Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Great Pause Week 30: Dawn after Delta

"The trick to mental preparation is to keep your focus when everyone around you is losing theirs."

 

STORM SURGE: A life-threatening storm surge will raise water levels in areas of onshore winds by as much as 9 to 13 ft above normal tide levels along the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Cabo Catoche to Progresso, and 6 to 9 ft above normal tide levels along the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Tulum to Cabo Catoche. Near the coast, the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves.
 — NOAA

Since March, after running a permaculture workshop in furtherance of our prototype Cool Lab in Belize, I have been holed up in a small cottage in a sand-street island village in the Mexican Yucatan where I have in past years come to write my books in winter months. This has been an exceptionally long winter — 30 weeks now — but at 73 and having heart and lung conditions that predispose me towards a quick demise should I contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I have remained sheltered in that place, 8 miles out into the Atlantic, from an abundance of caution.

I don’t know that age necessarily confers wisdom. I know several fellow seniors that I consider pretty obtuse. Not to say I have any special position from which to judge, mind you, because I find myself pretty obtuse at times as well, and in hindsight could have done better making many decisions. Still, I feel age confers experience, and sometimes maybe I see things that younger friends may not. I often wish I could have had time at this age to have discussions with my parents, because by the age I had attained when they passed I was incapable of even asking the right questions.

Having gone through a number of experiences where my life hung in the balance, I am not too bold in saying I can offer good advice to people when they find themselves suddenly plunked into danger.

My first bit of advice is as simple as the Scout motto: be prepared. Footnote: if the Scouts had been prepared for dealing with pedophiles they wouldn’t be in liquidation proceedings now. The second rule is you are never prepared. At least, never perfectly provisioned. You can always be mentally prepared.

The trick to mental preparation is to keep your focus when everyone around you is losing theirs. Stop. It may not seem like there is time to pause, but pause anyway. Threat matrix. Inventory. Sequence of coming events. What will you need and when will you need it? Make a quick plan, you can revise and improve it later. Then execute, firmly, without hesitation. Don’t get distracted. If there were a third rule, it would be to keep your sense of humor because funny stuff will happen.

There are many caveats. Having a team is to be preferred, but teamwork carries its own hazards. By way of example, I went to Washington for the Clinton-Gore First Inaugural. I went by the transition office where Al had left me a pass to the swearing-in bleachers. I was deeply honored to be admitted to a viewing seat at that moment in history. 

On the morning of the Inauguration I met with a lawyer friend and we decided to drive out along the Virginia route Bill and Al’s excellent adventure bus was taking into the city. We had the list of their planned stops, some where there would be a podium and speeches, and some where the bus just pulled off the road and they got out to shake hands with those gathered. Towards evening there would be a White House reception and the public could attend, first come, first serve if you got in line early. So our plan was the morning bus stop meet and greet, midday witness to the swearing in, and then directly to the reception line.

I was not surprised to see at the first stop in a small town square that people had to pass through a Secret Service metal detector. I went through the portal and was collecting my belt and coins on the far side when my friend, who reminds me a little of the Brown Buffalo Samoan Dr. Gonzo (based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta) in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was held up because of the metal ring on his hash pipe. In his shirt pocket. Full of bud. 

I thought, “Was he born that stupid or did he learn it?” And that was pretty much the end of that day for me. Funny stuff happens.

This past Monday afternoon I got the word that we were in the direct path of Delta and she would be arriving for supper on Tuesday. I had last looked at the NHC track that morning when Delta was forecast to cross Cuba, presenting little danger to us. I had spent the day cleaning up damage from Gamma, which had delimbed my Uva del Mar, flooded my yard (not my house) and taken my septic tank off line so my toilet and shower were off limits. I was working to drain down the yard with a sump pump and Lysol my bathroom when it started to rain hard. Then came the news.

NOAA predicted a storm surge of 9 to 13 feet. The highest point of my island was 1.7 meters — 5 foot 6 inches.

There was no time to waste, but back to rule #1. Pause and take stock. I made a plan and executed it. I am executing it still, in that I am living out of my suitcase and ready to move again in 5 minutes if required. I know what I have and what I lack.

Living on a sandbar 8 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, I already had a hurricane plan, so that part was easy. I filled waterproof plastic tubs with all my stuff and stacked them above where the waterline had been for Wilma, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. Everything I owned and could move went above that mark.

My new biochar-ferrocement roof was an improvement over the thatch I’d had during Wilma but I tarped everything inside anyway. I steel-cabled my footlocker to a roof beam. Darkness descended to the sound of the police department’s only vehicle going street-to-street with loudspeakers blaring to tell everyone a mandatory evacuation order was in effect for Tuesday.

Gamma exits into the Gulf as Delta approaches

I kept prepping, having time now to go out and rescue some of my recent plantings — ginger, tumeric, moringa, neem, coffee — and get them on shelves. I brought in all my garden tools and my bike and put them above the Wilma line. I elevated furniture. Then I packed my jump kit, prepared to leave, and slept until dawn.

This is where it starts to get complicated. The next part of the story goes back to lifetime experience and what I said earlier about choosing your partnerships. On Monday when I learned about the storm track changing, I messaged my friend, with whom I had earlier discussed evacuation planning. I asked her what she intended. My friend, at 68, is only recently recovered from a month-long bout with Covid and awaiting a postponed surgery, having no cartilage in one knee. She is not infectious and likely swimming in antigens. Traveling is safer for her than for me, albeit more painful. She said she planned to go to Valladolid but did not invite me. Later she texted and asked if I would come with her to assist with her dogs. My threat analysis:

PROS: 

She has her own car, and traveling that way will be much safer than public transportation.
She is not going to be infectious.
Our mutual friend owns a nice hotel in Valladolid and there are rooms available for us there. It is far enough South to be leeward of the hurricane wind, most likely. 
She is psychologically stable.
We get along.

CONS:

Six dogs. 
High Stress. 
Walking only with great pain and difficulty. 
Once we embarked, there would be mutual dependence. 
Her timetable, not mine.

On balance I took the risk and accepted her offer. I had another kind offer from a close friend in Solferino, a town about 15 miles inland. I could stay in her home, which would be closer, and promptly return to the island after the storm passed. My life experience again entered upon my thoughts. During Hurricane Wilma in 2005, my close friend Maria had been living in Solferino and decided to remain there rather than leave. Her hurricane experience was like a horror film. Flying pigs. Drowning chickens, cats and dogs. She had to climb to the second floor to stay above the rising water. Should I evacuate to that location now? No, and I told my friends to leave, too. 

Per agreement with my travel companion, I was preparing to leave home early Tuesday and rendezvous at the dock. The streets were all badly flooded from Gamma and the rain overnight but I had packed lightly and was ready to go. She was not. The hours ticked by as I tinkered about making fast more of my stuff that was not tied down or otherwise well secured. Finally at 9 am she said she needed help and asked me to come to her house.

Me: Can you send the carrito? My bike is hung up and I will have to lock up and take my bag if I leave. [Carritos are the golf carts used on an island that prohibits automobiles.]

Her: There is no carrito [it had been moved inside and the sliding doors sealed with plywood]. Please just come and find a CanAm [off road taxi] on your way.

Me: I don’t know how. I could lock my bag in my house and then come back for it. I will have to wade there barefoot. I have not seen many CanAms. 

Her: Need help.

Me: Yes, but I am on the far side of town and there are lakes. I can help but will need to find a way to get there. How will you get to the boat if there is no carrito? All the taxis are being put on shelves or barged to the mainland. 

Her: Find a way Albert.

Fair enough. You make your choices in life, then you have to live with them. I locked my bag in my house and took a good staff for a long wade 12 blocks to her house. It took a half hour. Once there, I saw she was still directing a 3-man crew attaching plywood battens to her windows and doors. The dogs were leashed and ready to go. Her bags were packed. She sent me wading to the main road to find a taxi. I flagged down three CanAm taxis but they were all en route to get customers who had phoned, so I returned and asked if she could call for one. We both tried phoning around to find a taxi but were unsuccessful. By this time most taxis were being placed on boats to leave or driven up inside buildings. We sat in silence. I suggested we hire the plywood guys as porters but she obviously couldn’t walk, and they were getting anxious to bug out themselves. So I volunteered to walk back to the central taxi stand 6 blocks away, and then the port, another 8 blocks, if necessary. I got to the taxi stand but it was empty, no surprise there. Delta’s landfall was now expected in 9 hours and once the seas got rough the boat-lift would end.

Hasty roller bag tracks on an empty beach

At the port I figured I only had to wait until a taxi discharged its clients and then it would be available. I was wrong. The driver had a list from a dispatcher and went on to pick up the next customer, and with each drop there were fewer and fewer as they were taken out of service and mothballed above floodline. It was now 11 am and the port resembled a scene from the beach at Dunkirk or the Wildlings’ last stand on the beach in Game of Thrones. Finally my friend texted. She had gotten her taxi order in and told me to meet her at the port. 

Fine, I said, I would return to my house and get my bag. I was back at 11:30 but by then she had not only arrived but had been put aboard a boat, ahead of the queues. She said to get a boat and meet her on the mainland. I did. As we were entering the mainland port however, our boat slowed to let another ferry go by. It was filled with Covid isolation patients. I could see the lights of waiting ambulances in the port and knew there were too few. The rest of the patients, if they were ambulatory, would be seeking taxis. Walkers. Questions of contaminated interiors and surfaces buzzed through my mind. I was careful not to touch the railings as I disembarked the boat, not knowing whom it might have been in contact with that day. A light rain fell.

I was able to locate my friend easily by her six dogs but we were not permitted to bring her car to the dock so we had to slowly and painfully make the 200 yard walk to where it was parked. And then, finally, we were safely inside a bubble again and driving away from the chaos behind.

Queueing for buses inland

On the 3 hour drive to Valladolid we were in one continuous swath of flooding and downed tree limbs from Gamma. A harder rain began to fall, more Gamma than Delta, but the two were now behaving as a single combination — jab and swing. A one-two knockout.

I hold the memory of recovery from Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and it is a valued one. The scene after we were allowed back to the island was heartbreaking. Beautiful spa hotels had been reduced to piles of rock on the beach. Some streets were canyons 15 feet deep. Others were crisscrossed with utility poles. Fishing boats are heaved up on rooftops. The dead animals had been removed but garbage still smelled. Power remained off another month, internet even longer. The cell towers were down. The water pipe from the mainland was broken. All the golf cart taxis had been electric before, but soon they would be replaced with 2-stroke diesel. Anything electric was fried. The fishing fleet was wrecked. The ferries and truck barges were aground.

And yet, inside of 2 years, the island was back to normal. Over the next decade the population grew 3 times larger, with 5 times more hotel rooms. These are not all good things, but it showed how resilient people were, and determined to keep living there, hurricanes or no.


I am writing this on Thursday morning from a hotel room in Valladolid. My friend and I, and her six dogs, are all well and good, or at least not showing any symptoms of infection (which could be up to 2 weeks away in any event). The news from the island is promising, with fishermen reporting it was not damaged as badly as in 2005 and should be open again in a few days, rather than weeks. We were lucky this time and no one was hurt. We came away better than many others have this year, as climate chaos takes another step up the ladder of intensity. All too soon, these will be the good old days.



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