Grace Palliser’s adventures in FLIGHT RISKS unfold against the backdrop of the disastrous events of September 11, 2001. What many people don’t know is that the Cayman Islands suffered its own “9-11” – though thankfully not a man-made one – only three years later.
The Cayman Islands is a British Overseas Territory situated south of Cuba in the western Caribbean Sea. Christopher Columbus himself was the first European to mark the Islands on a chart, on his disastrous fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1503. Three separate islands form the group: Grand Cayman (the home of all those banks that novelists and screenwriters seem to enjoy spreading myths about – and. believe me, they ARE myths!), and the “Sister Islands”, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman (where the tranquil Caribbean lifestyle of an earlier age can still be found).
There are many wondrous aspects to life on these tropical Islands, but one aspect might not seem so attractive to some, because we’re sitting in the middle of one of the world’s most heavily travelled “hurricane alleys”.
Hurricane Ivan was the eighth named storm of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, and it eventually became the tenth most intense hurricane ever recorded. It formed in the open Atlantic on September 3rd, and by September 5th it had already intensified to a Category 3 storm with winds of 125 miles per hour. By September 9th, after demolishing Grenada on it’s way into the Caribbean Sea, Ivan ramped up to Category 5 – the highest category on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Its winds reached their peak strength – 170 mph – just as the eye of the storm passed less than 30 miles south of Grand Cayman on September 11th.
The resulting destruction was mind-boggling. Even though our building codes are some of the toughest in the Caribbean, 85% of all the structures on Grand Cayman suffered some damage, and over 25% were either completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. The damages, when finally totalled, exceeded U.S. $3 billion. Fortunately, only two people died.
So where was Yours Truly when the storm struck? By pure happenstance, my then fiancée Melody was attending college in Calgary, Canada, and I was in Florida. You see, I had been looking after a certain wide-eyed teenager whose Canadian parents would have been mightily upset if their daughter drowned while under my care. So, after Ivan devastated Grenada, killing 39 people, I decided that prudence should trump my usual idiotic bravado. My young charge and I flew to Miami the day before the storm hit.
We returned to Grand Cayman on September 15th. As our aircraft made it’s final approach, I couldn’t believe my eyes. As far as the eye could see, building after building stood open to the elements, with roofs blown away and walls collapsed. On the ground, Immigration and Customs were operating from a temporary facility they had set up under a huge tarp on a taxiway apron.
Friends drove us home in their pickup truck. We passed a long line of people waiting on the roadside. The queue led into a partly damaged aircraft hangar. What are they doing? I asked. Waiting to get a seat on a plane, was the reply. Waiting to go anywhere – anywhere but here.
Halfway home, we reached a spot where an entire condominium complex – eighty or so residences – had been utterly demolished, washed inland by a forty-foot storm surge. Someone had used a bulldozer to push a path through the wreckage so vehicles could pass. Piled on either side of us were three storeys of demolished living quarters, peeled open as if by giant can opener, with countless domestic treasures hanging in space. What will my place look like? I wondered. A roofless, dripping rubble pile? My heart shrank.
We rounded the last corner. Our cottage looked intact. I walked around, mystified. What, no damage? I looked up. I was missing a few shingles. I tried my car. The engine started on the first turn of the key. I realised I was one of the lucky ones. One of the very few.
Of course, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. No electricity for two months. No telephone service for four months. But I had a roof over my head. Thousands didn’t. And, hey, I grew up in Canada! Camping is second nature. I emptied the rotting food out of my fridge and made coffee on the barbeque.
The next day, I went to the office – and was amazed. In those days I worked for a law firm that had forty or so attorneys. Here it was, September 16th, only five days after the deluge, and most of my colleagues were already back at their desks. This is a financial centre, they said, and the rest of the world is still working. We need to get back in the game. So they did.
I did as well – after one short side trip. The courthouse was operating with a skeleton crew. The Island’s magistrates were all busy arranging repairs to their ruined homes. The Chief Justice spoke to me. How would I like to sit as a magistrate – just for a day or so? I thought he was kidding. Not kidding, he replied. It seems we’ve got a looting problem.
I took the oath wearing beach shorts and a tee-shirt, and then spent a day remanding prisoners. It was the only day I’ve ever spent in court when the police officers wore Kevlar vests and toted submachine guns. And I guess I’m the only magistrate the bad guys ever saw who presided over his court wearing a baseball cap.
Those were tough times, but memorable ones.
And they were made even more memorable just three months later. The hurricane season had just ended, and we were all breathing easier. Then, on December 14th, we had an earthquake. It measured 6.8 on the Richter Scale. Nobody died. It was just a reminder not to get too complacent. You see, we’re not only sitting dead centre in Hurricane Alley, we’re also sitting right on top of an active tectonic fault line called the Oriente Fracture Zone.
Here in the Cayman Islands, the fun never stops.