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Hurricane Maria, Dominica: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Survival Story

PROGöran Höglund

Hurricane Maria, Dominica: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Survival Story

Alex Ocana, a Bolivian, is the lighthouse keeper at Cana Point on the north coast of Dominica. Alex decided to sit out the hurricane in his own wooden cottage which he had built in the vicinity of the lighthouse. It is an account that is extremely useful for architects and those in the construction industry as well as others. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @DominicaCanaPt and you can also follow his Facebook posts at: https://www.facebook.com/SrAlexOcana

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So, to begin with I am sitting on my porch a few hundred feet from the ocean (overlooking the Atlantic side). My garden has turned into a faery garden with hundreds, maybe thousands of butterflies eating the pollen of the flowers which popped up after the hurricane. This is special to the place I live, i.e. the Great Southern White migrates, and the first place they find in Dominica is my flower garden and they decide to hang out. In my quite long life, I can say that after over a month of being surrounded by hundreds/thousands of butterflies I am still amazed.

Let me tell you about the hurricane. I built a wooden house on a cape exposed from all sides except the south which is covered in coastal woodland. “They” say that wooden houses won’t stand hurricanes. I watched the thing come in: in the late afternoon branches were busting off the trees, the waves crashing on the cliffs were shaking the land. My Internet and light went out about 4:30 PM and about that time I battened down all the storm shutters and after a quick bit of video about 6 PM, closed my storm door and hid out in the dark inside the house. Well, I do have a tactical flashlight, but the battery life is maybe four to five hours.

The hurricane hit Dominica as a Category Five in which it is expected that most houses will loose their roofs or be demolished. Winds of 175 MPH with gusts well over 200 MPH mixed with inches of rain per hour, lightning strikes and crashing waves on the cliffs. A wind that strong will send water from the rain into any and all micro-cracks in any construction. The air pressure, especially on cement block houses with wooden gable roofs, will blow the roof off, galvanized roofing bends like wax, steel beams turn into spaghetti like tangles. trees blow down from the roots or twist and break a few feet above ground. broken branches, pieces of demolished houses, galvanized roofing, rocks, everything blows into houses, windows, doors, everything…imagine moving 200 MPH in your race car and smashing into a cement wall.
So, I am in my wooden house in the middle of the night with 200 MPH gusts making the whole thing vibrate as if there was a jet engine inside the house: an endless roar, the whole house vibrating, branches being blown across the roof sounding like a metal foundry whining for mercy.

I tried to open the door to get to the lighthouse (a safer haven than the wooden construction) and couldn’t open it more than nine inches without feeling like the wind was going to slam it in my face and smash my nose into my brain. Meanwhile I am hearing what sounds like the roof is being blown off, a sort of screaming metallic sound.

From inside, the wall facing the hurricane winds looked like a waterfall, water being blown into any micro crack, the floor flooded. I moved my bed to the kitchen on the west side. It was damp and hot. I laid there turning my flashlight on and off watching the walls and roof “breathe”. Hard to describe, but I could see the walls and roof expand and contract with the 200 plus MP gusts while listening to (in my case, I am in the bush with no other houses around)the branches crash into the roof and porch. Your amplifiers at full power wouldn’t even scratch the decibels. A wall of amplifiers wouldn’t have been heard ten feet away.

About midnight the eye wall hit Capuchin. All of a sudden after five hours of insane blasts everything went still. But, only for a few minutes as one of the tower vortices on the eye wall shifted to wind to from the south. From still to a hurricane eye wall tornado which BLASTED Capuchin village into rubble and, from my damp bed in the kitchen, made my south wall and roof bow outwards line a wooden balloon.


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Here is how it went: dead still, contiguous blasts of lightning, a 200 MPH plus wall of wind and air pressure painfully popping my ears, the wall and roof acting like a balloon made of wood, bowing our, slamming in. My flashlight, now dim, illuminating the waterfall, now coming from the south, the sound of tearing steel, breaking trees. . .
I caught the rhythm of the absolute stillness with the blasts of wind and about midnight, ran out the door along the porch and was surprised, awed, that nothing was damaged. the porch was full of debris, tree twigs, but the house intact.

Around the house, fallen tree trunks, the driveway blocked by trees blown down from the roots. In the midst of total devastation my house and lighthouse stood untouched, essentially pristine.

By ten o’clock the temperate spared to over 90 F. with not a breath of wind and nearly a 100% humidity. The house, which design was for passive air conditioning: catch the breeze from the sea which blows through the shade of the trees and passes through the house. Part of the cooling plan was also having ice cold water on hand, a small electric fan for keeping cool at night when the trade winds die down, and hot showers followed by air drying in the breeze. Overnight this changed to a pristine house in direct sunlight and post-hurricane 90 degree weather with no wind, nearly 100% humidity, and the now visible shoreline reflecting sunlight brilliantly and unfiltered. No ice water, no fan and cold showers. I hate cold showers.

I took a walk to the village. Nearly every house with smashed windows, blown off roofs, or completely demolished into heaps of rubble. Electric lines laid across the road twisted into masses of spaghetti. Power poles broken or pushed over to lay across the road. Twisted galvanized roofing blown into the woods and ravines. Most of the houses without roofs, or completely flattened. Soaked furniture and clothing, sopping, torn up dolls and toys and children’s books blown into vacant areas. Ravines choked with fallen trees, twisted roof metal and boulders.

There was no water, electricity, internet, radio, the road to Portsmouth blocked. Unfortunately, my own fault (kind of anyway). I didn’t have sufficient gasoline for my generator or vehicle. The generator, which had been on the porch, stopped working all together from water in the oil. The stuff in my fridge and freezer was turning into poisonous mush. The banks, I heard truthfully, had their roofs blown off and were closed. The stores were flooded, roofs gone, and subsequently looted so even if one had money there wasn’t any food, gasoline or anything else to buy.

The radio stations were also damaged or destroyed and the only thing I could find were the French stations across the channel from Guadeloupe. I don’t understand French. From what I could see they were lit up of as usual (It being pitch black here in Dominica)and busy listening to reggae and hip hop on the radio.

I was prepared with two weeks of food in tins, ten packs of cigarettes, a bottle of rum and two cases of bottled water. My 200 gallon water tank still stood with water for the toilet. Although damp, nothing in the house was damaged. It took a few hours to clean the floors, toss the debris off the porches. The damp mattresses and blankets dried out quickly in the “merciless” sun.

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My neighbors weren’t so “lucky”. I put “lucky” in quotes because a great many constructions in Dominica are, in spite of how fancy the look from the outside, were built shabbily, below code and not designed for a major hurricane (or for that matter earthquakes or tsunamis). To save money, for example, they build gable roofs with 2″x4″ pine rafters about 3′ apart and nail the galvanized roofing to purloins that are not much stronger than matchsticks. The connections between the roof and the cement block walls are weak. The 2″x 4″ studs are two far apart and held in with a simple nail.

Not many people build wooden houses anymore and what they do build are what amounts to pretty to look at plywood sheathed shacks. The older wooden houses that were built long ago and survived many hurricanes were, by this time, suffering from age, dry rot, termite and other insect damage. The eye-wall winds completely demolished nearly all of them.

Another factor in the destruction of 80% of Dominica’s housing is that houses are grouped in villages. The weaker houses get torn apart and the rubble slams into the next house, often punching in the windows and/or doors. The change in pressure then blows the roof off of that house sending even more galvanized roofing, broken lumber, furniture etc. into other houses and like dominoes one after the other becomes a heap of rubble, or, at best, four walls without a roof.

Even worse, and the cause of many fatalities, is that villages are built along the shore at the mouth of rivers. These ravines were all covered in big shade trees with nice paved streets, electric poles, stores and so on. But, these ravines are death traps. Tropical storms and hurricanes dump tens of inches of rain in a few hours which first cause landslides in the high mountains, then rush with torn out trees, boulders the size of SUV’s and mud down into the ravines where the flood backs up behind bridges, eventually tears them out and send a wall of debris choked water into the riverside villages on the coast. This could be compared to a tsunami coming from inland and if this is combined with a hurricane generated sea surge, the results are deadly.

The surviving houses and businesses that were hit by the 200+ MPH eye-wall gusts and tornadoes either had a four-sided hip roof (mine is a complex design of four sided roofes) or flat cement roofs (which are dangerous in earthquakes).

It was a strange, unrelated government program that saved thousands of lives. A couple years back the government declared that every shack, house or place of business needed an indoor, cement block walled toilet facility and paid for them. My friend “T” and her three kids were in their house when the wind flattened it at about 1 AM. At this time shrapnel was blowing about in a soup of dense horizontal rain and almost continuous lightning blasts. All that was left to do was grab a soaked mattress, drag the kids to the safety of the cement block bathroom, cover themselves up and wait it out. That’s pretty much how many survived.

The people woke up with their houses, furniture, mattresses, clothing, toys, books, photographs, school materials, everything sodden and battered (often blown away as far as a mile)and looked out over yards full of twisted galvanized roofing, broken trees, piles of busted lumber with nails sticking out at odd angles and gardens & farms stripped to bare earth. On the hills above what used to be lush forest turned into brown, leafless stubble interspersed with landslides.”




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