What do you learn house sitting in a hurricane which was the strongest cyclone to hit the Southern Hemisphere since record-keeping began?
This was to be (and is, at the time of this writing) our third house sit at a hilltop compound on Fiji’s Coral Coast. When we set things up at the close of our second sit for these homeowners, there was some conversation about hurricanes, or cyclones as they’re called in this part of the world. The chances of us winding up house sitting in a hurricane appeared to be fairly remote, we reasoned, although Fiji had been dodging big storm bullets for decades.
We’d be arriving in February, during peak cyclone “season” which officially runs between November to April in the South Pacific, although cyclones aren’t unknown at any time of the year. Having lived on Kaua’i during several major storm patterns which threatened to turn into hurricanes, but never really did, we know it’s a roll of the dice. Still, we thought our chances of not house sitting in a hurricane were greater. I mean, what were the odds? This house sit had already baptized us by bushfire on our very first day of international house sitting (see that story here), so surely that was the limit? Boy, did Cyclone Winston prove us wrong!
Prior to writing this article, I reached out to Vanessa Anderson and Ian Usher, fellow travelers who also have considerable experience in international housesitting. (More info on Vanessa and Ian in the Tips section below). The reason? Serendipitously, the four of us had found ourselves doing simultaneous sits within a few miles of each other on Viti Levu, the largest of Fiji’s main islands. While we had wanted to get together within a week or so of arriving, Cyclone Winston messed with our plans!
What We Learned: Previous Experience in Severe Weather Events Can’t Be Underestimated
As lifelong Midwesterners, Pete and I are no strangers to severe weather events. When we lived on Kaua’i, we noted the similarities in preparing for a tropical storm event with those you undertake in an approaching blizzard. We’re no strangers to severe weather warnings, either; every spring in the Midwest we’d get tornadoes without fail. These are far more erratic and random in terms of their behavior than a hurricane, which forecasters can predict with comparative accuracy well ahead of time. After a bit more conversation with our homeowners before they left for Australia, we felt casually confident in terms of what preparations might be needed, as well as that they probably wouldn’t be needed at all. Fiji time, right?
Vanessa explains where she and Ian were coming from in terms of weather emergency experience:
We had never experienced a major weather emergency prior to Winston. We’ve lived in Panama where we experienced a few minor earthquakes, and travelled by RV for six months in Texas where we dodged a few extreme weather events, including flash flooding. As long-term international house sitters, it’s always at the back of our minds and so we generally do a risk assessment exercise when taking an assignment in a new country. We were aware that we would be arriving in Fiji during the cyclone season, but never expected to be at the centre of the South Pacific’s strongest ever tropical storm.
What We Learned: Hurricanes Can Be Just as Unpredictable as Other Storms
Weather forecasters in Fiji were watching Winston develop since he was an embryonic tropical depression. His initial track took him traveling in a southeasterly direction, well to our south. We began to watch Nadraki (the personable Fijian weather site) and another site, Windyty, which has a very cool graphic interface with predictives. It appeared as though Winston had passed us by.
But then, unpredictably, as though he had decided to do an about face because he missed us on his first pass, Winston turned back, headed straight for Fiji. Initial forecasts had the eye passing right over Sigatoka, where we were. There was an element of the surreal as we tried to absorb this news. It was so wholly unexpected that everyone in the neighborhood (Korotogo, outside Sigatoka town), and in town was shocked. Preparations began in earnest. As these were made, Nadraki and other experts began to deliver frequent updates, attempting to pinpoint where Winston would make landfall. He, for his part, was developing into a superstorm over the sea to our east, picking up steam and speed. Holy buckets!
Vanessa and Ian were dealing with a somewhat different situation. Like us, they were caring for a couple of dogs, but their main liaison, the couple who was managing the resort, couldn’t offer much:
We were looking after a new boutique resort, Serenity Point, and the resort managers Sue and Lloyd were also new to Fiji – they had only been on the island for six months. There had been a couple less strong tropical depressions earlier in the year, but nothing as serious as Winston. We did broach the subject, but they had little more advice than to do whatever we needed to stay safe, and to give assurances that the glass in the windows was ‘cyclone proof.’ Our concern was that by contrast the doors and the thatched roofs were probably not!
After the first brush with Winston as a severe tropical depression, we breathed a big sigh of relief. It had passed the islands far enough away not to cause a problem. No one expected it to do an about turn and head straight for Fiji where it was expected to make landfall at Suva [Fiji’s capital city on the southeast side of its main island, Viti Levu]. We had arranged to meet Sue and Lloyd at the airport [which is in Nadi on the opposite side of Viti Levu] to do a luggage change between their flights from Bali to the US, and we had to break the bad news. It seemed that we were now located directly on the predicted track of the biggest storm to ever lash the islands – we needed to make emergency preparations. It was a somber meal that we shared, while discussing the options to secure the property, our safety and of course the safety of Bella and Angus, the two bulldogs we were looking after.
What We Learned: Imagine the Worst and What You Would Do
When you’ve been in a severe weather event previously and another one looms, you generally start thinking of “what if” scenarios. If you’ve been lucky enough not to have experienced an extreme weather event, you can still think in the same way. Whether you’re preparing for a blizzard (as we have countless times) or housesitting in a hurricane, there are remarkably similar things to do.
You’ll want to think about the possibility of an extended power outage (here in Fiji, they cut the power as Winston approached, and the infrastructure is already frequently subject to outage), so a secondary power source is great to have. Our homeowners have a gas generator, which Pete fired up every once in a while during previous sits to ensure it was in good working order. We figured we had several days, possibly even more than a week if we conserved, worth of enough electricity to keep food – ours and the dogs’ – properly refrigerated and even frozen, run the lights in the main house for a bit and keep devices charged.
The next thing you need to think about if you’re going to be housesitting in a hurricane is water. Think about water in two ways: use and threat. Again, the situation at our house sit is terrific in that regard. It has its own water catchment and supply, with enormous storage tanks and a supplemented gravity delivery system. (I don’t know if I’m even saying that right.) What it means is that in an extended emergency, we’d still have running water. Barring no damage to the system’s hoses, we’d have sufficient flow to wash dishes, quickly shower, and flush toilets. With the generator, we could even run full strength if we had to.
Depending on the answers to these two questions, as well as vulnerabilities in terms of where your property is situated, you think about where you are going to stay while the storm rages. For us, the answer was easy. We were going to stay put. This house is nestled into the side of a tall hill, high above the rest of the neighborhood, which gives it such exceptional sea and lagoon views. Storm surge and flooding were not going to affect us. Our issue was going to be wind. As Cyclone Winston changed from a Category 3 to a 4, and then to a 5 , we braced for the possibility that wind was coming for us in a very big way.
Because of the house’s design – its lower level is protected by a wraparound shuttered verandah system, breezes can still flow through vented screened openings, it is sited so it backs into a slope, glass surfaces are buffered by deep overhangs, it is combination stick and cement built – we were still confident. The biggest threat might be that the roof would blow off. If that were the case, we could still hole up in the main house. We even identified a “safe room” of sorts – an interior crawl space under the stairway, buffered by lots of concrete.
We consulted by phone with our homeowners. They were in Queensland, Australia, just as shocked as we were by this (literal) turn of events. “Do whatever you think you need to do,” came the instructions. “We trust you.” We decided we would spend the storm in the main part of the house. We would sleep on the floor, using the queen mattress from the bed in the guest house where we normally slept. Benny and Bella, the two Doberman watchdogs who sleep on the porch, would come in the house with us. Our homeowners thought this was a good plan. Left unsaid was the fact that we might need the mattress for protection.
We finished up preparations by stabilizing protective plywood already installed by the homeowners before they left, installing a semi-permanent wood screen over a large, potentially vulnerable glass window, moving fragile potted orchids into a more protected space, closing louvers in the guest house, and taking some of our more valuable belongings into the main house. A couple of trips into town ensured we had provisions and beer – we hadn’t made all those blizzard runs back in the day to the liquor store and learned nothing!
Meanwhile, Vanessa and Ian’s situation required different assessments:
We were fortunate in that the resort owners arrived a couple of days before the storm hit to holiday at the resort with friends, and so could defer to them on property issues. It was eventually agreed that we should all leave the property and stay in more secure accommodation. Serenity Point is a beachside resort and it was feared that it would not escape severe damage and flooding from sea surge, should Winston remain on its predicted course.
After various debates, the property was made as secure as possible. All outside furniture was stacked inside the individual resort rooms, and anything at risk of low level flooding was raised to a higher level. All important business papers were put in waterproof bags, electrical items were unplugged, and we simply applied common sense, doing anything we could think of to minimize loss of property and possessions.
Then of course we had to think about longer term issues. Would we have access to drinking water and food after the cyclone? We made sure that we had plenty of water bottles filled and stored so that they couldn’t be damaged or contaminated. Food staples were also hidden away as emergency supplies. It actually took a couple of days with six people involved to make all these preparations. We had to think on our feet – it was a learning curve for us all, especially as we had to consider protection from a business perspective, and also to comply with any potential insurance claims.
But there was more for Ian and Vanessa to worry about. Because of their location, they had to prepare to evacuate themselves and the two bulldogs:
Amidst the chaos of securing the property, we also had to consider where we could take the two bulldogs, Angus and Bella, to keep them safe through the storm. Sue and Lloyd had somewhat reluctantly continued with their holiday plans and were now in the US. They had considered canceling their well overdue vacation to see family and friends, but we convinced them this wasn’t necessary. There was nothing extra they could do and we assured them we were not planning to leave the island and abandon our house sitting responsibilities.
Ian and Vanessa decided they would spend the storm at Outrigger on the Lagoon, a resort which happens to be located right behind us on another part of the same hill. They were using similar reasoning to ours:
The Outrigger was close enough that we could get back to the property if necessary, and it offered secure rooms in a large cyclone-proof concrete block. It was set back from the sea and so not at risk of sea surge. We visited ahead of the storm to check it out, and managed to book a room for a couple of nights. Bella and Angus are trained service dogs, and we were assured by Sue and Lloyd that this enabled them to stay in hotels, travel on air flights etc., without restriction.
What We Learned: A Category 5 Hurricane is a Fearsome Storm
As Cyclone Winston bore down on Fiji, his track shifted northward with the eye predicted to pass between the two main islands, threatening Vanua Levu (the smaller) and northeastern Viti Levu. He was going to have a more indirect effect on us and the capital city of Suva. Other locations, including our favorite town of Savusavu on Vanua Levu, were going to take the direct hit.
Just prior to landfall on the little island of Vanua Balavu, Winston intensified to sustained winds of 165mph (270km/h). A weather station there recorded a gust of 190mph (306km/h) before it was destroyed. Incredibly enough, as Winston passed just south of Vanua Levu, he sustained winds of 145mph (230 km/h) for ten minutes and estimated one-minute sustained at a rate of 180mph (285km/h). When he hit the Rakiraki District on our island, he was at peak strength, the only Category 5 and most intense storm ever in Fiji.
Even though our experience was “indirect” with Cyclone Winston, it was frightening enough. Howling and shaking to an otherworldly level, his winds quickly strengthened into forceful gusts and sustained blowing from just after dark at 6pm to well past midnight. The Doberman girls couldn’t believe their luck: they were being allowed inside! Surely this meant they could sleep on our mattress, too! After all, it was right there wasn’t it? After we got that part straightened out – theirs was the floor, thank you very much – they stuck very close by. It was a long, scary evening.
Surprisingly, we slept through a portion of the storm, awakening around 2am because it was suddenly too quiet. Nothing untoward appeared to have occurred from the little we could see, so we awaited daylight to assess.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go so smoothly for our friends at the Outrigger:
When the manager discovered we had dogs, we were threatened with eviction, just as the storm was beginning to strengthen. Bella was not coping well and was hyperventilating and we were struggling to keep her cool. Despite protracted discussions and pleading with the hotel, they refused under any circumstances to allow us to have the dogs in the room with us.
We had seen online that the Outrigger was one of only a few dog-friendly hotels in Fiji – but we didn’t know that they had changed their policy, and no longer allowed dogs in the rooms. This was despite them being registered as service dogs. It seemed that although we had their registration cards, we were not the people requiring service, and so this negated any special dispensation. Something to consider if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
With no chance of now finding alternative accommodation, the manager finally agreed that Bella and Angus could stay if they were left in a service area with the staff overnight. We were permitted to go with them to settle them before the curfew began, and this enabled us to calm the staff who were understandably a little nervous of these two strange looking pups. In the end the Fijian staff were great – they provided a fan to keep Bella cool, and some bedding and water for the night. They also kept them occupied until we could return the next day.
What We Learned: In the Aftermath, Count Your Blessings
Things were eerily quiet in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, and when it started to get light, we got up and looked around. Amazingly, there was very little discernible damage.
To the north of us, in places such as Rakiraki and Ba – the historic capital in northern Viti Levu, and on Vanua Levu in places like Savusavu, as well as smaller islands, the devastation was rampant. Entire villages were wiped out, flooding was widespread, and 44 people died. Communications were interrupted throughout the nation. We were lucky, our power went miraculously back on within 12 hours. Others waited days. All in all, nearly 55,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, with approximately 40% of Fiji’s population significantly impacted.
We didn’t have much cleaning up to do. There was mainly plant debris and the garden structure had failed (as we expected it would, easily put up again). We moved the orchid collection back outside and counted our blessings.
Vanessa and Ian returned to their house sit after curfew was lifted:
Next morning all was calm, but we were unable to leave the hotel due to a nationwide curfew while roads were cleared and power lines made safe. It was almost lunchtime before we were allowed to check out, and we returned to Serenity Point with some trepidation. There were a couple of big trees down, but both had missed the main buildings, falling instead onto the septic tank and garden area. Leaves had been ripped from the trees, forming a green coating over much of the property. The thatch roofs were still intact, but rain had penetrated the rooms and it was quickly apparent that a big clean-up operation would be needed.
It took us a week to return the resort to a pre-cyclone condition. We were on generator power only for 10 days, and the dogs took a while to resettle. It was impossible to contact the staff as none had the ability to charge their phones, so we spent time driving to small villages to ensure they were all safe. Gradually the staff all returned to help, and were as cheerful as ever despite the devastation that surrounded them. It was especially reassuring for the owners, and Sue and Lloyd as managers, that Serenity Point had survived such a destructive cyclone. We were so much more fortunate than Fijians living on the north of the island, where complete devastation had displaced thousands and killed over 40 people. We had a lot to be thankful for.
Shortly after this, we (finally) got together with Vanessa and Ian for dinner. The four of us agreed, we were very lucky indeed. Six weeks later, Cyclone Zena decided to take a swipe at us on the Coral Coast, but she fizzled out to our south after only a bit of a fuss. She barely made it to Category 3, and that was fine by us. We brought the Dobermans inside just to be safe. 🙂
Other Tips and Information for House Sitting in a Hurricane
Before you take a house sitting assignment, inquire of your homeowner what sort of specific preparations they typically make if there is a likelihood of severe weather. They should describe the location of the house and any circumstances which would be vulnerabilities in a storm scenario. As well, if there is the possibility you may need to evacuate, what are the protocols and how will you provide for the pets, if any?
Be in the know. Identify the best information sources and keep an eye on things as they develop in your region. For island dwellers, this means be geographically aware of where you sit. Even though distances in the South Pacific are large, storms can travel over lots of area with little to impede strengthening. With smaller distances in a region like the Caribbean, you will want to be aware of landfall and trajectory impacts. Familiarize yourself with what the predictable patterns are, and then listen to the recommendations from authorities and neighbors regarding preparation.
Don’t stand on bravado. This isn’t the time to be macho or prove your courage by entertaining minimal preparations. If there are legal restrictions such as curfews or other curtailments, they apply to you and everyone else.
More Information on House Sitting in General
We are graduates of and highly recommend the House Sitting Academy (affiliate link). This is a comprehensive soup to nuts information series delivered in manageable, multi-media bites by veteran international house sitters, Natalie Smith and Jodie Thompson. The benefit to completing this course is that it differentiates you from the growing competition for house sits in highly desirable areas. House sitting is growing in popularity at a rapid pace; standing out will get you the sits. With a recently expanded curriculum which includes pet behavior, pool and water feature care, and more, House Sitting Academy is a great investment toward this rewarding lifestyle.
Vanessa Anderson and Ian Usher are experienced international house sitters who are the new editors of House Sitting Magazine. Visit them at LongTermHouseSitters.com.