As Bertha forms in the Caribbean, starting this years hurricane season early, boding ill for the summer to come, I reflect on this phenomena of nature we are so familiar with, yet who we as Americans give English names to. Huracan, or hurricane as we now call these storms, is an ancient deity, born of the (Arawak) Taino goddess Guabancex.
The people of the Ancient Antilles coined the very word "hurricane," from the Arawak word "huracan" for the ferocious storms that wrack the Caribbean at the tail end of every rainy season. The natural harmony of Boinayel and Márohu that commences in May, and persists for almost half the year, is sometimes violently interrupted by the thunder and lightning of the angry goddess Guabancex. With her flanking forces, Guataubá who musters blustery winds and thunderous rainstorms and Coatrisquie who swells the rivers to flood, the hurricane goddess wreaks havoc on the Antilles. By August and September, the playful reciprocity between Boinayel and Márohu gives way to the mayhem of Guataubá and Coatrisquie, under the swirling arms of Guabancex.
I have only lived through one hurricane. As a child of 10, my parents had moved us to Louisiana. We were living in Baton Rouge on the campus of historically black Southern University. Faculty housing consisted of reconverted (flimsy) army barracks, raised on posts with no basements. We were only about a quarter of a mile from the Big Muddy - the Mississippi River.
Hurricane Audrey was the first major hurricane of the 1957 Atlantic hurricane season. Audrey was the only storm to reach Category 4 status in June. A powerful hurricane, Audrey caused catastrophic damage across eastern Texas and western Louisiana. It then affected the South Central United States as a powerful extratropical storm. In its wake, Audrey left $1 billion (2005 USD) in damage and at least 419 fatalities. At the time period, the devastation from HurricanAudrey was the worst since the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.
We were not prepared for the ferocity of the storm that hit early that year, and as the waters from the Mississippi rose, up to the point where it reached the bottom of the house we feared we would be swept away. My mother prayed as we watched in horror as the winds ripped off the roof of the house directly behind us, and our frail home shifted, creaked and groaned, rocking on the cement posts that were all that kept us above the swirling waters. Snakes crawled up on the front porch, and animals could be seen struggling to stay alive and afloat.
The eeary silence of the eye was soon followed by the howling of winds as the storm passed overhead, and though Baton Rouge was spared most of the damage, the town of Lake Charles was virtually wiped off the map.
In an era predating Doppler radar, weather satellites and Jim Cantore, approaching hurricanes did not attract the kind of attention that modern-day residents of the Gulf South take for granted. Lake Charles' lone television station had begun broadcasting three years earlier, and radio stations from throughout the region could reach Cameron listeners back then, but it's hard to know the extent to which Cameron Parish residents were warned of the approaching hurricane and just how powerful it was.
According to local lore, many residents thought they had more time to seek shelter or higher ground but were caught by surprise when the hurricane strengthened and sped up overnight as it approached the Louisiana coast.
Furthermore, this was a rare June storm in an area that had not experienced a serious hurricane for many years. Even if the appropriate warnings were communicated, many people probably just didn't take them seriously.
Audrey turned out to be the only Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in the United States in June. While it also flooded lower Vermilion Parish to the east and took sustained winds above 100 mph into Calcasieu Parish to the north, Audrey did its worst in Cameron, where some accounts had 20-foot waves riding the 12-foot storm surge at the coast, topped by winds as strong as 150 mph.
The official death toll was placed at 390, but that's widely acknowledged as a low-ball figure; there were individuals or entire families whose bodies were never recovered from the area's wetlands. A variety of state, federal and local sources have estimated the fatality total between 400 and 600.
All in all, it was, for Cameron Parish, exactly the wrong hurricane, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
I thought of Audrey today as the news spoke of Bertha. Curious, I did a search to see if the actual history matched my childhood memories of fear of the raging gods that could tear our life apart and reduce my strong atheist father to a person who fell to his knees in foxhole prayer.
She is rarely mentioned these days, when we talk of the more familiar Katrina. Her name will never again invoke the power of nature.
The name Audrey was soon retired and will never be used again to name a hurricane. Because of this, it was the first and only use of the name Audrey for the Atlantic Basin. Hurricane Audrey left $1 billion (2005 USD, $147 million in 1957 USD) in damage and at least 419 fatalities, most in eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Audrey is ranked as the sixth deadliest hurricane to hit the United States mainland since accurate record-keeping began in 1900. No future hurricane caused as many fatalities in the United States until Katrina in 2005.
Those people who live in the Caribbean hurricane belt know the fear, awe
and dread each season. Their traces of Taino and Carib blood call to the storm and prayers are offered up to turn the winds from its path.
One of my students remarked that here in the States we rarely read news of the Caribbean, other than as a place hurricanes are passing over on the way towards Florida or the Gulf Coast, but most islanders mark life's events in relationship to these times of devastation.
The earliest Caribbean storm of record took place during the American revolution.
The Great Hurricane of 1780, also known as the Hurricane San Calixto II, is the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. Over 27,500 people died when the storm passed through the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean between October 10 and October 16. Specifics on the hurricane's track and strength are unknown since the official Atlantic hurricane database only goes back to 1851.
The hurricane struck Barbados with winds possibly exceeding 200 mph (320 km/h), before moving past Martinique, Saint Lucia, and Sint Eustatius; thousands of deaths were reported on each island. Coming in the midst of the American Revolution, the storm caused heavy losses to British and French fleets contesting for control of the area. The hurricane later passed near Puerto Rico and over the eastern portion of the Dominican Republic, which at the time was known as Santo Domingo. There, it caused heavy damage near the coastlines; it ultimately turned to the northeast before being last observed on October 20 southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland.
The death toll from the Great Hurricane alone exceeds that of any other entire decade of Atlantic hurricanes, and is substantially higher than that of the second-deadliest Atlantic storm, Hurricane Mitch.
Mitch, a name which seems more appropriate for a sing-along tv show affected not only the Caribbean islands but destroyed many areas of the Central American mainland.
Hurricane Mitch was one of the deadliest and most powerful hurricanes on record in the Atlantic basin, with maximum sustained winds of 180 mph (290 km/h). The storm was the thirteenth tropical storm, ninth hurricane, and third major hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season. At the time, Hurricane Mitch was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever observed in the month of October, though it has since been surpassed by Hurricane Wilma of the 2005 season. The hurricane also tied for the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, but it has since dropped to seventh.
Mitch formed in the western Caribbean Sea on October 22, and after drifting through extremely favorable conditions, it rapidly strengthened to peak at Category 5 status, the highest possible rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. After drifting southwestward and weakening, the hurricane hit Honduras as a minimal hurricane. It drifted through Central America, reformed in the Bay of Campeche, and ultimately struck Florida as a strong tropical storm.
Due to its slow motion from October 29 to November 3, Hurricane Mitch dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras and Nicaragua, with unofficial reports of up to 75 inches (1900 mm). Deaths due to catastrophic flooding made it the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history; nearly 11,000 people were killed with over 8,000 left missing by the end of 1998. The flooding caused extreme damage, estimated at over $5 billion (1998 USD, $6 billion 2006 USD).
I have friends who still speak of Georges which affected Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Let us offer prayers to the goddess to spare those in her path this year, and remember those who served as sacrifices to her fury. Let us also think ahead to the politics of emergency preparedness, and here's hoping that the duly appointed inept demi-gods of FEMA will no longer hold sway in our future administration.
What hurricanes do you remember? Which have you lived through?
Please share your stories.