I’d had since the storm. We headed home with our goods and that night, as shots rang out downtown, we enjoyed a candlelight dinner of turkey and saltines. Later, as we listened to the AM station from St. Thomas, the DJ also told listeners that since there was no way to communicate with the outside world, there were a couple of places on St. Croix where you could go and provide the name and phone number of a stateside contact and a two-line message on a legal pad that ham and marine radio operators would try to get out. Most of that night we listened to tape-recorded messages being played by the DJ to people stuck on St. Croix from friends and family of people up in the states praying that they were OK and that they’d soon hear from them. It was heartbreaking to hear the anguish in their words and their sobs and to know that my parents – and the parents of everyone with me – did not even know if we were alive or dead, whether we were among those killed by the storm or not. It was a sleepless night.
Wednesday morning brought both good and bad news as we learned via the radio that, on the positive side, Washington had finally understood how desperate and lawless the situation had gotten and was immediately sending in both the military and the US Marshals to bring order to the chaos. However, on the negative side, it was also reported that another tropical storm had developed and that it appeared to be following in Hugo’s path. That freaked a few folks out, especially the woman with the baby. But a short time later we heard that, once equipment and personnel were offloaded, the military would be flying the injured, elderly and women with small children out as their planes returned to their stateside bases. A friend and I agreed to take her and her child to the airport as soon as the flights started and, the next morning, after hearing the jets passing overhead, we loaded her up and headed to the airport. We got her there and handed her off to the soldiers coordinating the loading and also located one of the sign up sheets to try to get a message back to someone in the states. I wrote my dad’s name and phone number and “I am OK. I love you all very much and will be home as soon as possible.” And hoped for the best. As we were leaving, we also heard on the radio the good news that the airlines would resume flights and initiate an airlift the following day. Seeing the soldiers headed downtown, we decided to ride back that way and it was impressive to see them hopping off trucks at every intersection, in full battle dress, ready to reassume control, almost as if they were looking for trouble. Feeling better about the situation, I decided to check on my friend’s restaurant down on the waterfront, hoping he might be there. I parked my Jeep and walked over to his place, but he wasn’t there so I headed back to the Jeep. As I walked I realized I didn’t have a lighter, but I noticed a car with the driver-side window down so I leaned inside to see if the dashboard cigarette lighter worked. And just as I pushed it in I looked up through the windshield to see a bad-looking dude with a US Marshal jacket on walk out of an alley and do a double take when he saw me leaning into the car. I jerked my head back so fast I hit the top of the door and began babbling about how I was only trying to get a light for my cigarette, not trying to steal something. He was Wyatt Earp-cool, though, and offered me a light, which I thought was the least he could do after scaring the pure hell outta me. Even more bizarre though, was the fact that, when we returned to the Hilty House plantation, the first thing I saw when I pulled up was an NBC camera crew and correspondent standing in my front yard, interviewing my neighbor! It was surreal. He completed his interview and said that he would be flying the video back to Puerto Rico that day for broadcast that night, then he handed out his business cards and told us to give him a name and phone number and a short message and he’d make sure that someone from NBC passed the message along. For the first time since the storm we all breathed a sigh of relief and felt that we’d be OK. That was a good night. And, it turned out, not just for me but also for my folks as well, as later that very night, as my mom was taking a bath, the phone rang at my parents’ house in Bennettsville and my dad answered to hear someone say, “Mr. Bostick, this is Suzanne with NBC News in New York. I have a message from your son.” She read him what I’d written on the card, after which he told her to hold on while he took the phone into the bathroom and had her repeat it to my mother. That was the first time they’d heard from me since Saturday night, prior to the storm. And after they’d seen reports every day and every night about the anarchy and learned that more people had been killed in the lawlessness after the storm than during it. I can only imagine what that felt like to them. And a little later, they received another call from a doctor in Chicago who was a ham radio operator and had received the message I’d written on the legal pad at the airport. God bless those people.
Friday morning, the 22nd, I awoke bound and determined that I was going to get off that island – that day. I arranged to leave my Jeep with a friend to hopefully sell for me later and loaded my things – a backpack full of the few clothes I had left, a tennis racket, a wet briefcase full of wet papers and a cat in a cage – and I headed to the airport, stopping on the way to pick up a Puerto Rican co-worker of mine, Tomas Cruz, who I had run into a day earlier and informed of my plans. We got to the airport and it was absolute bedlam, cars parked all askew and entire families standing in line, garbage bags in hand holding all they had left, pleading with the Military Police for a seat on an outbound plane. But I still had that first-class ticket and I walked up to the airline counter, showed it to them and asked when I could get a flight. The lady behind the counter told me, “Sir, we’ll get you off the island and to somewhere in the States. But I can’t promise you that the cat can go.” I told her it was a package deal: he’d hung in with me and he was going with me. Period. She told me that she’d have to check with the captain of the next flight, which was due in shortly, and that it was his call. I thanked her, told her again that the cat had to go, and went over to the curb a few yards away and sat down to wait. Tomas asked what he should do and I asked him to take my Jeep back to the Hilty House, then I reached into my pocket and handed him a set of keys and told him that they were to my Volkswagen Rabbit and that there was a signed-over title in the glove box and that the Rabbit was now his. All he had to do, I told him, was get some gas for it because we had siphoned all of it out of the tank. The man teared up, then gave me a hug, told me “Gracias, gracias” and “Good luck Gris” and walked away. And there I was, sitting on the curb, wearing the same clothes I’d had on for the last five days, with my feline buddy, Roy. A short time later I noticed a man wearing a pilot’s uniform walk up to the airline counter and speak to the lady I’d talked to. She pointed toward me and the man walked over and said, “Get your cat, son. We’ll get you home.” As we completed the passenger info, he told me that Roy would be booked to travel to Columbia, SC, but that there were no guarantees that we’d travel on the same flights as I would have to fly stand-by on each leg of the trip, which initiated in St. Thomas, San Juan, and Atlanta, and that I might end up hours behind him. That was good enough for me, though, so I bid Roy farewell and boarded a small plane that was being used to ferry emergency FEMA workers back and forth to St. Thomas. That short flight was no problem and, after a brief stopover in St. Thomas just to let a few folks off, we took off for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Once there I was literally waved through Customs as a hurricane refugee and directed to the boarding area to catch a flight to Atlanta. At least I hoped. I sat there for a while and they eventually began the boarding process, which continued until I was the only person still seated and not on the plane. I was about to give up hope when the counter girl announced “Stand by passenger Joel Bostick please report to the gate for boarding.” Man, I almost ran up there, where I learned that I’d not only made the flight, but that I was being given a seat in first class. I sat down and the flight attendant came up and said she understood that I’d been on St. Croix and that it was pretty bad, and was there anything she could get me. I asked for a Coke and she promptly brought me one, but I didn’t know she was going to get me a cup of ice for it and when she returned that Coke was empty. So we laughed and she brought a couple more. Ice never tasted so good. And I was two-for-two: two flights down, and just one to go. A few hours and, finally, a good sleep later, we touched down in Atlanta and I went through the same thing: watching people board a flight to Columbia until I was the only person remaining in the boarding area. And again I heard that announcement: “Stand by passenger Joel Bostick please report to the gate for boarding.” And again I was seated in first class. This time the attendant told me she knew I was a Hugo victim flying out of the Caribbean and that she had friends who had been there on their honeymoon, but that she hadn’t heard from them yet. She asked what she could get me and I asked for peanuts, and bless her heart, she brought me six packs and a couple Cokes. The man seated beside me heard all this and asked where I’d been and I told him St. Croix and he told me he’d heard it was really bad down there. He then asked where I was headed and I told him, “Home, man, back to South Carolina.” And then he told me, “Well, Hugo just hit Charleston and it’s devastated. It even went 200 miles inland and blew down trees in Charlotte.” I was completely floored, speechless. I’d had no idea – nor concern – where Hugo had headed after it hit St. Croix, and now I’ve learned that it has ripped up a city I love and may well have even done damage back home. Now the tables had turned: I was the one worried about loved ones. Needless to say, the short hop from Atlanta to Columbia seemed endless as I pondered what I’d find when I got there, as well as who I’d be able to contact once I arrived, since I still hadn’t actually spoken to anyone in the states since before the storm, almost a week earlier, and no one knew I was on my way back stateside. However the flight soon touched down and the few of us passengers getting off in Columbia made our way through the jet way and into the terminal. And it was like a ghost town, absolutely empty. Of course, given that Hugo had blown through just a few hours earlier, suspending all basic Columbia-based airline operations that was understandable…but it was still pretty unnerving. Still toting my carry-on items, a couple other passengers and I made our way down to baggage claim, where they soon collected their bags and departed while I sat there and watched the conveyor go round and round and round. No Roy. And then the conveyor stopped, so I sat and leaned against a column and started trying to figure out what my next step would be. After just a couple minutes, however, the conveyor started back up and, a few seconds later, the carrier cage holding ol’ Roy popped through the flaps and he circled around to where I was now standing. And I can tell you we were a couple guys glad to see each other. Since no one was around to stop me, I let Roy out the cage to stretch his legs – and enjoy a good head scratching. I figured the old boy was probably starving and thirsty, but with no food vendors open I assumed he’d have to tough things out a little longer. But about that time I heard a noise and saw am old black janitor come through a door a short distance away. He looked over and headed toward us. When he got there he said he’d seen the airline crew unload an animal and thought he’d better check to see if anyone was there to pick it up. I explained what we’d been through that day and asked if he knew where I could get Roy something to eat or drink. He said he didn’t have any food, but to give him a minute and he’d try to find something we could put some water in. He disappeared through a door and soon came back with a Styrofoam cup that I tore down until it was just a few inches tall and then filled from a nearby water fountain. Man, that cat lapped that water up while the janitor – I never got his name – sat there and rubbed his back. I thanked him for his kindness and, realizing I still had to figure out what to do next, Roy and I made our way up to the terminal to a bank of payphones. I tried calling home. No luck. I tried Regina’s folks. No luck. I tried my brother. No luck. It seemed that the storm had caused a lot of problems with phone service and none of my calls appeared to be getting through. Then I remembered Regina’s sister lived in Columbia and, when I called, she answered on the second ring. I told her, “Rebecca, this is Gray. I’m at the airport in Columbia. Can you come get me and Roy?” She almost fell out, saying, “Are you serious? Are you really home?” I assured her that I was and she told me Regina had gone to her older sister’s home in Florence, but that she and her husband, Clay, would be out to get me as soon as they could. I thanked her and told her we’d be waiting out front. So Roy and I spent the next 30 minutes just as our day – and journey from St. Croix to South Carolina – had begun, sitting on the curb in front of an airport.