Wednesday 18 September 2019

Home truths: Brewing up for a storm on the Irish home front

A Lahinch local enjoys the day off work courtesy of Hurricane Ophelia - Irish attitudes to preparations for a tropical cyclone differ from nations which are used to taking a battering
A Lahinch local enjoys the day off work courtesy of Hurricane Ophelia - Irish attitudes to preparations for a tropical cyclone differ from nations which are used to taking a battering
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

A handful of factors combined to keep me at home on Ophelia Day. My housemate happens to be an American scientist working in the fields of botany and etymology. The eminent doctor has travelled the globe and wields a decent knowledge of climate.

She also comes from a part of the world where cyclones and hurricanes are ten a penny. The doctor is wont to mock Irish weather for its puniness (it's "fierce mild" as we like to say). "You call THAT rain? You call THAT a hot day?" she howls.

But on the day Ophelia howls she comes downstairs and states baldly: "Nobody's taking this seriously! A full-blown fricking hurricane is coming! People should NOT go out! What's wrong with Irish people?!!" (as mothers with toddlers on push tricycles tootle by the front window).

Thus far on Ophelia Day we are all being "Irish" about it. RTÉ news says people in Galway are rushing to Salthill prom to jump in the sea. Teresa Mannion is dead calm. On the south coast people are going kite surfing. RTÉ southern correspondent Paschal Sheehy intones solemnly that the wind is blowing the right way over the sea in Dingle. In Dublin RTE's John Kilraine looks bereft as the only person outside in the city centre.

Dublin Bus announces it is cancelling services and someone reports (erroneously) that cars aren't insured in a red-code weather warning - so no taxis. I'd be walking five miles home - presumably into a horizontal barrage of uprooted trees, chimney pots and roof tiles. I don't know what a hurricane is like so I look one up on Youtube. Lots of bendy vibrating palm trees. Finally the man to settle it for me is Paul Kehoe, the Minister for Defence. He has just issued a statement urging people to remain indoors as "a matter of life and death". That did it.

Before I set up the laptop at the kitchen table, I'll have to begin my began my peculiarly Irish version of household hurricane prep. This turns out to be a somewhat confusing task in a country that doesn't get them. What do you do? In deference to the doctor and the defence minister, myself and my partner take in the garden furniture and the gnomes (they're pointy). I prop up the garden fence with planks before deciding that these could end taking off and hurtling through windows. So I put them away again. Out come tea candles and I put them on the kitchen table along with my bicycle light. I go under the stairs and drag out my fishing kit chest waders (they came in handy when the house was flooded previously). I haul out an "instant sandbag" kit I had been given as a present years ago by a friend. You take what looks like a flat mattress, soak it in the bath and it inflates with water. Then you sling it across your front door and it stops floodwater. But he only gave me one of them, so there's nothing for the back door. Yeah it all sounds silly but what do you do?

If there's an electricity cut we have our mobiles up to full charge. As for batteries for the plug-in radio (in case the networks fail) I can dig some more out of the children's toys - Robo Sapien has the right size cells in each of his feet.

I fill up saucepans with water and stand them on the kitchen counter. I check the larder. Shepherds pie in the fridge, enough tea bags, tins of sardines. Time for hurricane shopping - two and a half litres of milk and a bottle of wine.

The shop is full. "I'm doing a bomb today," says the convenience shop owner rubbing his hands with glee (this guy charges €3.45 for a small squeezy bottle of honey).

All the local auld dears are milling about hyper excited. They love a pending natural disaster almost as much as a funeral. It's interesting to observe what Irish people reckon they'll need for their homes in a hurricane.

A woman has many packets of instant chicken soup, a guy is buying 80 fags, someone else is stocking up on sellotape. We don't have the same hurricane nous of those Americans, you see. So what should we actually be stocking up on to keep ourselves and our homes? I check with the people who should know - US Government's Homeland Security web site has it all: "Being prepared means having your own food, water and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours. A disaster supplies kit is a collection of basic items your household may need in the event of an emergency. To assemble your kit, store items in airtight plastic bags and put your entire disaster supplies kit in one or two easy-to-carry containers such as plastic bins or a duffel bag.

"A basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items: Water - one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation. Food - at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food. Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert. Flashlight. First aid kit. Extra batteries. Whistle to signal for help. Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape. Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation.

"Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities. Manual can opener for food. Local maps. Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery." Jaysus! Nothing at all about teabags, Santa Rita 120, Knorr thick chicken or sellotape.

I spend Ophelia day working at the kitchen table with one eye on the slow detaching roof of the 60-foot high sports hall opposite which flaps about. I keep jumping up to see if I can film the moment it comes flying off - possibly into my kitchen. But it never does. They're still swimming in Galway Bay and Teresa Mannion is still dead calm. The teachers aren't working tomorrow whatever the weather. So all is relatively normal. The next day a colleague who made it into the office says: "The walk in and out was grand... aside from keeping an eye out for bits of flying debris." And my house is still there. There's no place like home...there's no place...

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