Late in the night of September 15, 2004, with winds up to 140 mph, the 200-mile wide Hurricane Ivan made its landfall from the Gulf of Mexico, over the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. (Reuters/NASA)

A Stormy Encounter

Let me see if I can still remember what I learnt about hurricanes and typhoons.

(1) In late summer, thunderstorms frequently occur due to the imbalance of air pressures caused by drastic differences in temperatures at various altitudes. Surface-heated hot air rises to the top of the sky, carrying whatever moisture it can before it is dumped back to the ground as hail and rain.

(2) Storm clouds sometimes gather over the ocean, where they feed on the warm moisture drawn up by the storms' low-pressure center. Prevailing winds gather these storm clouds to form one swirling mass.

(3) The earth's rotation pushes these storms along a roughly regular path. Storms gain strength as they travel over the relatively warm and shallow waters of the Caribbean or the South China Sea, and eventually dissipate once they cross over a cooler land mass.

It all sounds so neat, so academic until one faces the destructive might of these tempests firsthand. Everything then becomes personal.

Whenever I see images of roofless ruins, streets turned into canals or uprooted trunks of palm trees, I am reminded of my single experience with a typhoon in Taipei, back in 1977 or thereabouts.

That day started as I played with my matchbox cars, feeling only the giddiness of getting an extra school holiday. I could hear the howling outside, and see the tree limbs bending painfully with the wind, but all this to a well-protected eight-year-old was just live theater.

Associated Press, 09/15/2004: Palm trees are shown resisting the winds of the Tropical Storm Jeanne at Escambron beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2004. Jeanne neared hurricane strength as it approached Puerto Rico, where rivers rose, fields flooded and frantic residents evacuated from low-lying areas to shelters. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

      My parents and a visiting uncle left my sister and me pretty much alone in our room to enjoy our free time; they were too busy applying duct tape to the windows and screen doors.

The thick gray clouds cast a dim pall throughout the morning, but I didn't realize that something was amiss until I noticed the sky was getting steadily darker well into the day. 

Before lunchtime, the electricity was cut. We had a small black-and-white telly that was equipped with a backup battery (it was a Zenith, molded in parchment yellow and printed with the image of the Declaration of Independence as a memento of the American Bicentennial), but there was nothing to watch except news updates telling us nothing we didn't already know. 

I was more interested in the one window in my room, looking over my neighbor's yard one story below. My neighbor, braving the elements in a rubber poncho, was trying to patch her roof with hammer and nails. I could already imagine the cascade in her living room.

A sudden crash startled everyone. Some airborne missile just slammed through a window, spraying glass shards, rain water and mud everywhere. My uncle reacted quickly, shoving a blanket and then a sofa against the breach. My mother forbade her children to help with the cleanup, but my sister and I pitched in anyway; there was nothing else to do.  I proudly produced a small torch I fashioned out of a clean syringe tube, a bulb, a paper clip and an AA battery; what was once a toy that kept me annoyingly awake past my bedtime now became a trusty tool.

The winds finally subsided in the evening, not that we could tell when the day ended and the night began. Two mornings later, the street in front of our home was still a shallow creek, quite unpleasant -- but not impossible -- for my galoshes and the school van to arrive for its scheduled pickup.

CW, 15 September 2004


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