Last time I was on the island of Utila – the smallest of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras in the Eastern Caribbean Sea – it was the end of July 2016 and I was in the preliminary stages of research for a new novel in which I was planning to include a dramatic hurricane scene.
So I did a bit of research on the internet to find out how weather patterns developed to create a full-scale hurricane. For this research I looked at the National Hurricane Centre (NOAA) website.
The hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from 1st June through to 30th November each year. Interestingly, according to NOAA statistics, of an average 12 tropical storms, 50 % of them will go on to escalate into hurricanes during this time. Hurricanes are among nature’s most powerful and destructive phenomena.
It was during my research on that website I saw reports of a tropical cyclone alert in the Caribbean Sea. Tropical cyclones can develop into tropical storms and hurricanes. The website issues hurricane watches 48 hours before it anticipates tropical storm-force winds.
All this was very interesting for a writer researching for a fictional hurricane so I kept my eyes on it.
And, over the next few days, I saw this cyclone gather momentum.
I watched it become a tropical storm.
Then I saw it had been upgraded with a Hurricane Alert Warning.
l also saw that it was headed straight for the Bay Islands.
The hurricane was coming our way!
As I had been chatting to people on the island for a few days about hurricanes for my research – several people on the island still remembered being slammed by Hurricane Mitch back in 1998 – all of the gritty details were adding grist to my writer’s mill. Others, who hadn’t ever experienced a hurricane, were light-heartedly accused me of conjuring it up!
I was told by locals that Mitch had been the strongest storm of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season. It had been a Category 5 hurricane but had been downgraded as it struck Honduras and stalled over the Bay Islands with winds holding at 100mph (165kph) sending massive waves crashing over the island of Utila, blowing away houses, uprooting trees and bringing down electricity poles. People were killed.
In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 the government of Honduras declared a State of Emergency.
Hurricanes are a serious business and it was interesting to see serious preparations being put in place once The National Hurricane Centre had issued a warning that Earl had been upgraded and classified as a hurricane. For the next couple of days, while the weather was calm and there was hardly a breath of wind in the air and the sea was like glass, the municipality and the islanders worked together to cut down trees that might fall in the incoming storm and damage people or property.
I helped to batten up windows (not many on this tropical island have glass in them) and to nail protective shutters in place.
As Hurricane Earl approached, weather and mood on the island became a little spooky and strange, as dark clouds gathered on the horizon.
There was an underlying atmosphere of trepidation but there was also anticipation and adrenalin so it was kind of amusing to see that instead of panicking most people were in good fettle and even in a party mood. There were many ‘hurricane parties’ and all the bars on the island were, of course, serving The Hurricane as their ‘cocktail of the day’.
In the spirit of the island this is the traditional Hurricane recipe:
Then on the morning of 3rd August 2016 we realised we had been spared.
We were told that the hurricane had changed direction and had missed the Bay Islands completely.
However, according to reports, Earl was a category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in Belize and crossed Guatemala and southern Mexico. Earl caused considerable wind damage and storm surge flooding in Belize, and produced very heavy rainfall across much of Central America, as well as eastern and southern Mexico, resulting in widespread flooding and mudslides. Earl was responsible for 81 deaths in Mexico.
When we all woke to this sobering news on that fateful morning, everyone on the island considered ourselves very fortunate indeed. However, as a writer, I did value the experience of being directly involved in very real hurricane warning preparations. It was incredible and valuable first-hand experience proving nothing in a writer’s life goes to waste because that scene is now a pivotal part of what is an action-packed storyline in my book ‘Island In The Sun’ .
Have you ever been involved in bad weather while travelling abroad?
What happened? Do tell!