Remember Hurricane Earl 2016? Probably not since Hurricane Earl was considered a minor hurricane, didn’t affect the United States and really didn’t get a lot of media coverage. Officially, Earl was only a Category 1 (sustained winds to 95mph) hurricane for a few short hours before deciding to play nice and downgrading himself back to tropical storm status. Luckily, we got to experience those few hours and not only were they not short, I’ve got a few choice words to say about “minor” hurricanes as well. A “minor” hurricane is kind of like a “small” train wreck or “kind of” smashing your finger in a car door. Sure, it could have been worse but it still sucks.
Being from Kansas City, I’ve dealt with my fair share of tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms and various other types of destructive weather but never a hurricane. Upon moving to Playa del Carmen four years ago Deidre and I began contemplating hurricanes – what would we do? Would we stay or go? What sort of supplies do we need? What sort of preparations should we make? We contemplated it for about 7-9 minutes and made an extremely well-informed decision. We’d stay put for a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane (winds to 129mph) or below and evacuate to some undisclosed safe zone for anything more major. This decision was made in a 3rd-floor apartment that was located several blocks from the beach in the middle of a major city and had the added security blanket of an experienced, live-in landlord. Fast forward four years, a hurricane is barreling down on us and we’re in a house just feet above sea level, all on our own, many miles from the closest major city and close enough to the ocean that that spray from the crashing waves continually gets our windows dirty. Time to re-think our strategy or, to be more accurate, actually come up with one.
Earl started out as a tropical storm, or invest, way out to sea. We watched his progression across the ocean and kept monitoring where his predicted landfall was going to be. Would it come ashore south of us, north or us, would it just peter out and end up being nothing? We didn’t want to be overreactive gringos, but we also didn’t want to be the idiots who did nothing to prepare and lost everything. We thought, maybe we should take our cue from the neighbors, but then we remembered we don’t really have neighbors. We were indecisive up until Earl moved from a tropical storm to a category one hurricane and we were in his path. We were on the edge of his path, but we were still in the zone and that was enough for us, time to prepare.
In a hurricane you’ve basically got two choices, stay put or get the hell out of the way. Hmm, what to do? We had three main things to keep safe from the storm – the dogs, the house and ourselves (probably in that order). We thought long and hard about it and realized a few things. We didn’t really have anywhere to go, no hotel was going to give us a room with three wet, hairy and smelly (but lovable) beach dogs and it’s really hard to move a house out of the path of a hurricane. So leaving was quickly ruled out and staying put was our plan. Now what? Get ready, that’s what.
The National Hurricane Center has some lovely things to say about Category 1 or “minor” hurricanes, here are some of my favorites:
- “People, livestock, and pets struck by flying or falling debris could be injured or killed.”
- “…homes could be destroyed, especially if they are not anchored properly as they tend to shift or roll off their foundations.”
- “Failures to overhead doors and unprotected windows will be common.”
- “Falling and broken glass will pose a significant danger even after the storm.”
- “Coastal flooding and pier damage often associated with Category 1 storms.”
- “Even though it is the least intense type of hurricane, the storm can still produce widespread damage and can be a life-threatening storm.”
Fantastic. Guess we better make some preparations. We figured our two biggest concerns would be the wind and storm surge and since there wasn’t much we could do about the storm surge we tackled the wind issue first.
We covered and taped all of the windows and doors, made sure the solar panels were securely bolted to the roof, stowed everything we could carry in the garage to keep it from flying away, lashed down everything we couldn’t carry with tow straps and did a million other things to get ourselves and the house ready for Earl. Would it be enough?
After two days of continuous preparations, I woke up on the day that Earl was supposed to arrive. I quickly jumped up and looked out the window to gauge the nastiness of the seas and the strength of the wind. What greeted me was unbelievable.
I expected a hurricane on the horizon but instead I got a perfect sunrise. Where was the storm? Then it dawned on me (forgive the pun), I was witnessing the literal “calm before the storm”. A few hours later a gust of wind came out of nowhere and ripped one of our hurricane shutters off and I knew we were in for it.
The wind and rain were horrific and the seas were larger than I’ve ever seen the Caribbean. The windows were howling and shaking, the wind was actually blowing water back through the drains in the window tracks and I swear it sounded like a freight train was circling the house at about a thousand miles an hour. The ocean was getting closer and closer to the house and the sliding glass doors were shaking so bad we thought they might burst in. It was crazy! After a couple of hours the storm was intensifying and we decided a strategic retreat was in order and shifted headquarters to our bedroom on the 2nd floor. Just in case the winds finally forced that door to give and let the storm in we stocked our bathroom with few survival supplies.
Hurricane Earl just kept wailing and moaning basically shredding everything in sight and the ocean kept creeping closer. Other than occasionally looking out the window or reassuring the dogs (and ourselves) that everything was going to be alright, we basically just pulled the covers over our heads and pretended nothing was happening.
After a week Several hours later the storm abated with the sunrise and things began to return to some form of normalcy.
As the sun came up and the wind and the rains died down we realized that we’d done our job. The dogs were safe, the house was still standing and neither Deidre nor I was injured (unless you count lack of sleep or gin poisoning). Woohoo! But, just because everyone was alive and standing, that didn’t mean we’d come out unscathed. Time to go out and assess the damage.
Upon assessing the damage we saw that we had a lot of debris to deal with and some things to fix but that we’d escaped major damage and came to the conclusion that the cleanup and repair effort could wait until after breakfast. Hurricane surviving is hungry work so we headed into Mahahual to check on friends and get some grub.
In town, we found quite a bit of damage and debris but nothing too major. The ocean had come across the malecon (beachfront boardwalk) and many palapas had blown or washed over but everyone was already hard at work cleaning up, repairing damage and getting the town back to normal.
Thankfully for me, my favorite breakfast restaurant Nacional Beach Club was still standing and even open already!
As scary as the storm was we escaped without any major damage. We’ll be cleaning up for a few more days and I’ve got a couple of roofs to build and a couple of solar panels to get mounted but we were lucky. I’ll say it again – We were very, very lucky. As “minor” as little Category 1 Hurricane Earl may have been, he killed six people in the Dominican Republic and decimated San Pedro, Belize a scant 50 miles south of us. So next time you hear someone on TV talking about a “minor” hurricane, take heed – there is nothing “minor” about a hurricane.