Extreme Weather

I Don’t Fly Well, Or Rather, I Don’t Land Well

Hurticaine MitchReturning to Costa Rica in the fall of 1998.

The trip had gone relatively well, as flights go, although the weather was a bit rainy when we arrived in Dallas. We got on an American Airlines flight listed as non-stop from Dallas to Costa Rica. Once we were secured in our seats. the captain came on the intercom and informed us we’d be making a short stop en route. Apparently American considered any flight where passengers could not debark, a non-stop flight.

The flight was a bumpy one but we really didn’t think much about it. It is almost always turbulent around Dallas. We watched a movie and a couple of hours later we heard the announcement to fasten our safety belts, straighten seat backs, and put away all electronics. We were due to land in Guatemala City. They also advised us there was a bit of rain and the landing might be rough.

As we descended out of the pitch-black sky, the turbulence increased. The last pass the flight attendants made through the cabin was far more attentive to seat belts and trash than any I’d experienced before. They clung to the seats to keep their balance, and staggered down the aisle lifting blankets from people’s laps, checking to make sure all seat belts were securely buckled. There were sheets of rain pummeling the sides of the airplane by now.

I had a premonition of doom, but I’m not a very good passenger when it comes to landings anyway. Always the white knuckles.

The airport in Guatemala City is located smack dab in the center of town, or it felt like it. As we approached the runway the rain was so heavy it looked like thousands of bullets streaking past the windows. Out both sides of the plane I could see buildings so close I thought I saw people moving about inside. The plane bucked and heaved wildly, first dropping one wing and then the other. The pilot wrestled to keep the plane level, and–I hoped– on the tarmac. But it was too rough. He pulled up at the last moment just before our wheels touched, and we lifted back into the sky banking off and to the right.

The pilot said something on the intercom that might have been Spanish. It sounded as though he was speaking into a fistful of tissues or a sock, nothing but a garbled buzz. The flight attendants did not repeat his comments in English. I finally realized what he said, because we continued to bank and buck until we were in position to make another stab at a landing. This time was worse than the first. The same buildings flew past at supersonic speed, the rain streaked past, and just before crashing, we were rescued when the pilot pulled up at the last-minute, making the now familiar banking turn. Again the garbled Spanish. The Latin gentleman across the aisle from me  turned and said politely, “He says we are going to try it one more time and if he cannot land we will divert to San Salvador.”

I wanted to shout, Well what the fuck is wrong with doing that right now? 

We did this a total of three times before we bumped and skidded up to the terminal.

All Costa Rica bound passengers were required to stay in their seats while the lucky got off and went about their business. My armpits smelled and my only thought was about abandoning ship. If the landing was this bad, what would takeoff be like?

It turned out it was much easier than the landing and we arrived safe enough in Costa Rica later that night.

Over the next few days I gathered from the papers and TV news that we had just flown through Hurricane Mitch, a hurricane so violent it is remembered all over Latin America as a benchmark for major disaster and loss of life.

Photo credit: Hurricaine Mitch: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA)
National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS)

Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13

Today’s prompt:

1. Being trapped in a confined environment can turn an ordinary experience into a powder keg. Write about a thing that happened to you while you were using transportation; anything from your first school bus ride, to a train or plane, to being in the backseat of the car on a family road trip.

Under the Weather~

Costa Rica was hit with a cold front and strong winds last week, leaving 200,000 people without light in five provinces. Winds up to 85 km per hour were recorded, knocking down trees and tearing out utilities across the country. The photo above, courtesy of our newspaper La Nacion, is close to Matina and our usual road from the Atlantic coast to the capital, San José. Needless to say, we have been at home and staying put.

Here in Punta Uva the storm raged for days on end. The weather people didn’t seem to be able to pronosticar further than two days, always promising it would abate by then. It did not. It was actually worse than the rains we had in December. It rained so hard that our potrero filled with water and the whole place looked like a lake. I spent most days mopping up water off our wooden veranda and trying to keep things from blowing away. The rest of the time we huddled under blankets, wearing turtlenecks, long pants, and socks. I know this sounds lightweight to you people in the northern climes, but it was cold!

Yesterday was the first day it was clear enough to go to the beach. Alan took the two dogs for their usual afternoon romp and said trash from the ocean had been thrown fifty meters inland, sand was hurled over the little road that hugs the coastline in front of our house, and everyone had plastic covering their porches. A disaster zone.

Today the meteorological people say the cold front has left and there will be clearing over the next few days. That means the mosquito population with bloom like thistle down, but at least it will be warm.

In all that rain our little pond and bog garden acted as they were designed to: the overflow from the pond siphoned off into the bog garden and it, in turn, ran off when it got full. Alan found some lovely water plants in one of our drainage ditches and transplanted them in the pond. One is a lily of sorts that blooms only at night.

The other is this pretty water hyacinth that surprised us this morning with a bloom or two. The dragonfly on the grasses has been there all day. We thought he might have frozen to death in the cold. I hope not! We will need him to do his work when the mosquitoes hatch.


There I was on the third floor of a medical building in San José. A half hour early for my yearly exam, I sat patiently in my OB/ GYN’s waiting room. I had just passed my husband, Alan, a magazine and was about to fan through the pages of one I picked out… when all hell broke out.

At first I wasn’t sure what was going on. The windows behind me started to rattle, and then the coffee pot on the end table next to me began to shake. I heard people gasping. I don’t know whether it’s the years of ER work––something––but it takes a near apocalyptic event to get my adrenaline flowing. I watched as my doctor staggered out of her office and, hanging on the door frame, called out to her husband in an adjoining office. The secretary froze at her desk, her mouth forming a permanent Oh! expression. By now the walls were lashing back and forth and I could hear glass breaking inside the exam room. People screamed out in the hall. A loud rumble filled my ears. How I envision the end of the world.

“Manuel… Manuel.” My doc kept calling.

Any sense of fear I had was momentarily displaced by a sense of disbelief. I have been in earthquakes before but always out in the country and always in manageable situations, and by manageable I mean I could move to a place where I felt safer. I sat there in a room where these things don’t happen wearing on my face, I’m sure, the same surprised little Oh! look the secretary wore on hers. Then my Lizard Brain finally awoke, and I felt the jolt of fight or flight hormones course through my system leaving a taste of aluminum in my mouth.

I realized we were in the middle of a strong earthquake, and the overwhelming desire to flee took over. I imagined the building going down; Alan and I trapped under piles of concrete. Dead would be preferable to trapped as far as I’m concerned, my claustrophobia legend in the family. I have always said that if captured by “the enemy” all they would have to do to obtain information would be to place me in a small space and wait about 30 seconds. I’d even make things up for them.

Dr. Badilla’s husband emerged from his office saying, “Everyone please remain calm and stay seated.” As though there were much chance of standing with the building dancing the merengue all around us. Forty seconds can feel like a lifetime and that is about the duration of the first tremor to hit San José in last Thursday’s 6.1 magnitude earthquake.

As soon as the shaking stopped, I said to Alan, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We squeezed out of the now crowded waiting room and bolted for the stairs. All nurses know where they are located in any given hospital, and we hit the deserted stair well, banging open the metal door. We were down and out of the building in seconds. Outside people milled around and most were on their cell phones trying to reach family. I tried to call our hired man, José, but realized with all the people attempting to make contact there was no way of getting through.

Then, deciding all was clear, we reentered the building and sat down in the lobby with a whole slew of people to watch the TV in amazement. The epicenter was about 20 miles north-northwest of San José and is an area Alan and I know well. We have often taken the scenic drive from Sarapiqui to San José, wrapping up around Volcan Poas in mountainous terrain filled with waterfalls and steep canyons, then down into the city. That road no longer exists after last Thursday. The footage local channel 7 showed was of complete devastation. I’ll include this link so you can see. If you don’t understand Spanish just fast forward to the film clips. The one toward the end is quite amazing.

While we sat watching, we could feel the aftershocks, replicas, some strong enough to rock the building again. They continued through the rest of the day and on into the night–– upwards of 2000, I’ve heard. Most were too small to be felt, although I counted about 15-20 of them in various offices around San José that afternoon.

Reports began to come in through the day. Initially, there was one fatality noted, a young child who was selling cookies to tourists as they passed. A slide buried her. Then other reports began to come in: 200 tourists stranded at a resort hotel at Varra Blanca, the road destroyed on either side. Villages cut off from rescue workers and hundreds upon hundreds of people rendered homeless within minutes.

Back in our hotel in the late afternoon we heard the death toll had climbed to three. Today, according to CNN it stands at 34. The Red Cross continues to work to locate all those listed as missing.

We are fine and at home again as of yesterday. Our hired man said they never felt a thing here in Punta Uva.

From Foulness to Serenity~

Dawn crept under the window shutters yesterday morning, and as I woke something told me this day would be different from the past few weeks. I had closed them to keep the cold and damp of the weeks before out. Our bed linen has been clammy from the accumulated moisture in the air and it’s been a bitter affair climbing into bed at night. I thought perhaps closing them would help. It did––a bit––but the dryer worked far better.

There was no sign of sun yesterday but something created a flirting promise of change from foul to fair. What was it I sensed about the day that was different? Certainly not the forecast; I rarely rely on that. Was it less humid than the preceding days and my body subconsciously relayed the message to my monkey brain? Or does the body know when the barometric pressure changes? I know some people with arthritis claim they can predict rain from the pain in their joints as the low pressure descends. One man has dedicated a blog to the whole notion, complete with graphs of barometric pressure readings and his subjective pain measured on a scale of 0-10. The National Institutes of Health has done studies trying to figure it out. The results are inconclusive, but still, I think, there is something there.

It was still overcast yesterday morning, although the cloud cover had lifted, and the dark jade-green days seemed to have given way to a lighter shade of pale. My mood became more elastic, or as H.D. Thoreau put it: “The change from foulness to serenity… instantaneous.” As birds out in the yard returned with the industriousness of the starving I felt a return of a greener world, shedding the one of mushrooms, moss, and mold we have been living with since I got home.

Our dog Kashá must have felt it too. She took a tour out into the potrero to investigate what smells had changed during the dank days of the past weeks. She trotted with her tail high, stopped to sniff, and vigorously scratched the ground throwing grass and water out behind her (letting everyone know who was boss of this outfit). Then she sprinted to my side, all full of Dog Joy. When she is excited like this her eyes are shiny and so clear I can see directly into her soul. There is no malice to be found in that space, only deep and abiding love.

Slowly during the day the clouds parted and sun dared show herself. Briefly at first… as though afraid all of us might rebuke her for her time away. (Doing what?, is what I want to know.) None of us dared say anything bad, for fear she’d leave again, and over time she became more confident. By afternoon she had shouldered most of the clouds out of her way.

I needed to go into Puerto Viejo for groceries and all along the road people were out of their houses walking in shorts and T-shirts, visiting with neighbors; scantily clad tourists rode rental bikes in large flocks, slipstreaming around puddles and holes in the road; dogs investigated here and there rediscovering and establishing territories; and laundry was strung everywhere: on lines and on bushes and barbed-wire fences. All the houses were flung wide open and furniture soaked from the flooding had been hauled outdoors where it steamed like big Chinese hum-bows in the sun.

The weather is absolutely gorgeous today; not a cloud in the sky. I’m sure it will rain again in the next couple of days. The atmosphere can’t cope with all this moisture rising up without sending some of it back down on us again.

But we are, at least for now, into some very nice weather.

It’s a Disaster!

Last week I wrote about the rain here in Limón province. Well, the statistics are in: November saw an increase in levels from the usual 372 mm (22 inches) for the month to over 780 (47 inches. That’s well over a yard in a month!)–– and those figures were before the end of November. The rain has left people homeless and still it continues. Today it is raining hard and the electricity is gone… again.

The post office in Puerto Viejo was closed all last week and I finally asked the pharmacist across the way when the post mistress was coming back.

“Her house washed away, but I think she is coming back Monday,” he said.

I was in town yesterday and indeed she was back at the job. I asked about her house while she checked my mailbox for a package.

“All my belongings are wet and most of them are ruined from the mud,” she told me, “but my house is still there.”

She is not alone.

According to our English language newspaper, The Tico Times, pending a complete report The National Emergency Commission (CNE) more than 4500 homes and dozens of roads and bridges were destroyed or severely damaged due to high waters and mudslides. The banana companies are declaring 21 million dollars in losses due to flooding, and no telling how much the locals businesses are losing because of the rains. At least one person has died and approximately 5800 people have requested refuge in 84 shelters in the region. Many families were trapped without access to relief efforts.

By Wednesday of last week we were declared a disaster area and President Arias made available 3.8 million dollars for the effort. Emergency operations have worked steadily ever since to reach the indigenous communities in the mountainous terrain of Mt Chirripó that were left isolated and without food or drinking water.

Helicopters from the U.S. Southern Command have been flying over our heads daily taking the needed supplies to people up in the mountains above us as well as into western Panama to our south, where, according to the United Nations, at least eight people have died. The photo I have included is of the town of Sixaola on the Costa Rica/ Panama border and is about ten miles from us.

We had a rainy season like this a couple of years ago. At the end of a three month period it had rained a total of 1375 mm (a cool 7 feet) of rain. By the end of that stint all of our houses were moldy and most women were going slightly crazy from being house-bound, but at least we had houses. I have gathered together clothes and food and dropped it off at a relief checkpoint. As President Arias said, “We may not be able to stop the rain, but we can all help the victims.”

Let’s hope for drier weather in December.