Living Through A Hurricane in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Narrowly.
I woke to the sound of emergency sirens and car alarms bleating out of rhythm. The hostel walls creaked as I stared up at the underside of June’s mattress. She stirred. The power in the room blipped in and out, causing the phones plugged into the wall to light up, go dim and light up again.
We were in St. John’s, Newfoundland – about as far East as you can get in Canada. We’d caught the last flight in from Halifax before they started cancelling them.
I swung myself off the bottom bunk, sweeping empty Black Horse beer bottles out the way with my bare feet. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be outside in a hurricane, even if it defied common sense. It didn’t take long to convince June to join me – there’s a reason we ended up travelling together. After a brief struggle with the hostel’s front door – the wind stubbornly trying to keep it closed – we were on Gower Street heading towards the sea.
Empty cardboard boxes whipped down the centre of the narrow street. Electricity lines shuddered on their poles. I had to squint to see through the gale, which roared loud in my ears. We edged and leant our way forward against the gust, toes clawing at the soles of our shoes. At one point my leg got caught by the wind and turned me completely around, 180 degrees.
June’s hair danced like an electrocuted octopus. Her laughing swept past me at 88mph. She tried to speak but I could only hear snippets of vowels and consonants. I thought about how this would become a story for us to tell – then another box smashed into a telephone pole and went tumbling off in a different direction and I began to think about death via blunt-force trauma. We looked for refuge.
Riders on the storm
There was a café on the corner, its screen door slamming against its frame. It looked like it would rip away at any moment. Another car alarm went off somewhere. Flecks of stones and tiny leaves scratched my exposed shins and cheeks. We held the screen door to one side, pulled the main door open and clambered inside.
June’s hair dropped as if gravity had been switched back on. The lights were blinking on and off for seconds at a time. A chalkboard sign read that the fridges were down. I overheard a clerk offering one of the customers a banana instead. We enjoyed the warmth and stillness of the haven and watched the Narrows – the channel of water that comes in from the Atlantic and forms St. John’s Harbour. The windows rattled in their frames. Huge waves leapt up onto the docks, tossing freightliners around like rubber ducks in a jacuzzi.
Our curiosity soon took over again. We had to get a better view, so we opened the door. The air rushed in, prompting unimpressed faces from other patrons sheltering from the weather. The crackly roar of wind invaded my ears again. An elderly lady helped us reseal the café’s entrance and we hurried across the street towards the dock.
A man in a car stopped and shouted at us in a thick Newfie accent.
“You shouldn’t be oat ‘ere, y’know.”
We laughed and nodded our heads. He shook his, and drove on.
Arriving at the edge of the Narrows, we hugged together against the railings next to a car park. The spray from the sea drifted up and onto our faces. The cliffs across the water looked like they were struggling to hold on to their trees. I felt like a naive character in the first scene of a disaster movie, about to be used to ominously introduce the audience to the forces ahead. 15 minutes in and we both agreed we’d pushed our luck far enough. Finally heeding the advice of everyone we’d met in the past two days – the town had been an ant-hill of hurricane preparation (bolting things down, boarding up windows, bringing in pets) – we crawled back to the hostel, using each other’s hands for leverage.
Bits of road and plywood continued to flip and smack against parked cars. We’d put ourselves in danger, but the aftermath would reveal the full extent of that danger.
The calm after the storm
I took an extended shower as the storm subsided. The slam of steamy water on bare skin after coming in from the cold felt like climbing back into a cocoon. The bathroom lights eventually stopped going off and on.
By early afternoon, it was already sunny so we returned to the streets to survey the damage. The roads were a mess of rubble and debris. A few were closed off, patrolled by police officers and workers in fluorescent orange jackets. June and I sidestepped an overturned mound of soil no longer encased in a flowerpot. An occasional telephone pole was bent over with broken electricity lines dangling onto the street, cordoned off by tape and barricades. One line that hadn’t come down had a rug hanging from it. I stared at it for a few seconds as June carried on walking. How did that happen?
We stopped at a convenience store and bought birch beer and “fries ‘n’ gravy” potato chips. A customer told the store clerk “chimneys come off houses over in Pleasantville”.
We continued downtown, in search of food with more sustenance. When we reached the core, we found a TD bank we had passed the day before. It was now windowless. The glass had shattered across all four streets at the intersection. Webs of branches and leaves, uprooted bushes and even entire trees obstructed each direction we tried to take.
People gathered around spots of wreckage. We looked like small creatures emerging from nests in the wake of a passing predator.
It was too difficult trying to find a way further downtown, so we settled on the first road and restaurant we could find free of obstruction. Wing’n It – an aviation-themed chicken wing place on Bate Hill, housed in bright aqua-blue paint. Terraced houses throughout the city were painted similarly – yellows, reds, blues, greens, pinks – creating a bold urban landscape referred to as “Jelly Bean Row”.
In the next 24 hours we enjoyed the non-hurricane-ravaged parts of St. John’s, in particular, the cuisine – Newfoundland Benedict (in which they substituted cod cakes for English muffins), fish and chips, Celtic hearth, cod-au-gratin, lobster poutine, lobster caesars, lobster. We watched Irish folk singers sing a capella and supersonic fiddlers in warm, damp pubs. We spoke drunk with a man who had built his own banjo, searched for Newfoundland moose in Pippy Park (to no avail), and continued to drink the town dry of its birch beer supplies.
The evening before our morning flight to Toronto, I waddled from street to street with my laundry in plastic grocery bags (the hostel laundrette was in a different building). As the washer started up in a room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, I stared at the Narrows, now calm. They shimmered in the early evening sun, surrounded by green cliffs. Seagulls cried.
Hurricane Leslie had caused an extratropical cyclone that ripped roofs off houses and left 45,000 homes without power. No fatalities though. Not bad for my first hurricane.
Christopher Tunstall is a self-professed writer, musician and traveller. He graduated from the University of Winchester with a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing then worked as a web copywriter for two years before beginning his world travels. He now writes for writing advice website Penleak and has short fiction, music, etc. available on his website. Tweet him @cdtunstall