September offers a welcome change for those who have been dealing with peach fuzz, long work days, heat and humidity.
But for our neighbours on the farms this time of year also brings a heightened awareness and daily checking of the weather networks in Mexico and the Caribbean. Hurricane season lasts from June until November, but historically the most intense storms tend to be in August and September.
The graphic photos and videos of Hurricane Dorian are a sobering reminder that those scenes could have
been their homes, with their families picking through the rubble.
I was reminded of a conversation we had with William Rhule back in 2012. My friend Jodie Godwin, her 12-year-old daughter Leah and I were spending the night at his home, perched on the summit of one of Jamaica’s highest peaks.
The road up the mountain was not for the faint of heart, with heart stopping narrow switchbacks and precipices that left little room for grace when meeting an oncoming vehicle.
William started working on Abe Epp’s farm in the ’70s, and continued to work there for almost 30 years. It was a solitary life for him at ‘the top of the world,’ when his wife passed away shortly after he retired. Hosting friends from Niagara to stay at his house was a special occasion. We sat at the kitchen table while William and John, who had also worked in Niagara for many years, reminisced about the time Hurricane Gilbert smashed into the island back in 1988.
“Man, that was rough, so tough! We knew it was supposed to hit later on that day we were coming home. It was a full flight of guys (from Niagara). We boarded and were on the runway when the plane turned right around back to the airport,” William said, shaking his head.
“That was bad news. The airport in Kingston was closed and we were stuck in Toronto for two days, just waiting and worrying if our families were okay. We saw on the news it was really bad but there was nothing we could do. Just pray,” John added.
By the time the plane finally landed in Kingston the following evening, the anxiety among the passengers was unbearable. Normally they would have descended into a sparkling crescent of city lights surrounding the harbour. Now the plane eased down into black ink, with only an occasional runway light to suggest they weren’t landing in the sea.
Only a few cars were waiting outside the normally busy terminal. They didn’t know how to get in touch with loved ones or even find a taxi as there was no phone service on the island. They would have no way of knowing if their families were safe until they actually made it home.
After finally securing a ride to share back to St. Catherine, they were unprepared for the devastation that awaited. As they slowly picked their way through the darkened streets of Kingston, the streets were devoid of any signs of human life, due to a strict curfew. With only the car headlights for illumination, they viewed the remains of buildings strewn about like matchsticks. Every street was blocked with debris and downed hydro lines, a maze of obstructions.
This was before the days of Western Union, and they were also carrying their earnings for the entire season with them. The fear of being robbed added to their mounting anxiety.
The ride home would normally take an hour and a half. It was almost four hours of winding through formerly familiar towns, now unrecognizable, before William found his way to where his wife and children had miraculously survived the harrowing ordeal. There was no sleep for the second night in a row, but it wasn’t until daylight that the full extent of the damage was revealed.
When the wind smashes into your house at 280 kilometres per hour, it is a miracle if there is anything left standing. Others returning home were not so lucky.
With a 60-kilometre wide eye of the storm, the hurricane’s impact devastated the entire island. Eighty percent of the homes on the island were destroyed, and 500,000 people were homeless. Their farms were wiped out. There would be no crops that year.
More than 200 people lost their lives, and countless more injured.
Last Sunday I was visiting some of our neighbours at Thwaites farm before they transferred to pick apples in Cobourg. Denzel Reid hails from St. Elizabeth, the “bread basket” of Jamaica, on the south-west coast. He was on the same flight as William back in 1988, and remembers well the feeling of arriving back to utter destruction. St. Elizabeth rarely feels the wrath of a direct hit, but this hurricane had left no corner of Jamaica untouched.
His parents had huddled down in a corner of their house when the roof blew off, destroying all of the contents. When the eye of the storm passed, they emerged from the debris and found shelter with neighbours, knowing it was only a short reprieve before it returned in its full fury.
Denzel was just grateful to find them and other family members alive and uninjured. He didn’t return to Niagara the following spring, because there was just too much work to rebuild. It’s a tough call, they say. They really needed the money to rebuild and pay for hospital bills if family members were injured. On the other hand, they needed to be there to help rebuild. There were other issues as well, such as the post-hurricane trauma their children had to deal with. Sometimes they just couldn’t leave their family after what they had been through.
Asheda, a young woman whose father also worked at Abe Epp’s farm, told me she never got a good night’s sleep when her dad was gone, especially during hurricane season.
“Eight months is a really long time for a kid. I remember when he came home I would have such a good sleep.”
Almost everyone working on farms in our neighbourhood has a hurricane story – the names Gilbert, Ivan, Dean, Andrew, Sandy, Irma are familiar to all of them. Some of them were here working on farms when they hit. Others experienced these hurricanes as children, but the memories are as clear as if they had happened yesterday.
In August, 2007, we attended the Peaches Café at Cornerstone Church during the Peach Festival to hear the band Newworldson perform. We had invited a number of our friends on the farms. Hurricane Dean was fast approaching the island and their fears were being realized, as it was building into a Category 5 hurricane. Pastor Ed Heinrichs prayed for them and their families before the concert started, which those attending greatly appreciated. One man said it was the first time a Canadian had shown concern or support for them during such a stressful time, and it made him feel less alone.
After the concert was over, a number of men came to our house to try to get any news online. All phone service was suspended on the island until the power was restored a few days later, so they were hungry for any crumbs of information.
During times of crisis it was a simple gesture to make our home phone available for our Jamaican neighbours to make or receive these important calls. It made all the difference to these men, knowing we would pass along such vital information if we were able to connect with their families while they were at work.
Before there were cell phones, the only way they could contact family was to get in line at the pay phone at Virgil Variety on a Friday or Saturday night. Sometimes they would wait in line for an hour or more to make the call, only to get a busy signal. Often they would have to wait another week to get a ride into town and try again.
We heard the stories first hand after Hurricane Dean. When Tony arrived home three weeks after, he found a concrete pad where his house had once stood. He had nothing but the contents of his suitcase to start over with.
We talked to Joy, the wife of one of our neighbours at Thwaites farm. She had watched, horrified as her little flashlight illuminated the flood waters seeping in under her bedroom door in the middle of the night. She grabbed her two young children and stood on the bed, holding them in her arms all night as the waters swirled up to her waist in the dark. Almost 3,000 kilometres away, her husband spent a sleepless night on a farm in Niagara, worrying, and unable to contact his loved ones.
“It’s so hard at work the next day, when you can’t sleep and you can’t be there to protect them. What can you do? It’s enough to make you cry, but you know everybody else on the farm is going through the same thing,” our neigbour Mark explained.
I often hear my Jamaican neighbours respond, “I thank God for life,” or “everything good so far,” when I ask how they’re doing.
Over the past 14 years, I have gained a greater understanding of these words. For so many of them, all they have is a deeply rooted faith in God to get them through.
I thank God too for my neighbours, Caribbean and Mexican, as I still have much to learn from them.