Hurricane Georges -- 1998

From the Log of the Sirius II and Other Sources

There was a strange feeling about as the sun rose over Key West Bight that September morning. Almost uncanny. Preternatural. It was Wednesday, September 23rd. Weather wise, it was no different than most of the other mornings that I have experienced since arriving in Key West 18 months ago. It is hot. Perspiration soon drenches my bed in the V-berth of the Sirius II. Reluctantly, I rouse myself.

The sky was clear and the winds were calm. The barometer read 29.85, down slightly from yesterday. Low, but not alarmingly so. Yet there was that feeling. The sound of captains and crew readying their pleasure craft and charter boats for the day’s activities were not reverberating throughout the Bight. It was almost silent. Eerie. The sea gulls and sandpipers were not about. There were many vacant slips as several boats had departed yesterday afternoon and evening. The skippers claimed that they knew of proven hurricane holes where their boats would be safe from the possible effects of Hurricane Georges.

(I learned later that one liveaboard couple in a smaller sailboat anchored out, knowing that they didn't have adequate ground tackle for the storm, nor could they afford the fees the marinas charge, chose Cuba, where the Georges was then located, as their hurricane hole. They arrived in Marina Hemingway [Havana] about 5 hours before the hurricane winds did. But by then Georges was already on a path away from Cuba and toward the Florida Keys. A gutsy decision.)

Hurricane Georges was still 600 or so miles away, moving at 14/15 miles an hour. Weather stations had been tracking it for almost a week now, with experts previously predicting the storm to turn North by now. We had been counting on this prediction. However, after slamming into Puerto Rico and now crossing Hispanola, with no change in direction as anticipated, it was becoming obvious that Key West was well within the hurricane's path.

City Marina workers had come by the various buildings under their jurisdiction on Monday to measure the doors and windows for boarding. They had started boarding up the unused and unopened offices yesterday. Now they were preparing to finish the chore. Businesses such as the Key West Ice Cream Factory could no longer stay open, although none really wanted to as there were no customers anyway. Tourists and other nonresidents had been ordered to leave.

I was having trouble focusing on the task at hand. Should I stay in my slip, which appeared to be a very secure slip, or should I take the Sirius II out to the moorage area and drop the hook? Actually, I had three anchors ready to drop. The anchorage around Key West is notorious for its terrible holding ground for anchors: a thin layer of mud or soft sand on very hard coral underneath. The possibility of dragging anchor was obvious, coupled with at least 24 hours of very rough seas if I chose to stay on the boat. No thanks. I've been there, done that. So at last I make a decision to stay in the harbor, not knowing how much surge to expect nor how much debris from the nearby buildings will be flying around the docks.

My heart wasn't in it. I had trouble focusing on the need to prepare for the impending hurricane. Slowly I convinced myself that the boat was worth saving. I needed to get moving. I had all ready removed the two solar panels. Now I had to take everything else off the deck, strip it clean. Off came the two head sails, the mainsail, the extra diesel cans, the sun shade, the extra propane tank, the bar-b-que, the dodger and all the paraphernalia I had placed under the dodger close to the companionway. Stowing all of these in the cabin and v-berth became a challenge.

Next, everything still on deck had to be doubly secured. The stern anchor was in the way of the dock line. It had to be relocated. I elected to keep the dinghy inflated and now had to secure it to the foredeck. I had already lashed the wood pram securely atop the dock. The outboard motor was stowed in the cockpit sail locker. Finally, I had to run four sets of double lines to tie the boat securely between the pilings and the dock, allowing for a surge that was expected to be five feet above high tide.

During all of this preparation, I get a call a call from Rita. "Steve," she says. "I'm in Colorado."

"I know," I said. She had told me about this guy in Colorado who wants to marry her and sent plane tickets to show his commitment. (You show commitment by sending a round- trip ticket?)

"I have a problem." Jackie (her roommate) had left, as had thousands of others to get away before the hurricane arrived. Now there is no one at her house to take care of her house and bird. I ask about Charlie, another friend of hers who usually steps in to help in cases like this.

It turns out that Charlie is busy preparing his own business and home for the hurricane. Then it dawns on me: "What have you done to prepare your house for Georges?" I ask.

Nothing, it turns out. Now she can't return to Key West even if she wanted to. Flights into Key West have been canceled. So, I get together with Charlie and we map out a plan to take care of the bird and the house. I was nailing the last shutter up as darkness fell Thursday night. The winds were nearly strong enough already to blow me off the ladder. It was too late to return to the Sirius II so I bedded down at Rita's house, or at least tried to.

I spend the night tossing and turning as the wind shakes the house. The rains fall. Airborne objects bang against the side of the house. I watch the panes rattle until the electricity is snuffed out. Then all I could do was listen. By myself. In the Dark. Wondering. Thinking. Becoming depressed. At daybreak I make contact with Rita. The phone still works! She couldn't sleep. She had been tracking the hurricane on the weather channel. She told me where to find candles and a battery powered radio. A radio! One Key West station was still on the air. I listen to it whenever I can for the next 48 hours. (All of the practice sessions we listen to on the radio that say "if this had been an actual emergency you would have been directed to dial..." is pure bunk, at least in Key West. It was happenstance that the commercial radio station US 1 had a working generator and its tower was not blown over. And, its management chose to stay on the air.)

Around noon I detect a noticeable lessening of the wind. From the radio I learn that the eye of the storm is now passing over Key West. I call Charlie. He heard that it is a big eye, might last for an hour. I quickly check Rita's house. No visible damage. I hop on my moped and head for the Key West Bight, about two miles away.

I now start to appreciate the power of the hurricane. Trees, utility lines and debris are all over. Many streets are blocked as I weave in and out on my way to the harbor. Much to my relief, the boat is fine, as were all the nearby boats that had been secured properly. I couldn't board her as the winds were blowing her away from the dock. A couple of smaller boats were under water, to no real surprise. Other boat owners were also checking on their boats and we exchange information. The winds were returning as the eye of the hurricane was passing. The back side of the hurricane would soon be upon us. I cut my socializing short and head back to Rita’s house. I was having trouble keeping the moped upright as I return in the wind-driven rain.

The worst of the storm came that afternoon, night and into the following day. Rita lost one tree in her front yard (onto her roof, with no apparent damage to the roof) and three trees in her back yard, one causing some damage to the steps to her back porch. I waited out the night in candle light and listen to the radio until they shut down for the night. It was a long night. But the phone worked the entire time! My self pity was mollified a little after one lady called the radio station to lodge her protest against nature: She was so scared that she had locked herself in her closet with her water bottle, radio and phone!

As soon as I could Saturday I returned to the Bight to check on Sirius II. All still OK. Now there were a few more boats down throughout the harbor. On Christmas Tree Island, about I/2 mile away, I could see at least five boats aground, boats that had been anchored!

Most of Saturday was spent listening to various people calling in to the radio station asking for information, giving damage reports and warning everyone how dangerous it was to go outside. "Don't drink the water" warnings were issued, as the roots of falling trees had broken the water lines in many places. We still had water in Key West; we just couldn't drink it. It rained all day.

Sunday I was able to board the Sirius II to check for damage. None. Although everything was dry inside, there was a lot of rain water in the bilge, which is typical after many days of heavy or steady rains. My only loss: One canopy that I use for collecting rain water while cruising. All-in-all, good news, especially as I don't carry insurance and the boat represents the bulk of my worldly possessions

Over the next few days I busy myself with re-installing the items on the boat that I had removed. The solar panels went up first, as I needed to keep the batteries charged as much as possible without running the engine excessively. Besides, the 12 volt refrigerator on the boat was my only source of cold beer. Priorities. Other items that were already in need of minor repairs were not replaced until the repairs could be made. When is anybody's guess; all the marine repair shops are closed.

Then I start on Rita's house and, later, her vegetarian store. With the help of a neighbor's chainsaw, it took two days to clear her yard and roof of the trees and another half day to clean up her store. Her store still didn't have power one week after the hurricane. Old Town was one of the areas hit hardest in Key West.

Some stores, with their own generators, open within a couple of days during daylight hours. There is a dusk to dawn curfew. No alcohol can be sold. No one knows where this edict came from, but it makes sense. US Highway # 1 is gradually reopened, but only emergency traffic is allowed to enter Key West for several days. Rita has her electricity restored by late Tuesday; the Marina gets power by Friday.

This was my first hurricane. How severe were the winds? Gusts in excess of 100 miles per hour were reported. To me they seemed no more powerful than what I have experienced once in Seattle (one winter when the Sirius II was temporarily moored in Elliot Bay Marina), once at the beginning of our cruising in a storm off the Oregon Coast, and once at anchor off the West Coast of Baja, Mexico. Until I tried to loosen the dock lines that had been cinched tight to the cleats by the force of the wind.... Until I saw all the downed trees, power lines, signs, roofs and a few houses in Key West..... Controversial Houseboat Row, about 20 houseboats moored without permission on state wetlands, is no longer a controversy: all but three have been partly or totally destroyed.

During the aftermath I experienced for the first time waiting in line to file for unemployment and being fed a meal from a Red Cross facility. I was able to observe first hand how people and authorities adjust to a real emergency. People and institutions are resilient; they bounce back quickly to help themselves and others. Although there was a concern about looting during the dark of night (I even slept with a baseball bat by my side), that did not become a major problem.

Leadership was something else. Essentially, there was none in the Keys during the hurricane and its aftermath. The calls to the radio Station became prods for various authorities, independent of each other, to react and issue guidelines and warnings. Many of these were contradictory. No one person or agency seemed to be in charge, or wanted to be.

Georges was only a category 2 hurricane. One wonders how much more structural damage and breakdown in emergency services there would be in the event of a category 4 hurricane, with winds approaching 150 miles an hour. Although there was considerable properly damage to Key West and, especially, the Middle Keys, there has been no reported loss of life. I feel fortunate that I experienced no significant physical damage to either person or property. As to my psychic, only time will tell.

As for myself, once again I found it difficult to make a critical decision until I could visualize the impact on others. Rita's call was a Godsend as it gave me incentive and energy to prepare. When there is no one else involved, I lack motivation and focus. I don't understand why I am not in my own loop??

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Tales of the Itinerant Sailor
Copyright 2007 R. Steven Jones. All Rights Reserved.