Like most of us glued to breaking news coverage on the afternoon and evening of Monday, September 18, 2017, I was apprehensive as newly-christened Hurricane Maria approached the Caribbean, her progress broadcast live on CNN and The Weather Channel in exhaustive detail. By now, I was past storm fatigue and settling into a state of denial. This couldn’t be real. The third major hurricane to strike the region in as many weeks, Maria’s malevolence was palpable, her colossal skirt of rainbands whirling across the screen in a rainbow of infrared colors. Tracking west toward the Lesser Antilles, she was rapidly gaining strength.
The 2017 Hurricane Season was already shaping up to be the costliest on record. On August 25, Harvey had smashed into Texas at Cat 4 strength, crushing tiny Rockport, drowning the Houston metroplex, and leaving a trail of near-total devastation from Aransas Pass to the Louisiana border. From September 6-8, “Nuclear” Irma had wrecked the Caribbean: wiping out Barbuda, trashing the US Virgin Islands, and grazing a frightened Puerto Rico. The beast ground into Cuba as a Category 5, then turned her sights north to Florida. After chewing up and spitting out the Keys, Irma finally made landfall on the US mainland at Marco Island on September 10, creating billions more dollars in damage. Only Hurricane Jose, petering out over open water on September 20, never made landfall.
Less than two weeks after Irma mangled Florida, a new contender appeared on the scene. Originating as a tropical wave in the western Atlantic, the disturbance quickly mutated into Tropical Storm Maria on Saturday, September 16. By Monday, the storm had doubled its muscle in twenty-four hours, morphing into a Category 3 hurricane. Developing under “remarkably favorable” conditions over warm waters that afternoon, the storm strengthened explosively, reaching nightmarish Category 5 level on Monday evening. By that time, Maria’s wind speeds had doubled from 80 to 160 mph.
Hurricane Maria made landfall on the mountainous Caribbean island of Dominica at 915 pm EST on 9/18, the first Category Five hurricane to strike the island nation in recorded history. As the hurricane’s eye tracked north by northwest at nine miles per hour, the storm’s fury raked the island clean, transforming villages and towns into debris fields, leaving no structure undamaged. Maria vented her wrath on the island’s volcanic peaks, shattering Dominica’s rainforest and defoliating every tree left standing. Throughout the night, the storm howled, sounding to terrified residents like the voice of a demented spirit.
At ground zero, the island’s 72,000 residents were held captive by Maria, many seeking shelter in cupboards, wardrobes, basements, anywhere safe. People created impromptu bomb shelters from kitchen refrigerators, ripping out the shelves to seek refuge inside. The utter darkness of night intensified the horror. In the blind maelstrom that had enveloped the island, Maria’s screams were answered by the sound of paradise in agony. As thousands huddled in the dark, their homes, churches, schools, businesses were ripped apart around them, splintering in the wind. The noise was like the collision of speeding locomotives. Huge trees snapped and were hurled as Poseidon missiles by the storm. Rivers widened tens times their normal course or changed courses altogether, their familiar loveliness transformed into whitewater torrents that washed away everything in their path. Only the passage of Maria’s silent eye offered temporary respite from the crashes—and the screams.
Huddled beneath a mattress in the basement of his official residence, Dominica’s Prime Minister tweeted a series of increasingly alarming messages as the nightmare unfolded:
” The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God!”
“ We do not know what is happening outside. We not dare look out. All we are hearing is the sound of galvanize flying. The sound of the fury of the wind. As we pray for its end!”
“My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.”
“ I am being rescued.”
Many of His Excellency’s fellow Dominicans had taken early warnings seriously and were riding out the worst in shelters across the island. Others less fortunate were forced to flee their homes as houses flooded, or roofs and walls gave way. Escaping into the night as safety collapsed around them, islanders ran blind into the dark. Exposed to the elemental power of the storm, the unlucky were swept away in the raging floods and mudslides. Others were crushed inside their homes.
Respite would soon come for the traumatized survivors. Having spent a portion of her fury pounding Dominica’s mountain forests into pulp, Maria roared away into the night as a Category 4. The shrieking winds died, the pelting rains softened, as she loosened her grip on the island. Setting her sights on Puerto Rico, Maria tracked north by northwest, gathering strength from the warmth of the deep. As dawn finally penetrated the shocked stillness of aftermath, daybreak over Dominica revealed a paradise transformed.