By Michelle Rivas
I will never forget my experience in September of 1998 when a cyclone named George passed through our island, causing destruction and devastation of my hometown Santa Cruz del Seibo.
On September 19, I was in school and the teacher suspended class to talk about the danger of the approaching cyclone. She told us how and where we should seek refuge and listed things we needed in case there was an emergency, such as a first aid kit, drinking water, a flashlight, and food that did not need refrigeration. It was understood that the cyclone was going to destroy all the power lines of the city and even those of the whole country. The teacher also told us how we should insure our houses, since there were many who had wooden houses or zinc roofs. With a cyclone of this magnitude, wooden houses and zinc roofs were in danger.
We were dismissed from school and told that classes were going to be suspended until further notice. I arrived at my house and told Mami we should protect the roof of our house since it was zinc and if the cyclone winds were very strong, the roof could fly off. Our house was made of concrete, so we did not run the risk of being homeless, but we could have no roof at all. I belonged to the Dominican Civil Defense and the Dominican Red Cross and had some knowledge about what should be done in that situation.
We had a water tank, which was surrounded by cement on top of the house. Together, my brother and I filled it with huge stones and water, so that it would not fly off. Mami told me that we should wait for my stepfather, “a good for nothing bum,” who had always lived at the expense of my mother, to protect the house.
On September 20, everyone was in their homes, preparing for the arrival of the cyclone. It was already raining; the sky was very cloudy and had a mysterious aspect. I did not like what I felt when looking at the sky. I was afraid.
About 10:00 in the morning my stepfather called to say he could not get to the house because they needed him where he was. I told Mami not to worry, that we could do what it took to survive on our own. I called my colleagues from the Dominican Civil Defense to come and help me tie the roof of my house properly because I did not have the strength myself to tie the knots or pull the rope. They came and everything was perfectly tied down.
Mami had many beautiful and expensive pots, almost all unused, on top of the kitchen cabinets and I decided to lower them in case the wind took the roof. We picked up the televisions, books, and the clothes we had in the drawers and closets. But above all things, we took special care of the drinking water and the food. It was almost 3:00 in the afternoon when I had to go out and do my service with the Red Cross. It was raining heavily, but there was no thunder or lightning. The sky was black and gloomy. The smell of wet soil and freshly cut grass was quite strong and I remembered how much I liked that aroma.
I walked to the corner of the street and I could see some neighbors who were trying to protect their homes from the attacks of the cyclone. At that time my colleagues passed by me and we went to warn people who lived near rivers and ravines of imminent danger. By 6:00 in the afternoon, I was already in my house and although we did a good job letting people know of the danger they were running into if they stayed in their homes, I felt very sad because many of those people decided to stay in them.
The wind was growing more and more furious, and you could feel and hear how the trees shuddered. All that intensity of the wind lasted a few minutes, then the calm returned. That night I did not sleep much; I was standing guard in case my mother or someone in the house needed help or if we had to take refuge somewhere else. Apart from the rain and the strong winds, nothing else happened that night.
On the 21st of August all the worries came. That was the day in which the cyclone was going to arrive on the island. My family and I did everything we could to stay calm. That day Mami made us a breakfast of sausage with egg and cheese. All that food was also accompanied with yucca, yautia, and yam.
By 9:00 in the morning, the sirens of the different military bodies were heard. This was done so that all the people stayed in curfew. We made sure to put the the medicines, the candles, and the gas lamps that we were going to have to use after the cyclone in a special place. As I was a member of the Civil Defense and of the Red Cross, I was able to go out in the neighborhood to check the condition of my neighbors and see if someone needed last-minute help. Three neighbors needed help and I was able to find more people to solve their different problems. It was raining hard and the wind intensified its strength.
I went to my house and waited. My siblings were playing chess and mom was cooking again when we felt the house shudder on all sides. We heard the alarms of the firemen sound three times and I understood the message: the cyclone had arrived.
I repeated with my family the steps to follow in case of an emergency and, strange but true, we agreed on everything. The locrio that mom was cooking, never got cooked at all. Mami did not understand what was happening to that rice; it would not heat up. That food we ate was the worst food of all.
The wind continued to increase its strength and the rain fell with more pressure. Two trees fell. Boom! My whole body trembled. The roof was shaking. Our pets were scared and we all were, too. The roof of the kitchen moved a lot up and down and I knew that part of the roof was going to fly off soon. I tried to adjust it a bit more, but the wind was too strong, so I asked my family to move out of the kitchen.
CRAAACK! TAAANN! PUUUMMM! That’s how the kitchen roof flew away. We had a plastic tarpaulin to prevent the rain from entering the house, but we could not put it on because the wind prevented us from doing it.
The minutes passed and then there was a horrible tranquility. Nothing was heard. Nobody spoke, only my mother, who was praying. We knew that the worst was about to come. We decided together that we were going to the neighbor’s house because we thought that the roof of our house would go completely with the eye of the storm. We took advantage of the peaceful moment and left.
After five minutes of chilling calmness, the rain returned and with it the wind and everything else. The center of the cyclone was passing through my city at that time. That was the most frightening sensation. By 1:30 in the afternoon the wind had stopped, but the rain continued. I went to my house to see how destructive the damage had been, and it was only the zinc roof in the kitchen that had left with the force of the winds. I put up the plastic tarp to keep the rain from entering the house and helped my sister to dry the house a little.
I dressed in my special rescuer clothes and went out to help. I saw so many broken houses. So many people needed help. So many had trees collapsed. The destruction caused by the cyclone was so enormous that I will never be able to forget it. My city was totally filled with debris. We did not have power lines or any other kind of cables. Electric wires were on the ground. Above all, we had many refugees forced to stay in the school buildings.
That day, many material things, of great economic and sentimental value, were destroyed, but thank God that not a single human life was lost. Despite everything, I was happy in the end. We were alive and if we were alive we could build everything again.