The long night of terror – Hurricane Luis remembered (Sep. 5, 1995)

POSTED: 09/5/13 2:02 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – It’s been nearly 20 years since that day, 18 to be exact. I can still remember it clearly. In the week before the 5th of September, 1995, we watched on the TV as the monster Category 4 hurricane slowly formed and approached – a perfect, symmetrical disc with a distinct eye – not fully realizing the danger we were really in, that all of us on the island were really in. How could we? It had been 35 years since the last powerful storm directly hit St. Maarten, Donna in 1960.

My parents’ home overlooks the wide Atlantic. I remember the day before was a clear day. St. Barths could be seen in the distance, along with the vague outlines of Mt. Misery on St. Kitts further out on the horizon. The air was still and tense, not a cloud in the sky. The storm was like a vacuum, sucking up all available moisture and energy, building itself into nature’s expression of sheer destructive will, indifferent to human suffering.

The word hurricane is derived from the Taino Amerindian word “Hurakan,” a wrathful god of destruction in their mythology. That’s exactly what Luis was: a wrathful god of destruction, a deadly titan moving slowly toward our fragile way of life.

As September 5th unfolded the weather gradually worsened, with the outer bands of the behemoth beginning to cover the island. The skies grayed. The sea was already angry, churning and smashing the coastline. Just off the porch, pelicans could be seen gathering themselves into formation, gliding on the roughening winds. Their kind has no choice but to ride out a hurricane. As a storm rages, the weak and old and young die, succumbing to fatigue, only the strong survive to continue the species, a potent reminder of the reality of this world.

An exodus of yachts made their way to the lagoon, where their owners thought its sheltered waters would keep their vessels safe. They would soon tragically learn the hard way. The lagoon became a death trap. Luis devastated the marine community.

As the day wore on, the weather began to intensify. Tropical storm force winds blew steadily, with more forceful gusts on occasion, as Luis approached. We took a drive up the road to check on my grandfather and Miss Alma Peterson. My uncle Guy stayed with us, because at the time his house was wooden and he didn’t feel secure, a good thing too. As we were leaving Miss Alma’s house, we had to shelter against a wall momentarily when a strong gust came. Looking up on the hill, the wooden house was gone where it stood only moments before.

We quickly made our way back home. A part of our fence was torn off and washing ashore. My uncle and I, filled with certain bravado, decided we’d hazard the crushing waves and “rescue” the missing piece. I narrowly missed the strike of a floating log. Looking back, it was probably not a wise idea to get in the water.

Back inside, the gusts intensified and sustained hurricane force winds were now howling outside. The wooden porch covering collapsed with a loud crunch. Our ears began to pop just as they would on a plane as the atmospheric pressure dropped drastically. The eye wall was approaching with sustained 140 mph winds and even stronger gusts. The skies darkened and it’s hard to describe the awful noise of the wind. In fact, there are no words that can adequately describe it but it made you feel immeasurably small. The hurricane was upon us.

Across the bay a tornado touched down, a wicked finger Luis had dropped to the ground, and started snapping a row of coconut trees like they were tooth picks. It meandered its way along and slammed into a steel warehouse, scattering metal panels like paper and folding steel I-beams like noodles.

We were in shock as the concrete walls began to shake, the gusts were unbearably frightening. The force of that storm made me realize how insignificant a man is on the broad back of this earth. A loud crack sounded on the wooden roof, something heavy slammed into it and tore a gaping hole. Dim skylight peered in. Then, as if a giant were trying to get at us, the roof began to peel off. The doors moaned and shuddered under the strain, bending at impossible curves, until they blew inward.

The roof was beginning to go, and we knew we had to run for our lives. There is an apartment beneath the house, solidly built within the main structure. It was our only hope. We gathered against a wall near the main door, all the while the roof beginning to sheer steadily away and debris raining down indiscriminately.

My resourceful mother had wisely saved our most valuable documents in sealed plastic containers, but we lost everything else. We carried the containers with us. My uncle and father led the way, waiting for a lull in between gusts. I held my little brother and sister close and we ran. We had to pause and stay close and tight to the wall as the hurricane blasted gusts and debris flew everywhere. Trees were coming down near us.

We made a last run around the corner and made our way into the apartment, but even then Luis was not satisfied. The fury of a Category 4 hurricane was reaching its maximum and it felt like we could be sucked out of the apartment’s living room. The strength of the wind was incredible, it was like the living breath of a vast creature, rhythmically inhaling and exhaling.

My father and uncle tried to brace the apartment door, but gave up and we retreated further in. The doors blew in with tremendous force, so much so that anyone standing behind would have been crippled, or worse. The one bedroom deep in the bowels of the house was our last stand. We barred the door with the mattress and my uncle sat there with his back against it as the rest of us huddled in the gloomy twilight. Our dogs had followed us and were our companions in the dark, all of us in silence.

There was a small window that offered us a glimpse at what was going on outside, the storm was now at full force, our ears continuously popped as the wind shifted and pressure continued to drop. Luis was so powerful that it picked up small stones and flung them everywhere. Rain and sea spray hazed everything. The concrete walls now shook with each gust and we felt the way small mammals must have felt at the beginning of time, helpless against the overwhelming forces of nature.

The long night of terror dragged on. Luis was a slow storm and its passage was an agonizing ordeal, pummeling the island mercilessly. Above us, the concrete support beams made the symbol of a cross; a small comfort to those huddled in fear and robbed of hope. We could hear the damage happening upstairs as things slammed continuously around, helpless to do anything.

When dawn came and the winds were manageable, we emerged to survey the damage. It was catastrophic. The hills were stripped clean of foliage. The house was a mere shell of its former self, full of dangerous debris. Down by the seaside the washed up corpse of a dolphin rotted in the sun. Luis spared no one. For at least 3 months afterwards we lived without running water or electricity.

It has been 18 years, but the impression will never leave. Like me, there are many on the island whose experiences are similar; some far worse. Thankfully, St. Maarten is better prepared than before. But we must never forget, or take for granted, the destructive power of a major hurricane.

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