Surviving Hurricane Ivan: One Family’s Story

Both born and raised in Grenada, Michelle and Andrew Bierzynski share mixed lineage that probably represents just about every nationality and race of people to come to Grenadines over the past five generations, including African, Indian, and Polish.

Today they stand on the deck of their temporary home, a duplex that they used to rent out. Higher on the hill are the ravaged remains of their former home, known as the Old Fort, where a famous Grenadian battle was fought more than 200 years ago.

“The shops were busy with people shopping for supplies on the day before Ivan struck, but most of us were still in denial. That was me actually; I was worried about having to bring it all back to the store,” says Michelle wistfully.

“There was no rain before-just a slight overcast. We were waiting for the storm, but we were mostly watching TV. Whenever a commercial came on, we turned to the weather channel. Our 12-year-old, Alena, had taken sandwiches, her hamster, and a medical kit downstairs to our basement level-partially as a game to play, I’m sure, but also because she knew that if the storm got bad, we’d need supplies. Mom was overshopping, and Dad was securing the business, so it was reasonable for the child to expect that we might miss one meal in the kitchen, eh?”

“The television began blinking, “Andrew picks up where Michelle left off. “That was the first indicator, and after a while, Michelle went to check the phones and they were for naught. The rain came-typical storm stuff. I was standing in our living room near the terrace when I when I heard this mass of sound-not like the usual sounds of a storm but a roar. We went outside to the railing where we could see the harbor. Near the beach, the trees…” He breaks off, searching for words to describe the indescribable.

Michelle begins again. “Alena and I grabbed bed linens and ran into the basement bathroom. Andrew was still on the terrace, mesmerized by the site of the storm blowing all around us. I never curse my husband, but when I looked at him standing there with this horror blowing all around us, surely about to take him away. I screamed like a drill sergeant, ‘Andrew get your ass downstairs now!” she laughs. “He obeyed. That was three o’clock in the afternoon; we didn’t come up until six o’clock the next morning.”

Andrew explains, “At the fort, we have no shelter at all. We’re at the top of the hill, totally exposed. Once we got the first pass, the roof peeled off. After the pressure got to be too much, I dared to begin opening and closing the door; the pressure was against it, and I thought my arm will fall off. We were lucky that a piece of railing had lodged itself down the stairs and up against the doorjamb to block a lot of the major debris from getting at us.

“In a hurricane, the rain doesn’t fall perpendicularly: it’s horizontal. The force was 200 miles an hour (320 kilometers per hour). Our neighbors said they looked out and saw a mass of wind just crash into the fort. They saw this action and said “Oh, well they’re gone now.”

Michelle nods in agreement. “We could look through the potholes of the basement and see the houses just being torn apart,” she says. “The wind was so furious. I asked Andrew, ‘What do you see? And he said, ‘Michelle, people are dying out there.”

The hurricane brought furiously gyrating tornadoes, three of which hit the fort. Then in the middle of the storm came the false calm.

“At one point, it all just stopped,” Andrew says. “I said to my wife, ‘This is the eye’ but I needed to get out and check on my brother, who lived in the apartment attached to the garage. I went out, climbing over the debris. I had to get to him, but the mist was so thick, there was almost no visibility. I called to my brother, and after the fifth time, he answered. He had hidden under a cabinet in the apartment, which, thank goodness, proved sturdy enough.

“From 10 to 12:30 at night came more hurricane. High gusts of wind And it rained and rained; it just wouldn’t stop raining, I just kept bailing the place out. We were terrified and exhausted. And then, it just slowed. Then it stopped.”

“After the storm,” Andrew says, “the walls were covered in leaves like textured wallpaper. The force of the wind was so incredible that there were leaves inside the microwave, and the microwave was closed. The same for the car, which was in the carport; bits of green were all over the inside. Bullets of wood-little fingernail-size splintering-had penetrated the bumpers. Only an unbelievable force could drive splinters into those bumpers.”
“By the morning, the mist had cleared enough so that I could see the senior citizens’ home in the valley 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below, which is where my mother lives,” Andrew continues. “I could tell that it was badly damaged. I told Michelle I had to go check on my mother, and I started walking. It was light gray and very still outside; trees, of course, were across all the roads. Debris was everywhere, and all the side roads were clogged. I got my bearings, and as I walked, I began to take it all in. Everyone I met was wide-eyed. No smiles. Some hellos, a few asking, ‘How did you make out?’ but because of where we’re positioned on the island, most people could see by then how we’d make out.”

Later, in the true aftermath of the storm, as the shock began to subside, fear, the desperation crept in.

Some people began looting. The roof had blown off the prison, leaving guards and inmates alike to seek shelter in the midst of the storm. There were reports of prisoners walking the streets post-Ivan who had not been “outside” in more than 20 years. “Many of them actually just went to check on their relatives, then went back to the prison and checked in,” Andrew says.

“The whole island looked like a nuclear bomb dropped on it. The hurricane takes slat from the ocean and sprays it everywhere. And then for 3 weeks to a month after the storm, we experienced blistering hot days. There was no ice, no electricity, no running water. The hillsides were gray with saltbake. Every tree in Grand Etang Forest is like a wooden grave marker now. Everybody got skinny; there was little food. We went on the Ivan diet. For weeks, people had that desperate look, you know?

“The residual effects of the stress became a major health factor. People were having severe problems-anxiety; the older folks kept dying. More died in the weeks after the hurricane than during it. Then, when Emily hit just 7 months later, everyone was on pins and needles. There was more stress waiting for Emily; people were so shell-shocked.”

That morning, however, the full meaning of what had happened had not yet set in.

“I have a friend and business associate who is down the hill a bit,” Andrew says. “He fared well, plus he had little ice, so I had a double whiskey with him. I needed it by then. I lefty him after a while and continued onto my mother’s.

“Eventually, as I walked, I met my oldest daughter, Nikita, and her husband. They were coming along the road in their four-wheel-drive vehicle, and she was, of course, in tears. She was the first to say, ‘We’re so lucky’. It was true.”