Cyclone Winston - Surviving a Near Death Experience
It's been a long time since I posted anything to this journal. There's been a lot to document, and honestly the near death experience we went through was very emotional and very difficult to process, and I've unfortunately always been a bit prone to, well let's call it 'emotional instability'. Samantha and I tried to figure out how to approach telling our story and eventually just kind of gave up altogether. What follows is what we had drafted from Samantha's point of view, with some editing and a few sentences by me at the end to conclude the story:
We were awoken by a phone call at 7:20 in the morning. My head was fuzzy from the night before so I didn't want to answer, but Mike thought that she wouldn't be calling that early unless it was really important. She knows we aren't morning people. It took a minute to clear my head and call her back. She was crying and telling me that a huge cyclone was predicted to hit Koro and that if it did, we'd be “flattened” and there would be “nowhere to run”. I asked her what we should do and she said we needed to get somewhere safe, away from the trees but she wasn't sure if there was a safe place from a storm like this. Laural was a ship's captain, had been through cyclones in Hawaii, and lived on Koro for 11 years, she isn't one to be over dramatic so we felt it had to be taken seriously.
Things began to feel unreal. I told her we'd get our camp packed up and secured and meet her at the Bali house. The storm was coming in about 24 hours so that began our ticking clock.
It was a strange feeling, we didn't know where to start. Just the day before we'd gotten everything set up again and now we had to take it all down. We worked all day throwing everything into boxes, taking down the tarps and tent, and finished by covering everything with tarps and tying it all down to the platform.
Lewai helped us carry some things to the Bali house where we figured they would be “safe” from the storm. Then he had to go secure his house. He warned us that it might be nice and sunny today but not to let that fool us. He said it would be a big storm and we needed to “look out for our lives”. We'd have to leave everything and hope for the best.
We monitored the storm throughout the day and it looked like it might be heading south, away from Koro. We kept our fingers crossed and headed to Laural's. When we got there she seemed a bit less stressed as she'd been watching the storm's progress as well. We decided to stay put, sleep in the Bali house, and make a decision on whether we needed to go depending on how the storm, dubbed Cyclone Winston, was tracking. “If it looks bad” we'd head to our friend Catherine's house. She had a strong house and a shipping container that we could go to “If it looks bad”. “If it looks bad” became the mantra of the experience and that is a terrible plan for a survival situation.
Mike had a bad migraine through all of this, and hadn't slept for two nights, so he went to sleep early. The surreality of the situation continued as I looked outside around sunset and saw two horses grazing on Laural's garden in front of the Bali house. That was a first. She chased them away before they could damage her yard.
I tried to distract myself by watching a horror movie, a remake of “The Fog”, but it wasn't interesting enough to distract me from watching the cyclone. It wasn't moving south after all but heading closer to Koro each time I looked. I was checking all the storm tracking sites I could find to see if they agreed. Things weren't looking good.
I decided to try and get some sleep. It was a restless sleep and only for a few hours. I woke up around 2am and checked the storm again. It was now looking like a direct hit. The cyclone had been upgraded to a category 5.
There was no chance of getting back to sleep. I chatted with Willie a bit and Mike's sister contacted us, she said the family was afraid for our safety. Mike woke up around 3am and talked to her and his mom for a little while, reassuring them we had a plan and we'd be okay. By then the wind was really picking up and we thought it would be best to eat an early breakfast and be ready to go at first light.
As the sun came up the winds and rain started gusting and already the house was rattling a bit. We worried that we wouldn't make it out in time to stay safe from falling trees. But we didn't think the house would hold up if the winds really were as strong as they were predicting. We'd looked at the Beaufort scale and seen that houses can fall apart at 100mph and this storm would be much worse than that.
At around 8am Laural and Lili were ready and we were on our way.
As we walked away Laural looked back at her place and said “Let's take a good look now because this might be the last time we see it, it's so beautiful and it might all be gone when we get back”. We didn't really believe that would happen, but Mike took a quit pic of her house and kitchen before we left.
The walk to Catherine's house was rainy and windy but not too bad. Lili was happily singing a made up song...
“We're all going to die” lalala “the big storm is going to kill us” We'll all be dead”. We chuckled a bit saying she had a dark sense of humor, but it was a bit disconcerting. Finally Laural told her “Lili!! Stop it!”
Catherine seemed happy to see us. She was cheerful and optimistic as we all were at this point. She'd been waiting for help putting the storm shutters over the glass doors in the living room and upstairs bedroom, so we decided to do that before things got too bad. The wind was already strong and there were a couple of gusts, one that pinned Mike against the railing. The first thing Mike asked about when we arrived was using the shipping container to wait out the storm, but she said she didn't really know if it was set up and hadn't planned on using it.
As we worked our neighbor Steve dropped in to check on us. He said that the overall plan was for people to head to a nearby structure, the Hibiscus Lodge, “if things got bad.” I asked if that was a stronger building than everything else, wondering why it was the chosen gathering spot. He shrugged and said he didn't know. It sounded like most everyone was going to hole up in their houses for now. A Fijian friend dropped by and told us not to worry, the house was strong. Koro people have lived on the island forever, so we figured a local was the voice of authority on the subject. Little did we know that they had never experienced a major storm like the one that was on us -the second most powerful in the world's history.
Once the shutters were on we settled down a bit and listened to the wind get stronger. The internet didn't last long, the last report I read before it went out was calling for 160mph sustained winds, and Mike's attempt at live Tweeting the storm was cut very short. We asked Laural what she thought and she made a slitting your throat gesture. She asked us if we'd scoped out a place to hide when the 'shit hit the fan'. We all chuckled. The seriousness of the situation still didn't feel real. I think Laural was the only one of us who really knew what was going to happen, but she seemed very calm about it.
We ate some yummy food and joked around. We posed at the dining room table pretending to pray. We laughed that it was the quintessential cyclone position. Little Lili was her usual playful self.
The wind and rain intensified and water was pushing in under the doors. At first we tried to keep it all mopped up. It was especially bad in the upstairs bedroom. So much water was coming in that it was draining into the downstairs room. We took a look at the big glass door and could see that it was rattling badly and looked like it could blow in at any moment. We tried putting tape on it like they do in Taiwan during a typhoon, but it wouldn't stick to the wet glass. Catherine wanted to fix it but we were afraid someone was going to get hurt, so we went downstairs.
Laural and Lili were cuddled up on the sofa bed in the living room and I joined them. The house was rattling like a freight train and the wind was intense. I kept thinking “I hope this doesn't get any worse, this must be as bad as it can get.” It got worse. At a certain point we started hearing a groaning sound from above during the strong gusts of wind. I asked Laural what it was and she said “the roof”. That was a reality check for me, the moment when I truly realized that this could become a life threatening situation. I was scared to the point that I was shaking and my heart was racing. So, I decided to distract myself by playing Candy Crush on my phone with Lili.
Suddenly there was a huge gust and a big chunk of the roof flew off. In retrospect I think the top floor came off too at this point. I screamed and ran for the bathroom. Unfortunately people react to crisis in different ways, I'd like to say that I waited to see if everyone was ok and help but instead I adopted an “every man for himself” strategy. I just wanted to run away and hide. Once I'd gotten to the bathroom I finally stopped and remembered everyone else, so I poked my head out. Laural and Lili were right behind me, Mike was making sure everyone made it to the bathroom and Catherine had disappeared upstairs again! She later said that she was trying to stop the storm from getting in the room and got blown down. It seemed like Mike and Catherine were in and out of the bathroom a few times while Laural, holding Lili close, and I crouched down, in survival mode. Mike thought to grab our bags that were only a few feet away in the living room and pull them into the bathroom and he stashed his guitar next to the fridge. Catherine kept trying to go back into the living room and save things while Mike was trying to get her into the bathroom where it was safe. When things get that bad 'stuff' becomes 'just stuff'. For most people, the more your life is in danger the less you give a damn about your stuff.
We huddled together and listened to the storm tear up the house. We debated the possibility of other places we could go if the bathroom went. We thought it best to stay put as long as possible. After some time the bathroom wall started to vibrate and actually create a low pitched hum from the pressure. We agreed that it probably wasn't going to last much longer and Mike said "we're leaving now!". The house itself was a lost cause, but the shipping container was up the hill about 30 steps through dangerous debris that was being blown around at 150mph or more. Pieces of sheet metal roofing were blowing around and could easily decapitate someone. Catherine and Laural suggested a small storage room, used for storing food and the solar battery bank under the house. Mike had been out earlier and noticed that the front porch was protected from the wind as the front wall created a wind break. So we could all go out there and he could scout out the storage room. We decided to go for it. But when we tried to open the front door the pressure was holding it closed as if it had been cemented shut. For a few minutes we thought we were trapped. Then there was a lull and Mike got the door open. We ran outside into the storm.
Mike and I ran down first to check out the room. We only saw a workshop in a caged-in area. There was stuff blowing around wildly and it was too dangerous, so we went back up. My glasses got knocked off my face and I thought we'd get blown away, but we were able to hold on to the side of the house. When we went back up Catherine explained that the storage room was next to the cage and went down with Mike to show him and check it out. Laural and I stayed huddled on the porch, she was still holding Lili close (Lili had been passed out like a light switch when things started getting bad). We sat crouched down looking into a churning mass of debris, every once in a while something big would smash into the walls near us. We both thought we were going to die at this point and we said our goodbyes. It really was a lot like those scenes in the movies. We had accepted that this was the end, the fear at this point was only how much we would suffer before we died.
Mike came back up and told us that the storage room was intact. I ran down first and Mike helped Laural and Lilly get there. Catherine wanted to go back up to the house to try and get her computer and things but we convinced her to stay. We discovered that the door was jammed shut but didn't know if the pressure was holding it or if it had somehow locked us in. Either way it looked like we were stuck so we prayed it would hold up as the wind shook and rattled the walls. It didn't feel very secure after watching the rest of the house break up. We pulled two freezers together and huddled between them and the wall away from the wind. There was a glass window that we were afraid would shatter and the walls were moving with the gusts. Water poured onto us from above. There were some big metal bowls in the room so we held them over our heads for “protection”. Even though we were all afraid for our lives we had to chuckle at how silly we looked.
We were in the storage room for about an hour. Every time the wind gusted really badly we assumed the position “heads between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye” and held each other. During lulls we talked, told stories, and even joked around. It was a weird contrast. Suddenly the wind died down and the door opened by itself. We looked out to see calm weather and sunshine. The eye was overhead!
We ran to the Shipping container which was where we should have gone in the first place, and we survived! From the moment we got in there, the intensity of the experience died. Mike Played his guitar for a while, Steve (the guy who had checked on us earlier) arrived with his family, and we holed up through the banging and destruction outside, but we were fine.