Being on a island in the middle of the South Indian Ocean when a powerful Cyclone approaches is what I imagine playing right field in pro baseball must be like. Long stretches of low grade boredom interrupted by short intense periods of terror.
I’ll admit to being a little cavalier about ‘cyclone season’ when we planned to come to Mauritius in January. After all it had been the ‘rainy season’ while we were in Seychelles and it only rained at night. Not really a spoiler. We were never in and danger. We just got wet.
In 1989 I made the mistake of going to New Orleans with my sister and some friends during Hurricane season. While we were in the cab from the airport to our hotel the highway was packed with cars heading out of town. I asked the driver why the rush hour was so late in the evening? She turned her giant James Brown curlers around and through her gold teeth said “child, that’s not rush hour, that’s evacuation!” Maybe we should have checked the weather forecast before we came? Hurricane Georges packed wind speeds of 150mph and was rated a Category 4. The Mississippi River flowed backwards with the powerful storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico. But we were in a big fancy hotel so not really in any danger. Unless running out of prawns is considered dangerous. We filled our bathtub with water for drinking and masking taped the windows to prevent flying glass. All flights out were cancelled as the airport was being used for a shelter. So we sat and waited. It was the boredom I remember. Six women in a hotel room for five days can get a little Orange is the New Black cukoo, without the love scenes. We drank the mini-bar dry and went so far as to watch Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee’s honeymoon home movies. Now THAT’S dangerous. Some things you just can’t un-see.
We shouldn’t have taken the hurricane so lightly. Georges killed 603 people, and caused nearly $6,000,000,000 in damage, mostly in Puerto Rico. The cyclone that was approaching us, Bansi, was bigger and stronger than Georges. I commenced shitting my drawers. Even Cam who is normally a pillar of strength and fixes everything for me just shrugged. What could we do about it anyway?
Slightly obsessively, I searched the net for info. South Indian Ocean Cyclones are born in the Mozambique channel between Madagascar and mainland Africa and from there make their way over the immense expanse of the warm Indian Ocean building strength and growing in size. Even with all the modern high-tech satellite weather tracking gear they are quite unpredictable. It’s a best guess scenario. Like a baby, once they form they are named. This one was called “Bansi.” She was cranky from the start gobbling up warmth and moisture. I think many cyclones are named after women because they are powerful, unpredictable, potentially dangerous while being beautiful, and lets face it, occasionally a total bitch!
Once the likely trajectory was announced and the official warning was posted for Mauritus I noticed our landlord Keith’s face went pale and he stopped joking around like usual. He wasn’t really saying much of anything, just muttering to himself while removing all the furniture and heavy planter boxes from their terrace below us and locking them in the garage. I think I heard him mumble “I’m getting too old for this” under his breath as he dismantled the table from our deck. His sweet and tiny wife Georgette kept smiling and told me to “charge your phone and cook.” She’d was a born Mauritian and had been through this many times. I started prepping chicken. But how much chicken? Georgette grinned “if she sits on us we will lose power for a few days and you’ll need food and water. ” “If you get scared, you can come and sleep downstairs with us. Any time.” Our apartment was an addition on top of the original house. The metal roof had already begun to hum with the growing gusts. I asked Georgette how often this happens? “Well the last one that hit us bang on was 15 years ago, they say it’s time for another one.” Great.
At first I wasn’t scared at all. The picture of calm. “Way to go Tara, you are fearless!” Clearly the yoga was working. We went to the local grocery store and people didn’t seem to be in a panic. It was all quite orderly. We bought plenty of bottled water, wine (nice French red, I rationalized, doesn’t need refrigeration), food that would last if our fridge turned off. Then “Class I” was announced which meant we had 36 hours before Mauritius was likely to be affected by gusts of 120km/h. I meditated, I read Salman Rushdie, I boiled eggs. Nearby there is a weird cult where the woman had a vision to build her house in the image of a dove. That should offer some protection, right?
When Class II was posted which gave us as far “as practicable, 12 hours of daylight before the occurrence of gusts of 120 km/h.” That didn’t seem unmanageable. I still felt calm and envisioned us playing crazy eights by candle light. It would make for a good story wouldn’t it? Then Bansi got a bee in her bonnet and leapfrogged through the intensity levels like a teenager with ADD texts her friends. Rapid fire. She went from STS, to TC, to ITC to VITC in the span of 6 hours. We had some acronyms to learn:
Severe tropical storm: Tropical disturbance in which the maximum of the average wind speed is estimated to be in the range 48 to 63 knots (89 to 117 km/h).
Tropical cyclone: Tropical disturbance in which the maximum of the average wind speed is estimated to be in the range 64 to 89 knots (118 to 165 km/h).
Intense tropical cyclone: Tropical disturbance in which the maximum of the average wind speed is estimated to be in the range 90 to 115 knots (166 to 212 km/h).
Very intense tropical cyclone: Tropical disturbance in which the maximum of the average wind speed is estimated to exceed 115 knots (212 km/h). (Mutha-F$%&*#R)
I decided to tell my Mom. The text went something like this. “Hi Mom, bit of a storm coming, we’re safe, we can sleep downstairs with our landlords, nothing to worry about. xoxo”. I knew she would worry. Heck, I was starting to worry. Even though I pledged I wouldn’t. The pictures from NASA and other weather sites were not reassuring. Bansi was immense. A “Super-Cyclone,” one weather geek called her. “She’s the size of India!” a friend commented on Facebook. Ya, and Mauritius is a little peanut in the pond. About 65k tall and 45k wide. Were we stupid to even come here? How much damage could sustained winds of over 200km/h do?
Our sweet sensitive daughter doesn’t really like fireworks because they’re too loud. It was time to tell her some facts without frightening her. It’s going to be loud, dark and scary but we’ll be ok. We can move downstairs to the strong cement part of the house and we’ll be safe. It was built to withstand this. Georgette told us that last time a big blow came to the island she and Keith tied a rope from the front door to the back door inside the house and sat on the rope to stop the doors from blowing off. Very Wizard of Oz. I pictured us sitting on the rope all night long like birds on a bouncy wire. Since then they’ve installed metal shutters. No more sitting on the rope.
The other thing we didn’t know is that Cyclones move slowly, excruciatingly slowly. Her speed ranged from 6 to 12 km/h. Just get it over with already!! If you’re coming, come and we’ll deal. Every six hours another bulletin would be posted with her strength and location. Bansi hovered above us for days gaining intensity. We went for walks in the rain. Georgette and Keith were so kind and generous. The drove us around and made sure we had what we needed. They reassured us that we would be fine. They did this through gritted teeth. The schools were closed and we went to withdraw some cash in case we needed it during the power outage. Cyclones often change course and drop straight down without much warning. Bansi hovered due north of Mauritius. I had to stop looking online because storm chasers were getting all excited about her size and scope. “Bansi more powerful that Cat 5 Hurricane”. “Bansi headed for Mauritius.” “Bansi biggest tropical cyclone in years.” Not a contest we’re interested in winning thanks.
The weird thing was, here on the west coast of Mauritius in Rivière Noire. Things stayed reasonably calm. We watched from our covered deck on the mountain as the skies darkened, billowing black clouds raced by horizontally, huge 5 – 9m waves crashed over the reef out front, the turquoise of the sea faded to steely grey, no pleasure boats ventured out, huge freighters steamed south along our horizon as fast as possible to get out of her path, but the local weather wasn’t that bad. How could such carnage be coming when it seemed peaceful here? Georgette and Keith told us that the last time one hit Mauritius this whole area was levelled. Not a tree left. They were worried about their gorgeous garden, their labour of love packed with stunning, mature, tropical flowering plants, fruit trees and shrubs. It could all be washed away. When I asked Georgette if she was scared she pumped her fist quickly in and out saying “my heart is like this”. There was a teensy glint of fear behind her wide angelic smile.
Nights were the worst. We shuttered the windows and doors and so were encased in a metal box like a family of gerbils. The winds howled loud and fierce through the corrugated sections of roof waking us up with a jolt all night long. In the dark of night when the paranoia snuck in I envisioned the roof peeling off like a sardine can. The heavy sheets of rain made me wonder if the metal barriers Keith had erected at the front gate would be enough to divert the rivers of water streaming down the hillside behind us. We huddled in the same bed until Cam got sick of us and hit the couch. Then, in the morning, we heard the birds again and that made my shoulders lower a notch. Surely birds wouldn’t be here if we were in danger. They had animal intuition, they could leave at any time. We opened the shutters to see the sun had indeed risen behind all the dark clouds. Another promising sign.
Through another day and night of wondering and waiting, the weather service warned that Bansi could easily curve south and plop right on top of us. Being with Bansi was like being in a terribly dysfunctional relationship. She teased us, threatened us, told us she was leaving only to swerve back our way. She loaded up the ammo and sprayed it in all directions. Just not directly at us. While we were curious about what she might feel like close up, we were wary enough to know she was bad news and we should not bring her home to meet the parents.
The second night of growling winds and blankets of impossibly heavy rain seemed louder and more ferocious than the first. Around 3am I gathered our passports, laptop and important papers into a daypack incase we had to run downstairs in a hurry. I put a flashlight in my shoe. I lined up our runners and socks (we haven’t work socks in months) in case we needed to walk through debris. I emailed my son that I loved him. Ok, maybe that was a little over-dramatic. I always email that I love him. When I heard myself complain about getting bored while sitting in a lovely apartment with two of the people I love most in the world I felt almost embarrassed. What did Nelson Mandela do for 27 years in a small cell?
After three days of waiting, preparing and asking ourselves ‘what else can we do?’ The powerful eye of Bansi had moved far enough east that we were no longer in her most brutal path. The cyclone warning was finally downgraded and eventually removed. Hallelujah! I went for a walk around the neighbourhood and everyone was smiling. You could feel a collective sigh across the island. Almost as jubilant as team who finally scored after a long period of sudden death overtime in the final game. We had all been holding our breath. Whew. A couple of small boats actually dotted the horizon. Our favourite roti shack opened up again at Flic en Flac Beach. Business as usual. No big deal.
I learned some valuable lessons that apply not only to cyclones but life in general. It’s good to prepare but pointless to worry. If it’s going to happen, it will. It it’s not, it won’t. Hamster wheeling scenarios to death doesn’t change anything it just gives you a stomach ache. The advice you give to others is often the advice you should accept yourself. Good friends can be made under stressful situations. Being bored is self imposed. Perhaps most importantly, when trouble is brewing, charge up your phone and cook!
We may stay longer on Mauritius. We haven’t had that chance to have a good look around yet and get out on the water because of the rough seas. Yesterday we went to the dive shop to arrange our first dives for when the Indian Ocean calms and the visibility improves. We asked about extending our rental car contract. The car lease man, Monsieur Bon-Coeur, told us that would be fine. And did we know there is another cyclone forming? His name is Chedza.