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Fox Hill - Weather Or Not
Weather Or Not
Fox Hill, Freelance Writer and Photographer

I'm lying in the sun on the rooftop deck of our house. Directly above me, the sky is clear and blue. It could be any other beautiful and carefree day on the island of Cozumel. But it's not. It's Thursday the 20th of October, 2005. To the south and about forty miles away, is the outer edge of the gigantic and destructive hurricane Wilma, now a category five. If I stand up, I can see the enormous spinning mass of dark gray clouds. I'm trying to catch a few rays between rain bands, the alternating periods of sunshine and rain that precede an approaching hurricane. Wilma has spurned all of her usual island suitors in the Caribbean, and seems to be saving her attention for us as she continues her approach. She's had her eye on a date with Cozumel from the very start, and it looks like she's going to keep it. Somehow, sun tanning in the face of such danger feels better than cowering indoors.

The local cable company doesn't offer the weather Channel. Why bother? There usually isn't any. With an average annual temperature of 81 degrees Fahrenheit, Cozumel enjoys an almost perpetual string of perfect summer days. The warm weather seems to affect the pace of life, with people moving in a relaxed and unhurried manner. There is none of the slightly panic stricken attention that good weather got in my hometown. My neighbors there practiced a sort of high-speed gardening and camping, always aware the snow would be flying again before they knew it. Winters were often severe beyond imagining, with temperatures dropping to more than forty degrees below zero. The air was often so cold that it was difficult to breathe when leaving the house, and four wheel drive vehicles were a necessity there, not a fashion item. I have never quite adjusted to Christmas in the Caribbean though. It doesn't matter how many decorations are hung, or how many festive songs are played, it just never quite feels like Christmas here. (I think it's something about the palm trees). Still, I don't care if I never see another harsh winter, and I relish the series of summer days melting one into another until it's hard to remember what month it is.

The region has now seen three hurricanes of this magnitude in a little over a year. In September of 2004, Hurricane Ivan left dozens dead in other countries. With sustained winds of over 160 mph, Ivan put the Cayman Islands out of business in a flash, but spared us with a last minute turn to the north. Next, Emily hit Cozumel in July of 2005 with her 155 mph winds, but was moving so fast that we escaped with only a few bruises. Most of the damage was to plants. Wilma however is taking her time, crawling along at a horrifying four miles per hour. She has smashed almost every record for Atlantic hurricanes, and is now the most powerful storm in recorded history, besting even the monstrous Gilbert of '88. No hurricane has ever intensified so rapidly, changing from a category two into a category five in only a few hours. The predictions are grim. We've been working for three days straight, laying in supplies and boarding up every window in the house. Concerned about the risk of storm surge and flooding, we've packed up nearly everything and stowed it in plastic boxes. All the loose items from the yard have been moved inside to give Wilma fewer projectiles with which to kill us. We've also prepared a safe room in one of the bathrooms, where all the walls are concrete and there are no windows. I admit that I'm a little bit scared, because I've done my homework, and I know that if the hurricane is severe enough, it will, "huff and puff and blow this house down." I'd better go check the weather.

There are really only two seasons here: dust and mud. The dry season, running from December to June, means few mosquitoes, lower temperatures, less humidity, and lots of garden watering. It also means floors that are constantly covered in a fine layer of dust. When the rainy season arrives, it brings with it brief daily rainfalls, and hordes of mosquitoes. Like flying piranhas, they suck the joy from outdoor activities and keep me inside more than I care for in the evenings. Humidity often runs as high as ninety five percent, but I'm off the hook for watering the garden. Local golfers have to keep an eye out for extra hazards on the course, as crocodiles will venture into flooded low-lying areas when it rains hard enough. (I can tell it's raining hard when I can't see across our garden). Locals seem to be afraid that they will melt in the rain like the Wicked Witch of the West, sometimes standing under awnings and trees for hours waiting for it to stop. But I like the warm rain, and I don't mind riding or walking in it.

I pass a lumberyard on the way to the Internet café. Cars are lined up all the way down the block, their drivers waiting while loads of plywood are tied onto one car after another. The entire city is in a frenzy of last minute preparations; shops are closing and boards are going up over every window and door. I ask a local friend if he thinks this will be a bad one. He replies that he knows it will be, because all the Gringos are putting up their plywood. The grocery store shelves are stripped, and there isn't a bottle of water to be found, as many here clearly expect the worst. All three gas stations on the island have huge lineups as people try to fill up one last time, or fill containers for their generators. While the locals don't overreact to every little storm warning, they aren't taking this one lightly - everyone remembers the thrashing that Hurricane Gilbert delivered. I'm lucky, as the café is still open, though it won't be for long. They are packing up the computers when I walk in, but there are still a few hooked up. They tell me to hurry. This will be my last chance to check the computer models on the weather web site. With only hours to spare, all five of the models are predicting a direct hit on Cozumel. Worse, the stalling of the storm is leading the experts to believe we might face hurricane force winds for as much as thirty six hours. I pale at the prospect, remembering how bad Hurricane Emily seemed with its duration of only a few hours. Now we wait.

When we do get weather here, it is literally the worst weather in the world. Not long ago we endured a three day period during which 86 inches of rain fell, 39 of them in one day. To put this in perspective, this is as much rain in three days as my hometown sees in six and a half years. The rain fell as if a celestial cask had been split with an axe. Had the water in our courtyard been a single inch deeper, the entire main floor of our house would have flooded. It could be worse though, as many homes here are built below grade, so they fill up with water, sometimes several feet deep. During heavy rainfalls, the municipal drainage system is quickly overwhelmed, and soon every manhole cover in town is transformed into a sewage fountain. Foul smelling brown water gushes up, adding to the flooding in the streets. My wife and I call this water, "liquidos misteriosos," and when cycling at such times, I pray I have no open cuts and hasten to the shower afterwards. (I never thought I would live in a place where the wave action from passing vehicles would be a problem while bicycle riding). After the Big Rain -- I capitalize it in my mind when I think about it -- we saw buckets of water flying out the front door of a neighbor's house. We went to investigate and saw he had an enormous sunken living room, which looked more like a wading pool. We came to his rescue with an electric sump pump, and had his house pumped dry in a couple of hours. We've been friends ever since.

Wilma strikes. The power goes out at 9:00 PM, and the winds are very strong - but I've seen strong winds here before. So far the night of the hurricane has boasted a carnival atmosphere: candlelit board games, music on the battery powered CD player, and we still have cold beer. The house seems invincible, and we pat ourselves on the back for our thorough preparations. Besides, we survived Emily with nary a scratch. But Wilma builds in strength relentlessly. The intensity of the wind has increased far beyond any I have ever seen. The sound is amazing, like the roar of a living thing. The rain comes sideways, and the window frames and glass doors bow inward so far that I am sure they will explode. Soon, we're mopping up wind driven rainwater with blankets, and opening windows in an attempt to equalize the pressure. Emily taught us that if the hurricane wants a window open, you had better open it, or the hurricane will. A rapid one-two punch pressure change slams my sinuses and lungs. Now I'm officially concerned. We give up worrying about whether the doors will hold and start moving to the safe room. Our efforts to keep the second floor dry have failed, and water cascades down the stairs to the first floor, most of which is covered in water. A late dinner comes from cans as we listen to the onslaught. We don't sleep well, waking frequently to check for a breach in our defenses. The next day, around noon, things really quiet down. The sky brightens a bit and we chance a look out the front door. It seems the worst has passed, and we start to move some things back into the living room and mop up. Miraculously, our phone still works, so I call my Mom and ask her to check the weather on the Internet. She tells me the storm is centered on Cozumel, and my heart sinks, as this can only mean one thing. We are in the eye. Sure enough, in a few hours, as Wilma crawls along, the back eye-wall strikes, with winds much worse than before. We grit our teeth and hunker down for the long haul.

Despite the risk of hurricanes, or torrential rains and flooding, the weather doesn't usually kill anyone here. It was common to hear of someone dying every week in a winter traffic accident back home, or sometimes even freezing to death during an ill-considered drunken walk late at night. There would however, be an upside to a good stretch of forty degree below zero weather here in the tropics - it would keep the bugs at bay. I tire of the endless battles with ants, roaches, scorpions, mosquitoes, flies, and moths. In fact, while storms might lay waste to property and plant life, insects seem to thrive with a renewed vigor after a hurricane. The destruction of the forests (causing a drop in bird and bat populations) coupled with vast areas of standing water are no doubt to blame. Remind me to cancel my subscription to the Insect of the Month Club.

Sunday morning finally comes and Wilma moves on, leaving us exhausted and battered, three days after our tryst with her began. I'm stunned when I leave the house. It looks like Beirut, with many trees downed or simply gone, and power lines and poles littering the streets. There is not a single leaf or branch left, and naked gray tree trunks are everywhere. Our garden is destroyed, with only the headless Royal Palm trees still standing. Every metal thing I see is bright orange with rust, and I realize that it has been raining salt for three days. Waves over forty feet high pounded the coastline, and whole buildings on the waterfront simply vanished, as did all the cruise ship piers. Not a single store on Avenida Rafael Melgar, the popular shopping street, survived unscathed. Roofs collapsed, walls fell down, and many stores were stuffed full with tons of ocean debris. It looks like we all have a lot of work to do.

In the end, Wilma subjected us to damaging winds for over sixty hours, perhaps the longest any place has had to suffer the wrath of a hurricane. November 14, 2005 marked the return of the cruise ships, just three weeks after Wilma. Much depended on how this first post-hurricane visit went. Any negative feedback from the tourists and we might have found ourselves off the cruise itinerary for a long time. The locals all knew this, and their brief taste of a fully stopped economy made them keen to impress. It was one of the most important days this island had seen in nearly two decades, so I headed downtown to see how things went. Three massive cruise ships sat offshore, and tourists filled the plaza and the main shopping streets. There was an electric party atmosphere all around me, with street performers, music, and busy cantinas spilling patrons onto the sidewalks. The cleanup was remarkable. Power was restored to much of the city in only seven days, by linesmen that poured in from all over Mexico. Those businesses that could not reopen in time were boarded up, but even the boards were painted with festive island scenes. I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, my chest literally swelling with pride in my new home and countrymen. Nobody sat wringing their hands waiting for FEMA to save them. Everybody here simply got to work, and did what had to be done.

We're at a favorite local seafood joint for dinner. It's been a year now since Wilma, and the island has mostly recovered. Some cleanup and rebuilding continues, but things are looking much better. I notice that the sun feels warmer lately, and the sky looks bluer than it once did. Soon the waiter is bringing us our sizzling plates of food as we munch homemade corn chips with blazing hot salsa. My favorite meal of grilled fish, rice, and cold beer, tastes better today than it once did. A brush with death improves the value of life. It is indeed our very mortality that makes living worthwhile.

Savor it. ©2006 Fox Hill  
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