Apparently the storm was called Martin. I wonder who decides on the names ? And why call a storm Martin for goodness’ sake ? Call it Dracula, call it Frankenstein or Medusa or Gorgon – or even Cerberus. But don’t call it Martin !
On the evening of 28th December 1999, the biggest storm in recorded history hit the Charente Maritime. We knew nothing about it. In the South Pacific and in various parts of Africa or Central America we were quite often aware of potential storms. But France ? Nah !
As we sat around in my mother-in-law’s house in England, discussing post-Christmas calories and New Year resolutions, the phone rang. It was my little cleaning lady, Francoise. She was staying in our house with George.
“Madame!” she wailed down the line, “there is a storm! I opened the windows to pull the shutters in , and now I cannot close the windows again!”
“Oh Francoise,” I tried to calm her, “just ask a neighbour to help …?”
“You don’t understand Madame!” she screeched. ”This is a big storm! A very big storm! One of your chimneys has come down!”
We phoned Michel.
“Eh oui,” he confirmed, “it is very dangerous. Water is coming in downstairs in my house and I have moved everything upstairs. The telephone lines will be down any minute …”
“Seriously serious? I mean, should we dash back ?”
“I have never seen the like … ” and the line went dead.
How bad was it ?
We spent a fretful night trying to sleep. At first light the following morning we loaded the bemused children and our luggage in to the car, my mother-in-law dashed about making sandwiches, and we set off for France. In the frosty darkness the headlights scanned the road as we neared the coast; a fox ran across in front of us, the children went back to sleep. It is funny how far away Dover seemed when in a hurry. It is often like that. A journey that you would normally consider just a bit boring takes on proportions over and beyond the norm. I have to admit that mostly I felt cross. It couldn’t be that bad. What was the fuss ? The ferry seemed to be operating as normal, the sea was not overly choppy, Calais was fine … but as we passed Paris and the Charentes drew closer, it was astonishing. Trees were down everywhere. Big lorries had been blown over on to their sides. Hundreds of crashed cars, pylons down, houses crumbled, roofs gone, trees, trees and more trees lying all over, like huge injured creatures waving in their death throes … people were about, some wandering shell-shocked as they looked at the broken world around them, but most were working hard, shoving trees and branches out of the way so that traffic could move. Fire trucks and army vehicles were everywhere. France has a fantastic emergency service system.
The trip that usually took 8 hours from Calais to our house took over 20 hours as we sat in never-ending queues while roads were cleared, other roads closed, bridges condemned and thousands of army troops mobilized.
Emergency services in France were excellent.
You have to hand it to the French. Within a matter of hours they had swung in to action. Help came in from neighbouring countries and even as far as Canada, with generators and roofing contractors. Army tents, despite high winds and bucketing rain, appeared. Thousands of people were without water, gas or electricity (in fact 3.4 million were without electricity) at the coldest time of the year. It was the worst energy disruption in Europe ever.
As we drove along it looked like a scene out of a war film, and we gazed in dumb silence at mile after mile of blitzed trees and buildings, crushed vehicles and, as we neared the coast, boats blown up out of the water on to the roads. Pavements and roads were broken up. Thousands of little seaside businesses had lost everything in a matter of minutes. Over a hundred people were killed.
The day ended early, raining and bleak. Very few lights were on. Factories had, their walls broken, regurgitated their wares out in to the car parks. Gaping holes in roofs and walls, like missing teeth, grinned hideously. Traffic jams everywhere with priority given to army and emergency vehicles. All sorts of things were strewn over the fields and the roads – fabric and papers, broken bits of doors and windows, roof tiles, even clothes.
Like a knife, the storm had sliced through sections of the land, leaving others completely untouched. You could see forests where it looked as though some giant lawnmower had passed along one edge, smashing all the trees down in a neat line, leaving all the others tall and straight and untouched. It was the same in some of the streets – one side with houses broken and crumbling, the other side they still had their Christmas lights swinging incongrously.
Trees and more trees
On either side of the motorway, as we sped down, ever further south, more and more trees lay. Mile upon mile upon mile of toppled trees, from the small saplings to huge pines. It was amazing how quickly the army shifted them out of the way so that traffic could pass. A real and impressive feat of organization and manpower.
I kept thinking it’ll be all right. I reassured Bruce that it would be all right. We reassured each other that it would be all right. We chatted with the children. We put tapes on. It couldn’t be that bad. After all, almost each time we stopped on the motorway for food and petrol the building was only slightly damaged, sometimes even intact. Only one stop could not give us any petrol, and at only one place were we diverted off the motorway via a small town which, also, seemed to be intact.
So it was bound to be all right.
We tried to remain positive, cheerful. Francoise had always been a terror for exaggerating. Always. Poor old thing, she has nothing else in her life, so she exaggerates … Chimney down, my foot! How would she know ? Unless she went outside in the (apparently) “dreadful” storm, she’d have no idea whether or not the chimney was down. Daft woman, bless her …
And as we saw Les Cypres at last rise up on the grey and darkening horizon ahead of us, for a wonderful moment I thought I was right. There it is! I exclaimed! Untouched! Silly Francoise!
But as we drove closer we could see that not one, but two chimneys had come down. A large part of the roof was off. The huge iron gates had been ripped off their hinges. The barns, which we had recently started to re-roof now had almost no roof at all. And our trees, our lovely trees, were all down. We stared in silence.
We couldn’t drive in because of the fallen trees, so we parked on the village road and walked round. It was now almost totally dark, and because there were not even any street lights, the house looked not only gloomy but ghostly against the night sky. A tree had fallen against our front door, but William climbed in one of the burst-open windows and let us in the back.
We stood in the black and silent hall.
“Francoise!” I called.
Francoise … echoed the house.
“George!” called the children.
There was no sign of Francoise. George emerged from his basket in the kitchen, trembling and cowed. I could smell that he had crapped indoors. He wagged his tail nervously, trying to tell us that it wasn’t his fault, he had been locked in, too frightened to go out anyway, he was sorry.
“It’s OK, George,” we told him, “it doesn’t matter on this occasion. You’re a good boy.”
Funny how he seemed to understand that he was forgiven.
We made our way in the darkness, with the help of a couple of torches and a candle, round each room in case Francoise was lying unconscious somewhere. It was difficult to see, but almost every window was broken and in a few places doors had come off their hinges. A clothes’ horse, where I had left a few things drying, had been blown up against a door and had somehow wedged itself against it so that I had to kick it down. At the other side of the room a pair of boxer shorts were hooked, like a joke, to the window handle.
You always think you will wail if something like this happens, but you don’t. Part of it is shock, I think, and part of it is knowing that wailing will only make matters worse, especially where the children were concerned. We were the grown ups, and grown ups take charge. So take charge we had to.
Grown-ups make the decisions
It was sometime around midnight by now. We decided that there was no point in trying to stay there with windows open to the elements, no electricity and unable to see the extent of the damage. So, having ascertained that Francoise was not there, we decided to drive the half hour to Saintes and stay in one of our properties, a flat that happened to be empty. There was no furniture but we could sleep on the floor. I located the appropriate key, grabbed a few sheets and duvets and the wherewithall to make tea in the morning. Very important to me, tea in the morning.
George, still nervously wagging his tail, trying to check that he truly wasn’t in trouble, climbed gratefully in to the car with us. The bloomin’ dog, still concerned, decided to creep up on to the bed with us once we had gone to sleep. A Great Dane is not good at creeping. It was totally impossible to shove him off again. He worriedly licked Bruce’s face, then my hands, and no way would he budge till I fetched a sleepy Jake who, after trying to get George back on to his blanket on the floor, persuaded the poor dog in to bed with him instead.
We were up at first light again. Saintes itself was relatively unscathed, it seemed. We stocked up with food in the supermarket and made our way back to Les Cypres, arriving just as the cloud cleared, the incessant rain eased and the sun came out. I hoped it was an omen.
Well, in some ways it was. As we clambered, dog and all, out of the car, Michel appeared, carrying a spade and several buckets.
“Figured we’d need these,” he said.
“Took me over an hour to get here,” he added.
The damage was heartbreaking
In daylight we could better see the extent of the damage. For me the part that hit me the most was all the stuff lying all over the garden. It was the easiest to deal with, and arguably the least important thing, but to this day it is like a photo etched in to my memory. Mostly roof slates, there were also bits of curtain, broken bits of caravan, the dustbins, various ornamental pots and plants, and the children’s trampoline for some reason best known to itself had landed on the roof of Francoise’s little car. The roof slates, like hundreds of bits of grey confetti, were strewn all over the front lawn and the tiles off the barns likewise lay strewn everywhere. Hundreds of them. All around, toppled trees, their branches sticking out so that they had to be climbed through, or climbed over, lay with their roots exposed in great slabs of earthy underbelly.
A noise made me turn, and there was Albert, a hand saw in one hand and a pickaxe in the other.
“Expect you need me?” he asked.
One by one the men turned up.
Despite impossible roads and major problems in their own houses, they turned up to help. Not one of their own houses had escaped but, as they explained, there was nothing to be done. There were already no tarpaulins, no roof tiles, no roofers available, nor would there be for many weeks.
Our generator, kept precisely for this sort of emergency, had been stolen, presumeably during the night. One worker, by the name of Eric, hadn’t turned up, and we were fairly sure it was him. Only one of the men would have known where it was kept.
Somebody put on a radio. A girl with two children from the gipsy camp arrived, looking for work. Along with the men, she and the children started picking up the debris. It is an ill wind that brings nobody any good, for the damage provided work not just for this woman, whose name was Corinne, but for thousands of people all over the area. Corinne, in fact, worked for us off and on for several years, constantly pregnant. She died very young, aged around 26 I think, and already the mother of five little girls. I went to her funeral and rumours were rife about suicide, drug overdose and even murder. I didn’t want to know.
I found a note wedged under a stone by the front door: ”Monsieur, Madame,” it read (in French) “here in the village we are so saddened to see the terrible blow your house has taken, and our hearts go out to you and wish you courage in the months to come. It was so good to see the old chateau live again after so many decades of neglect, and we so admired your work and your entreprise. As we all re-build in the wake of the storm, please know that we think of you.”
This thoughtful and heart-warming message encouraged me and I silently sent out a thank-you to whoever had written it. Jake and I went indoors and lit the fire in the kitchen. We had a big stock of candles ready for nightfall. I made large pots of hot soup for everybody. Bruce hammered boards over the windows. I picked up wet and torn things. Tried to unpack our suitcases.
And I wandered around my house.
The storm had raged indoors.
The huge windows that Francoise had been unable to close had banged around all night. The balcony doors had blown in. Pictures had come off the walls, carpet and wallpaper was drenched in almost every room. Ornaments lay smashed on the floor. Every single window was broken, shutters lay hanging dangerously, or they had come off altogether. Everything was wet. Papers and photos I had left sitting on the bureau were strewn everywhere.
I cleared up George’s mess from the night before and listened to the children tell me what was broken in their rooms. I wondered how all our tenants had fared, who had been injured, who had escaped. I made tea, reassured the children, reassured Bruce, reassured myself.
I felt my strength topple at the edge of my being, grabbed on to it, stood it up straight, watched it start to topple again, stood it up straight again. Like a naughty child who won’t do as he is bid, my strength kept wavering. I could feel my shoulders slump, I put them back. There was no point in being weak. But there was a lot of point in being strong.
Cry ? No, I didn’t cry.