Meeting Matthew

Before you read any further I want you to know this:  I am lucky.  And I am very aware that I am lucky.  Hurricane Matthew took a lot of lives and livelihoods, and mine was not one of them, so I know how blessed I am.  The hurricane took the lives of more than twenty people in my state of North Carolina, and too many more elsewhere.  My experience is nothing compared to those of the people who were hurt, who are grieving, or who have to rebuild their whole lives.  I have been, and still am, praying for them as the damage is dealt with.

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I’m from England, so hurricanes are not something I am especially familiar with.  The closest I have ever come to a hurricane is the ‘Extreme Weather’ unit I taught with my Y4 class.  I know strong winds and heavy rain (of course I do, I’m British).  I also know the danger of the tide (I’ve lived at the coast, too).  But hurricanes?  Just something I saw on the news.

Until a week ago.

My first experience of a hurricane came a month or so after I moved to NC.  We were battered by heavy winds and intense rain – the peripheral effects of a storm off the state coastline.  It was something new – rain like I hadn’t seen before, even in the heights of typical British weather – and was decidedly un-fun to drive in.  But it wasn’t a life-changing event.

Hurricane Matthew was something else entirely.

We had been hearing about Matthew on the news for a week before he hit.  We had the rain and duller weather as he moved in, and we had the constant updates on the radio as to his trajectory.  But, if I’m being completely honest, in my naivety as a British girl I didn’t really think much of it.  Perhaps it’s in my red, white and blue DNA to not be phased by rain and grey skies.  Either way, I wasn’t rushing out to stockpile supplies.

But then a colleague told me they were taking the day off to prepare for the storm.  And then another took a day off to board up their house on the coast.  And then another said, “You do have enough water and supplies, don’t you?”  At that point, I started to rethink my stoic stiff upper lip.

Power could go out, they said; it could stay out for days.  You could lose water, they said; make sure you have bottles to last you.  Have you got canned food? they asked.  You should get enough torches and a battery-powered radio.  Charge your cell while you can.

But the thing is, even with all those warnings, I can’t say I honestly thought much of it all.

Friday came and the weather was bad – rain, wind, cold, the job lot.  I took my driving test in it, though, and passed.  (On a side note, considering I passed my UK test in snow and my US test in hurricane weather, I’m seriously considering a career as a stunt driver should this whole teaching malarkey not work out).  We heeded the advice of our colleagues and my roommate bought a torch.  But I couldn’t find one at a decent price for me, so I just thought ‘Oh well, I’ll look at Walmart next week’.  We bought some bottled water and some food for the cupboard.  But I still went to bed Friday night not worried at all.

Then Saturday came.  The rain had kept me awake most of the night so I knew it was bad.  I got up, early as usual, ate breakfast as usual, but that was the last usual thing I did that day.  By nine am, we had a leak in our kitchen.  We drove our rubbish to the bins on our complex and were soaked to the bone just going from our door to the car.  We reported our leak to the complex office and returned home.  The wind was howling by that point, so our plans of going to the mall were cancelled, ‘Just to be on the safe side,’ my roommate said.

I put my phone on charge, just in case.

Just after lunch, our power went.  By the afternoon, the carpark at our apartment block was a gushing river.  Our phones had gone off at several points during the day, making a noise I didn’t even know my phone could make, a noise that wouldn’t stop until you looked at it.  The TV stopped while I was watching it and flashed the same warning message:  This is an emergency alert.  We were in a flood plain, it told us.

By dark we were scared.  Perhaps it was because it was dark, or perhaps it was because of the constant sirens we had heard all afternoon into the evening, or perhaps it was because in our apartment complex we couldn’t see many candle lights flickering at all.  Maybe it was the emergency alert to our phones that told us to seek higher ground.  Or maybe it was the smell of smoke and flickering red in the sky, the blue and green flashes in the sky, or the trees that surrounded out apartment on three sides that were swaying precariously in the huge gusts of wind.  All of these things made us just a little nervous.  But what could we do?  We didn’t have anywhere else to go, and even if we did we couldn’t drive in the wind and rain with downed trees and flooded roads.  Maybe that was what cemented our fear: all we could do was wait and hope and pray and batten down the hatches, which isn’t much of a choice when it comes down to it.

But that’s what my roommate and I did.  We lit candles (we only had two) and turned our cells to low power mode.  We ate chocolate and crisps because they didn’t need cooking.  We drank wine because it wasn’t going to stay cold with the power out anyway.  We shared funny stories to keep ourselves amused and take our minds off the smell of smoke and the sound of sirens.  We counted the leaks in our apartment (one in the kitchen, four in the living room, one in my bedroom).  We went to bed late because we wanted to sleep, but we also didn’t want to sleep.

When we woke up Sunday, our power came back on.  News reports on the tv showed the extent of the damage and disruption.  There had been power lines down and fires.  Flood warnings were still in place.  But outside our windows, at least, the trees were still standing.

It was an oddly beautiful and clear day.

We ventured out in the afternoon.  Roads were closed, but we planned our route to avoid them.  Still, we hit roads with flooding, roads with trees down, and many traffic lights out. We drove nervously.  Our schools were closed on Monday to students and some of our colleagues were without power for the whole week.

Hurricane Matthew came to our state and hit it bad.  Twenty six people died.  Some places are still without power.  We were lucky, by all accounts, and we know that.  But a hurricane is still a strange new thing to experience and I’m not ashamed to say that I was scared.

I won’t complain about the British weather for a long time yet.

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