My Journey: Through Hurricane Irene

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by Carol Sokolsky

It was the perfect day. Life was perfect for that moment in time—lounging at the gorgeous pool, lush greenery and a four foot iguana buddy hanging around, the lap of the beautiful aqua blue Caribbean hitting the beach only about 50 yards from where we were sipping cool drinks on the steps of the pool.

It was August 2011. My husband, Sid, and I were on the peaceful Isla Verde Beach in beautiful San Juan, Puerto Rico. This trip became one of the most treasured memories of my lifetime, yet two reasons made me anxious, as we venture into this story.

You see, we were in Puerto Rico to allow Sid to relax, to just do whatever he wanted, because at that point, both his primary Oncologist and his Radiology Oncologist agreed that little more could be done to stop the brain tumors. Both doctors told us to have fun and relax with no interruptions.

I dearly love Puerto Rico. I’d been working there for over 25 years and knew both the island and many of the people very well—friends, dear friends. Sid had only been to Puerto Rico once on one of our cruise stops. Yet it was his decision to go to Puerto Rico to lay on the beach and listen to the water lap on the shore.  It was his happy place—the beach—any beach, and it certainly has always been my favorite place, too.  So we made plans, checked the weather, arranged for the wheelchair with the airline, and away we went to make memories for a lifetime.

Oh yes, two reasons, I said, because two days after we arrived, I got a call from my sister who simply said,

“Are you watching the weather?  There is a tropical storm heading right toward you!”

What? That was impossible, since we had checked the weather well prior. Hurricanes usually form and are tracked with plenty of notice— not this particular week, however.  Yes, a fast-forming tropical storm had developed and was headed right toward Puerto Rico—smack dab onto Isla Verde Beach.

Now, part of the “scary” for me was taking Sid to an island—where the only way off was by air—because “what if?” something occurred that required immediate attention?  He was so sick and I was so tired. Yet, all our doctors encouraged us to go, relax and enjoy.  So there we were, on the beach, and all I could hear was my sister saying, “Are you watching the weather?”

It didn’t take long for the hotel to go into prep mode. I suppose a hotel on a Caribbean Island is used to this. But honestly, except for notices in our room, the hotel was operating as though nothing had—or was going to—change.

I called our airline. But by then everyone who wanted to leave was booked. Flights were oversold. The last plane would leave at 3 p.m. on Sunday. It was now Saturday evening. We were not leaving anytime soon. We had spent a beautiful day in the pool and on the beach. I helped Sid walk into the warm Caribbean water.  He was in his element and his happy place.  Saturday evening we had a beautiful dinner under the stars and wondered how the next day would dawn.

Early Sunday morning I walked the beach for a while by myself. The surf had kicked up quite a bit and the sky was cloudy, but certainly not stormy.  As the day progressed, the black clouds rolled in and the water was white-cap choppy. I took videos and tried to soak in the smells and the feeling of who-knows-what was to come.  I was nervous, for sure.  By mid-afternoon it was raining like the heavens had broken in two and within an hour or so, every plane was off the island.  That was the most ominous feeling to me, because I had no way to get Sid home.

By late afternoon the water was coming through the window frames in rooms on the higher floors, and people had to move. The wind was vicious, and the rain was relentless. The storm they were calling “Irene” was still a tropical storm during the evening, and I hoped it would stay just a nasty storm and make its way past us! But that was not to be.

Remember, we were right on the beach. The hotel was 50 yards—half a football field—from the water.  The hotel had boarded up the first floor windows and moved all the furniture inside.  Yet, even with the howling wind and horizontal rain, the casino was alive, the band was playing, and people were milling around everywhere inside.  About 7 p.m., Sid was exhausted and needed to sleep.  No sleep was on the agenda, though, for hours.  We were on the second floor— thank you, God!—the perfect place to be in a hurricane.  We were watching CNN constantly to track Irene, and soon before midnight CNN determined Irene would hit as a hurricane—Category 1 and possibly 2, with winds 96-110 MPH—and it was headed smack-dab for us.

When the power went off, I froze, and then almost immediately, the purr of the huge generator station outside our windows began and never quit the rest of our week at the hotel.  Much of the island was without electricity. The palm trees outside were doing yoga moves all the way to the ground, and then they would whip back up again. It was a storm like no other I had ever seen, and I prayed that we would be okay. Seriously, I prayed all night long. The TV would come and go with the generator, and that, as laughable as it sounds, was what panicked Sid! The humming drove us crazy until we got used to it, but after four more days, it became like part of the air we breathed.

With dawn we assumed the storm would have blown through, since that’s what most hurricanes do.  Not Irene!

She hovered over the island for what seemed like forever.  We had rain—unbelievable rain—for the rest of our stay on Isla Verde Beach, until the day we left, when the sun peeked out a little.  I had a rental car, but we couldn’t leave the hotel because the streets were full of trees and debris and no one had electricity, except those with generators. For the rest of our trip, it was just the two of us talking to each other about life and stuff.  Stuff that mattered and stuff that became memory dust for a lifetime.

Before leaving for Puerto Rico, my sister told us that we must dance under the stars and make memories for a lifetime.  And we did.

The last evening we danced on the patio beneath the dripping cover under the cloud-covered stars.  It was there I realized that these moments would probably be some of my last memories of us just having fun, and I was right.

The next few months became such hard work and by April 2012, Sid had lost his fight and walked straight into the presence of Jesus.  He’s now dancing in heaven, just as I vividly remember him dancing on Isla Verde Beach after the storm of a lifetime, named Irene.

Irene is ranked as the seventh-costliest hurricane in US history. On August 27, Irene slammed the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then re-emerged into the Atlantic, remained over water, and made another landfall in Southeastern New Jersey on August 28. A few hours later, Irene made its ninth and final landfall in Brooklyn, New York, then moved through Vermont and New Hampshire. Throughout its path, Irene caused 56 deaths.  U.S. damages alone were estimated at $15.6 billion.

Being a journal-girl, I kept a moment-by-moment account of our journey together in Puerto Rico—memories that I will carry for a lifetime.  And yes, we danced under the stars, sans stars, of course!

And I always knew that Irene would make a great story later.

Carol Sokolsky is a contributing writer to the918, and loves the beach more than just about any place on earth.  For most of her life, she’s always said, “I’d love to experience  a hurricane — from a distance!” This one she experienced up-close-and-personal, and memories were made forever.  It is, however, no longer is on her bucket list!

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