Into the Eye of Odile
by Dawn Pier
Odile, Taken September 14, with 125 MPH Winds.
In the wake of Hurricane Odile, I asked my good friend Steve Jacobi who shares a house on Baja’s West Coast with his wife, Kate Turning if they knew anyone who had ridden out Hurricane Odile. Turns out, a surfing buddy of theirs had done just that. In 2002, Dawn Pier packed up her pickup truck and drove from Eastern Canada clear down the Baja Peninsula to follow a dream of learning to surf. At age 33, she literally left everything behind, including a dysfunctional relationship and a promising job as a Canadian biologist studying the impact of military radar installations and the uptake of toxic PCB’s by plants (and thus our entire food chain). Since moving to Baja’s East Cape, she’s dedicated her life to surfing, co-founded a community-based conservation organization whose mandate is the protection of the stunning reefs of the Cabo Pulmo National Park, and sells real estate on the side.
San Jose del Cabo is the closest town where Dawn can buy supplies. Depending on the condition of the dirt roads it can take anywhere from one to several hours to get there. In the rainy season, she and her neighbors are sometimes cut off from town by washed out roads and running arroyos, but solar power with backup generators means they’re rarely without power.
Hurricane Odile was not Dawn’s first rodeo – since moving to Baja in 2002, she’s ridden out around 20 tropical storms to date, most of them on her own. This however, is her last dance with a major hurricane. Read on to find out why…
Odile appeared on my weather radar about a week before her projected arrival and quickly grew in strength and size. She was predicted to reach category 4 status and models had her aiming straight at us, so with thoughts of washed out roads, I made the 25 mile trip to San Jose del Cabo on the washboard-ridden desert road to buy supplies for myself, Felipe the gardener – who doesn’t drive – and my pack of four dogs and a cat. I typically keep enough food that I can avoid going to town for several weeks if necessary. This trip I bought a little extra. I didn’t like the looks of this storm.
“What kind of name is that for a storm?” a friend wrote me a few days later. I had to agree. Odile sounded like an introverted, bespectacled bookworm; maybe a little homely, surely not a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Still, she surely had my attention.
In anticipation of rising wind and a flock of surfers from town, I rose early the morning before the storm, grabbed my stand-by 6’6” Randy French Soul Fish and headed to a rocky point just down the road. The point only breaks on swells from an extreme easterly direction – an unusual occurrence unless a strong cyclone is churning to our south. When I arrived, it was pure bliss; head-high and building, with glassy, steel-grey water reflecting the overcast sky and only a few of the usual suspects out. Thankfully, neither crowds nor wind ever arrived.
“Dawn’s Point” Photo: Chris King
“It’s like surfing in a swimming pool!” Hawaiian lifeguard Mikey Bruneau, one of the few non-local surfers to show up this day, exclaimed as we paddled back out. “The color of the water! And the temperature. It’s unbelievable!” A smile lighting up his young face. I was reminded how good I have it here and how easy it is to lose perspective; to start to think there’s got to be something better out there, especially when, like me, you’ve only surfed relatively few breaks.
The Blue Before the Storm. Photo: Dawn Pier.
That afternoon when I came home to fuel up, the surf was noticeably larger out front of the house. The surf grew gradually throughout the day, but the truly massive waves forecasted never materialized. Still, it was big. Wave faces were approaching triple overhead and down the beach I could see mysto swells breaking over unseen reefs way out in the sea of Cortez. Surfers who’d driven out from closer to town said the waves down south lacked shape and no one was out, so I returned to my same spot again that evening. Waves at the point were holding at double overhead on the sets; smaller and more manageable than just a mile down the road. Still, I was pitched hard over the falls on the first couple, not realizing they now packed a far more powerful punch.
The next day, despite continued perfect surf, I spent the morning preparing for Odile, whose landfall was now slated for 6PM. The last hurricane panels had to be put up over sliding glass doors in the living room and my second-story bedroom. Potted plants were brought inside along with patio furniture and window screens. At one point, when I couldn’t get the bolts on the bedroom window panels locked down, I felt panic rising in my chest. Felipe was on the beach fishing, so I went in search of another local to help, but he and his son were surfing. Now the panic moved to my throat.
Boarded up. Photo: Dawn Pier
Thankfully Felipe was back when I returned and together we got most of the bolts locked down. It was noon by now and as if on cue, a breeze began to rise from the north as the approaching storm pulled air down into its vortex. In the short time it took to drive down the road to look at the surf, breeze turned to wind and white caps began to roil the ocean’s surface. Several surfers were still in the water, despite the shredded wave faces. Considering Odile’s winds, I was surprised the surf wasn’t bigger.
Odile Approaches. Photo: Dawn Pier.
“They’re saying it’s all time in town,” one of the better local surfers reported as he backed his truck up heading for home.
“Ginormous,” said another.
I considered what he said and remembered the swell I’d just ridden at The Rock down in Cabo the week before, thanks to Hurricane Marie. It was just me and one other person in triple overhead surf. But this day, considering my sore muscles from the day before, the deteriorating conditions, and blackening skies, it seemed the wiser move was to head home.
Ginormous. The Rocks are around 120 feet high.
Back home, the sea was growing angrier and the swell was now growing ominously. White water surged high up the sloped beach. How high, I wondered, could it go? The house sits on a sandy knoll well above sea-level. Nevertheless, the morning after severe storms I’ve found sand crabs clicking their way over the tile floors.
The first rain drops fell at 12:30PM and I put a five gallon plastic bucket out in the driveway to act as a rain gauge. The first squall brought a blinding, but short-lived downpour, blasts of wind, and rising anticipation.
Like a scene from a science fiction movie, Odile sweeps into Cabo.
As Odile bore down, I was reminded of the unnerving, claustrophobia Hurricane John induced in 2006. With storm panels obscuring the ocean-facing windows and doors I can’t see out, and the world becomes a cacophony of ominous sounds. Thunder rumbled, and from the west-facing kitchen window I watched the sky darken, as though it was sunset, but it was not even 2PM. The roar of the ocean was like a freight train.
By 5PM winds whistled through every crack and crevice. The tips of the large Plumeria outside the kitchen window were breaking off one by one.
Last available webcam image looking from Pedregal down to Land’s End on the west side of Cabo San Lucas – hours before Odile’s eye even came ashore. There’s normally a wide beach between the development and the ocean. The water itself, is usually a deep shorebreak. For waves to break this far out, the swell is massive.
At 7PM, shortly before sunset, I hid behind a nine-foot stone wall on the north side of the house and took some video of the 20-foot swell churning the sea and the wind battering the palm trees.
Squalls marched west, enveloping the sea. Sticking my arm out from behind the wall, I felt the sting of rain drops and measured wind speed with a hand-held meter. It was only 45 miles per hour, but I could barely stand against it. Odile’s center was generating winds greater than 125 mph. My heart sank – we’d seen nothing yet. I ran back to the garage just as a deluge of rain and even stronger wind roared ashore.
The view from Dawn’s house as Odile bore down.
Darkness descended and the unholy racket inside the house from shaking panels and windows rattling rose. I tried not to think too much or too far ahead. I’ll admit I was scared. All around the noise and tension grew. A frightful banging in one of the bedrooms preceded the force of the wind pulling the plywood panels loose. I closed the door anticipating a shower of breaking glass.
At 9:20PM, more banging followed by a loud thump on the second story. Another set of panels torn from the glass doors. In the 10 years I’ve lived in this house, a panel had never been pried loose. Not even during Hurricane John, a storm that tore apart homes, uprooted trees, and left a trail of devastation. I noted with relief that Odile didn’t seem to be delivering the 18 inches of rain John brought. I decided it was time to crack a beer, pop some corn, watch a movie and try to push thoughts of what was still to come from my mind.
Not even Ron Burgundy could lighten the mood.
No sooner did I hit ‘play’ on Anchorman 2, than the rain came down in buckets, the wind forcing it through an unprotected window in a stream that quickly flooded the living room floor. I checked the bedroom where the first panels tore off to discover even more water flooding in under the door. Driven horizontally by the wind, water streamed through another window, soaking the bed. I began to mop, but three inches quickly collected on the floor. The wind bowed in the glass door. Aware I could be impaled by grenading shards of glass, I conceded this was a battle I could not win. I retreated and shut the door behind me, saying a silent prayer that the glass would hold.
I had to turn on the subtitles to watch the movie because the howling, whining, whistling, banging, and moaning drowned out the audio. I’m normally a cheap drunk, but the second and third beers had little effect on my anxiety. I began to wish I had something stronger in the house.
At 11:30, just as the movie credits rolled, the storm seemed to weaken for a few minutes – perhaps the eye passing over – and then it cranked back up, now out of the South. I finally lost my Internet connection – either power had gone out in town or the receiver on my roof pulled loose. I heard a strange “whump,” outside on the patio and had no idea what it could be. The next hour and a half was a blur of sound, anxiety, and frantic mopping. Every time I had to go into one of the bedrooms where the windows were exposed, I worked quickly. The cowering dogs and cat followed me everywhere.
Kali, the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Not happy. Photo: Dawn Pier.
By 2AM I was sufficiently exhausted that I decided I had to try to get some rest. Sleep was out of the question, but I needed to lie down. I threw some ill-fitting sheets on the mattress in the spare bedroom where the glass doors were still covered and lay down. The tension began to release into the softness of the mattress, and slowly I relaxed. Then, just as sleep was descending came yet another huge crash as Odile tore the shutters from the doors. I jumped out of bed and retreated, calling the dogs to follow.
The only option left was the garage. I pulled a thick foam mattress pad from one of the beds and put it in the back of my Xterra. The dogs and I gradually settled down to a symphony of the metal doors creaking, backed by howling winds and pounding surf. It was stuffy in that windowless space, but safe. I slowly nodded off into a restless sleep. It was 3:30AM.
I was roused at 5:30AM by a barking and whining dog. Kali my Rhodesian Ridgeback was in the middle of a nightmare. I called to her from my uncomfortable roost, considered trying to go back to sleep, and then remembered that the dogs had not been outside since the start of the storm. I rallied and hauled up a garage door. It was still pitch black outside and impossible to assess what the world now looked like. It was still very windy, but nothing compared to the height of the storm.
I padded around the house, waiting for the pre-dawn light and by 6AM could venture a first damage assessment. The palms outside the garage were severely thrashed. The large round palapa that formed the centerpiece of the patio, lay on its side just outside the bedroom window where I’d tried to get some sleep.
Winds were still strong enough to make venturing outside dangerous, so I busied myself reconnecting a backup satellite Internet system. My worried father immediately called me on Skype. I was one of the few people in the area still able to see the weather reports. Odile’s eye had indeed passed right over San Jose del Cabo.
“After a storm, you gotta watch out for rattlesnakes that get washed down the arroyos,” one of my California friends cautioned me in an email later that day. But I’m less concerned about rattlers than the toxic black mold that takes hold quickly if things aren’t dried out. In town, though, at the heart of Odile’s destruction, his warning turns metaphorical. Looting and profiteering raise their ugly heads to strike the desperate. A few days later, after reviewing the growing body of video, photographs, and first hand accounts, what’s really happened here begins to sink in.
— Danny Spyra (@DannySpyra) September 18, 2014
A week after the storm, I finally venture into town to recover some valuables from a friend’s house who cannot get here. I am unprepared for the enormity of Odile’s wrath. My head and my heart hurt after seeing so many beautiful trees snapped like matchsticks. The local mango grove was decimated – it looks like it’s been sprayed with agent orange – not a leaf anywhere, and almost every tree is now just a six foot trunk. The wind completely gutted my friends’ houses on Gringo Hill in Costa Azul, which appears to have been the epicenter of damage to the region…buildings are collapsed everywhere, there is twisted metal, power and light poles lie torn from their bases, wooden power poles are snapped same as the trees. Eighteen-wheelers and large SUVs lay thrown on bushes and into riverbeds like toys. Stores closed everywhere, most of them windowless, like most of the homes. But people are working everywhere – working hard to repair, clean up, and rebuild. It’s incredible what people can accomplish by the sweat of their brow.
People have asked me, “Did it occur to you to leave, to get on a plane and get out of there before the storm hit?” It surprises them when I say it did not. Sure, I was concerned about the storm, but I thought I was mostly in for a long night, a lot of mopping, some anxiety, sure, but nothing like what I actually experienced. After witnessing what a major hurricane is truly capable of, my answer has changed. Next time I see a Category 4 or 5 hurricane headed this way, I will leave.
I’ll leave you with an image that left me speechless. This is a heavy king-sized mattress from the guest bedroom of a friend’s house where I often stay when I need to overnight in town. It was blown out of the window and impaled on a tree over seven feet up in the air. Imagining the force that it took to do that sent chills through my body. Slowly over the last week it’s sunk in how incredibly fortunate I am that my home is still intact, that I am safe, and unharmed. Many were not so lucky.
Después de Odile
Read More of Dawn’s Work at her Blog. http://dawnpier.wordpress.com/