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Surviving Joan & Cesar

By Jack Ewing


When she opened the freezer the putrid odor of rotting meat seeped into the room. Doctor Jiménez pinched her nostrils and stepped back. She gave the restaurant owner a sidelong glance, pulled out her citation book and began writing.

“You don’t have to do this,” he pleaded. “Give me a break. With the hurricane and all it’s been tough getting supplies. We have to take what we can get.”

“Sign here!” she ordered. “That meat came from a dead bull that washed up on the beach. Witnesses saw you cutting it up. Others saw you serving it to your customers. I’m taking that rotten packet of frozen meat as evidence.”

Hacienda Baru

During and after Hurricane Joan in late October of 1988 at least 67 dead cattle washed up on the beaches between Uvita and Matapalo. The health ministry ordered local communities to bury them. Most were interred one way or another. Some were left to the vultures, and a few were cut up, cooked and served in homes and at least one restaurant. Apparently a herd of cattle near the Terraba River was stranded by rising waters, carried down river and out to sea.

Joan was predicted to hit Limon, and much of Costa Rica’s Caribbean side was evacuated. At the last moment the monster storm veered north and made land in Bluefields, Nicaragua about 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the north. The clouds east of the continental divide were sucked into the depression leaving Limon with fair weather. As Pacific cloud cover moved toward Hurricane Joan, it met an obstacle: the central mountain range, and dumped horrendous amounts of rain on the south central Pacific region of Costa Rica. Hacienda Barú’s weather station recorded 1715 mm. (5 ft. 8 in.) of rain that month. However, our rain gauge overflowed three times, and there is no way of knowing how much rain went unrecorded.

In late October 1988, Diane was talking on the ham radio. Right after her friend said “OVER”, a third party interrupted with the word “BREAK”, meaning they had something to say.

“Go ahead BREAK,” she answered, “this is Tango-India-8-Delta-Echo-Echo.”

T-I-8-D-E-E this is T-I-2-C-N-E. I’m calling from the Command Center of the National Emergency Commission. My name is Oscar. Hurricane Joan is on the way, and we need information about Dominical. Will you help us? Over.”

“You needn’t worry about us. We’re having beautiful weather. Over”

“Not for long. Now I need your QTH – radio talk for location – exactly. How far from the river? How far from the beach? Any danger from landslides? Do you have a backup battery for your radio?”

She answered the questions and more. “Good” replied Oscar. “It sounds like you’ll be a safe and reliable contact. Now listen carefully. I am placing you in charge. The safety of that region is in your hands. Is that clear?”

Stunned and more than a little frightened by the enormity of her responsibility, Diane hesitated, “QSL,” she replied. “It’s clear, but I don’t think anyone will believe me. Over.”

“You’re going to have to convince them. You still have some time, but we don’t know how much. Tell everybody to get livestock away from the rivers and onto high ground. People who live near water must move. Oh, I almost forgot, we need a census. Get it and call me back tonight. Over.”

“QSL. I understand. T-I-8-D-E-E over and out.”

Diane got in her red Blazer and drove to Dominical. Memo and Marita were sitting at a table in front of Rancho Memo’s. Diane jumped out of the Blazer and strode directly to them. “We’ve got to alert everybody,” she blurted out. “Terrible rains are coming. We have to evacuate the people near the river, get everyone to move their cattle away from the water, and we don’t have much time.”

“Wait a minute Doña Diana, slow down,” soothed Memo. “The sun is shining. Don’t believe everything you hear on the news.”

What she was saying was barely believable even to herself, but Oscar had been convincing. Diane figured that if she could convince Memo, the rest of the community would go along. A small crowd formed. Mon Marìn was there, so were Misa Arroyo, several of the Cherepos, Don David Venegas and Emilio Vargas, the policeman. Diane explained the situation to everyone, this time clearly and deliberately. The faces of her friends and neighbors were pensive yet full of doubt. “Wait a minute; let me try something.” She pulled a hand-held radio from her bag. “T-I-2-C-N-E this is T-I-8-D-E-E do you copy.” Oscar answered almost immediately. Diane explained that the sun was shining in Dominical, and that it was hard to believe that they were in danger. She asked him to explain.

Oscar ‘s voice came loud and clear over the small radio in Diane’s hand. He explained about Joan and emphasized that they were experiencing the “calm before the storm.” When he finished the crowd was dead silent. “Now, I want everyone to know that the National Emergency Commission has placed Mrs. Ewing in charge of your region. She will communicate directly with me and I will give orders through her and everybody will follow them. You need to evacuate everybody who lives near a river or stream. If they don’t want to leave their homes, get the police and drag them out and move them to a safe location like the school or church. Now, is everyone clear about the seriousness of this storm?” All those present looked at Diane and nodded. She told Oscar that the message was clear. “Good” he replied grimly. “You best get to work. Joan is coming.”

I returned from a business trip to Venezuela a week later, flew to Quepos and hired a 4WD taxi to take me to Dominical. It was the first vehicle to make it through in four days. The road to San Isidro was still closed by landslides and didn’t open until two days later. The rains had subsided to about 100 mm (4 inches) per day. The big task by then was getting food into the isolated communities. The worst was over. I only had to sleep with the Commander-in-Chief one night before she stepped down and gradually eased back into normal life.

For days afterwards I listened to Diane’s stories of people threatened by the storm, working together to protect property and human life. I listened as she recounted the ordeal of a two car medical caravan, three days into the storm. The patients included a badly bruised elderly woman whose house had fallen in, a girl with a severe case of asthma, and three men, all with broken or mangled limbs. Diane, in her Blazer and Memo in his Land Rover headed for Quepos. They had to cross a partially collapsed bridge, drive through fields and bumper-deep flood water. Olman Cascante and Leticia Porras assisted the patients. Somehow they made it to Maritima and were met by two ambulances. Two days later a woman in labor was evacuated by boat. The roads were under water. Later still food aid arrived and had to be distributed. Most people took only what they needed. A few tried to take advantage of the situation. Those who came together to survive Hurricane Joan share a common bond that is still evident today, 24 years later.

But, one thing about the emergency was truly amazing, a miracle actually. Neither the electricity nor the only telephone in Dominical went out during the entire ordeal, not even once!


In July of 1996 Hurricane Cesar caught everyone by surprise and dumped a lot of water on this region in a short time. There was only one afternoon and night of torrential rain, but it was enough to flood all of the rivers between Dominical and Quepos, wash out numerous roads, destroy the bridge over the Hatillo Nuevo River, bring down about a dozen landslides between Dominical and San Isidro, and knock out the electricity and phones for six days. There were so many trees washed up on the beach that a person could walk for several kilometers just steping from one trunk to another without touching the sand. We had a group of students staying at Hacienda Barú Lodge who had to catch a flight a couple of days later. There was no hope of getting them out by road, but we managed to get them out on a boat.

By 1996 a few people in Dominical had cell phones, so we weren’t totally dependent on radios, but we did use them a lot. Without electricity, there was no way to charge the phones, so we were limited to brief calls.

During the Hurricane Cesar emergency several people were killed by a landslide in the Uvita area. In Dominical the biggest emergency was with a woman named Hania who went into labor early in the morning the day after the rains stopped. She and her husband, Luis, lived in a village called San Miguel, far from the nearest road. Luis and some family and neighbors carried her to the small town of Hatillo in a stretcher made with a couple of blankets and two sticks. There they found a cattle truck to take her over an extremely rough road to Dominical where they hoped to find help.

A couple of Lagunas residents, Lisa and Donn, were on their way to Dominical over nearly impassable roads when they heard about the incident over their CB radio. They intercepted the truck, and Lisa, a registered nurse, asked a few questions and discovered that Hania had been in labor most of the night. “Let’s get her to Dominical.” said Lisa. “We need to find someplace more sanitary than this.”

My wife Diane arrived in Dominical about the same time as Donn and Lisa, and the two women took charge of the situation. They converted a local real estate office into a makeshift clinic and Lisa gave Hania a preliminary examination. Wrinkles appeared on Lisa’s brow as she proceeded to examine the exhausted, expectant mother. Looking at Diane, and then back at Hania, she said, “We need a doctor here, the baby is turned sideways. I can’t do this.”

That same morning a helicopter came bringing medical supplies and food, but no doctor. Diane was in charge of the radio and called National Emergency Commission, the hospital in San Isidro and the one in Quepos several times. Both said they didn’t have a doctor or a means of transport available. The day wore on. Hania was enduring great pain and suffering, but never once did she cried out or complain. Finally, about 3:00 PM, Diane and Lisa decided that the time had come, and something had to be done. “It’s just you and me girl,” said Lisa. The mother’s and the baby’s lives are in our hands. I can’t turn the baby, and she can’t wait any longer. Maybe a doctor can give us instructions over the radio. Let’s give it a try.”

Just at that moment came a knock on the door. “What now!” exclaimed Diane in an irritated voice. She opened the door and stood dumbfounded looking at two doctors and a medical assistant. One doctor and his assistant had come from Quepos in a boat. They were wet to their waists where they had landed on the beach in Dominicalito. The other doctor had been trapped at the clinic in Platanillo, when the rains hit. He had ridden on horseback over several landslides until he got to a point where a motorcycle could make it to Dominical. A man who lived along the road given him a ride the rest of the way on the back of a bike. By pure chance both doctors arrived at the scene of the emergency at the same moment.

“Boy am I glad to see you.” Diane cried.

“Who is it? Called Lisa.

“Three angels,” was the reply.

The doctors were able to turn the baby, and, in a short time, Hania gave birth to a baby girl. They named her Erica. Everybody thought Cesar would have been appropriate had the baby been a boy, but no one knew of a feminine version for the name.

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