19 February 2010

Tuesday, 16 Feb: Cyclone Rene

I wrote the last post on my laptop at home about 3 hours before we got the call. There had been some talk of a cyclone coming through, and the sky to the East was looking darker and darker. Ominous winds were gusting around the house, bending our lush, leafy soursop tree into waves of motion. Weird as it might be, cyclones were always my favorite in the Philippines, having always had the luxury of a relatively well built house and a stock of food and candles, so we were excited for the coming storm in the midst of wondering how it was going to affect the next few days. Peace Corps called all of the volunteers in the area, and told us to "consolidate" to the common meeting point: the Mormon church in town that was built like a castle and could surely withstand a midaeval siege. We all trickled in on Sunday evening, the three of us from the North of the island a little reluctant, a little unwilling to leave our securely built houses with stocks of food and showers, but mostly happy for the chance to see the other volunteers. We hunkered down in a bare Sunday School room for the night, sure that by the morning there would be gale-force winds whipping around the building.

The next morning comes, and it's sunny. We get a call from the main office saying that the hurricane has slowed down over the north island of Vava'u, gaining in intensity, and will be upon us at 1pm. It starts raining hard within the hour, and I go out with two other volunteers to the store to get crackers, jam, tea, and Milo chocolate drink. The staples. We come back soaked, and read, sleep, watch movies. 1pm comes and goes. That evening, we get another call, each time more crackling than the first, saying that the storm will now hit at about midnight. Obligingly, the rain gets harder and harder, seeping in the louvered windows, and the kids of the other families also staying at the church scream delightedly outside. We all drop off to sleep to the sound of hard rain, and wake up at dawn the next morning to silence. My first thought is "we missed it!" Peace Corps calls again, saying that the consolidation order has been lifted, and so after 36 hours in the same hard-floored, cement room, we scatter like mice in front of a flashlight, and struggle back home through the still-hard rain and wind, marveling at what the weather has done while we slept: overturned signboards, roofs bent back upon themselves, tree branches in the roads. The sea is foaming with whitecaps. Mark and I get home, wet, muddy, and smelling like a day and a half in a wet, closed room, and find that our house is intact, but our trees haven't been too lucky. Our beautiful soursop tree that just a week ago was laden with almost bowling-ball sized spiky green, creamy tasting fruit, is lying on its side in our front yard, and two more trees are horizontal in the back.

It was a category 4 storm, but overall, it could have been worse. Power poles were down across the street, one of our neighbors' house was flattened, and roofs needed mending everywhere, but no one had been hurt and most of the damage was fixable. The biggest effect on us was that for the next week, the school and nearby town was without power, postponing school at the ag college for another 4 days, and causing havoc with our fridge. We rushed to save the quickly spoiling food in puddles of water in our freezer, and made several delicacies. Our biggest success was green mango chutney, which we made with thawing grated mango and slightly molding fresh red pepper. We also made spicy pepper vinegar, pickled ginger, pickled garlic, soursop apple sauce, green mango tuna soup, and 4 batches now of banana bread. Even so, our dog and cat got several tasty, foul smelling leftover meals, which they dutifully scarfed down.

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