2 October 2017
SANCTUARY – HOW WE FOUGHT TO BE EVACUATED FROM TORTOLA
2 October 2017
In Part One of this article, I described how we managed to survive the largest Atlantic hurricane in history during our house sitting assignment on Tortola, British Virgin Islands. In Part Two I outlined our struggle, after the hurricane had passed, to stay strong and receive medical attention.
But with growing concern over my infected finger, and with little or no communications available, we now had to focus our attention on finding a way off the island. And the news that someone was sharing a solitary wifi signal at Nanny Cay was the ray of hope we’d been searching for.
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Day 4 – Contact with the outside world
The arrival of The Royal Marines was, to say the least, a welcome sight on the island. With each passing day, as food and water supplies became increasingly valuable commodities, the chances of an escalation in looting and a breakdown of law and order were heightened. And Nanny Cay, with its boatyard, retail businesses and plush condos, was a prime target. So, when we arrived we were hopeful, rather than expecting to enter the complex.
A barrier had been erected to prevent any unauthorised people just wandering in, and two marines were stationed to enforce it. Fortunately, Barrie knew one of the guys in charge and convinced him we needed to use the wifi coverage to arrange our evacuation.
We entered a world that was a symbol of the British Virgin Islands’ prosperity. Only, instead of immaculately maintained yachts and catamarans safely cradled in rows, there was now just a tangled mess of boats on their sides, blown over like a set of dominoes.
We witnessed a large catamaran that had crashed onto a security office and turned over a full 180 degrees so that its two hulls were pointing toward the sky. And a communications tower had broken in two and smashed across the decks of the boats beside it.
Past the boatyard, we arrived at the condos and headed to the one we’d been told had the wifi coverage. And, sure enough, there were already half-a-dozen people sitting in the small yard out front with their phones, tablets and laptops. A piece of paper containing the password had been pinned to the front door. A minute later, Nicky had connected via her iPad and logged on to Facebook Messenger. Her message to our family and friends contained just two words.
It was an emotional moment. Four full days after Irma had hit, we’d finally been able to get word out. Within seconds Nicky’s sister, Kirsty, had replied, followed by other family and friends. But with just 20 percent battery left on her iPad and no charger (lost in the storm), we had to conserve as much battery power as we could. So Kirsty became our go-to person for contact with the outside world. She’d registered us as missing persons with the British Foreign Office and added us to the BVI’s Evacuation List. She’d posted updates on her Facebook page and shared them on our own “AboveUsOnlySkies” Facebook page, too.
But her attention would now turn to looking for ways to get us off the island. We agreed we’d connect again the following morning after she’d had the chance to do her research back in the UK. For now, we had to conserve the remaining battery power on the iPad and return to the house before the recently imposed 6 pm curfew came into effect.
Day 5 – A desperate search
The following morning, we saw a guy trying to break into an empty house just down the hill from us. Not in the mood for anyone threatening the security on “our hill”, we rushed down to confront him. Nicky told him there were three vicious dogs tied to a gate further up the hill and that the owners wouldn’t hesitate to set them upon anyone they didn’t know. And with that, he picked up his empty holdall and made his way back down the hill, while we kept our distance behind him.
Shortly afterwards, Barrie arrived in his truck. He’d tried to make it to Road Town to pick up some materials but had to double back because of the traffic. He felt that things were descending into chaos and that the best thing for us to do was to sit tight for a few days until more help arrived. The positivity that had kept us going over the past four days appeared to have drained out of him. To be fair, we could see he was both mentally and physically exhausted. Which was not surprising considering the hours of effort he’d put into getting us this far.
After the euphoria of yesterday, it felt like everything had fallen apart again. We’d received a glimmer of hope that a route off the island was a very real possibility and yet it now seemed as far away as ever.
I decided we had to take back control of the situation. Our housesitting hosts had left us their car to use, which I’d been driving during our stay on the island. Nicky hadn’t been confident enough to drive the incredibly steep and windy hill. But my injured hand meant that, if we were to get back to Nanny Cay, there wasn’t really any choice. And Barrie’s truck had been up and down the hill enough times to flatten some of the remaining vegetation that was still partially blocking the way.
So Nicky jumped in the car and carefully manoeuvred her way over and through each obstacle in turn, careful not to let the wheels slide over the steep edges. I tried to help by walking ahead of the car and moving loose bits of debris.
We arrived again at Nanny Cay, but this time we were refused admittance due to an ongoing emergency that had emerged. They said it might be possible for us to return around 5 pm, but we knew that the 6 pm curfew would give us little time to organise anything with Kirsty.
Someone mentioned they’d heard there was another wifi signal available at a cafe in Road Town. We decided to give it a try. To be honest, we had nothing to lose. But as the traffic was indeed horrendous, we parked up on the outskirts of town and went the rest of the way on foot. An experience neither of us will forget in a hurry.
The last time we were in Road Town there was a Disney cruise ship moored in the picturesque harbour. Families were walking around town wearing Mickey Mouse ears and pastel-coloured boutique stalls were selling BVI tee-shirts.
This time there were crumpled buildings, office blocks with their windows blown out and overturned cars aplenty. Military helicopters whirred above while armoured vehicles, packed with newly-arrived Royal Marines, sped past us. It was like strolling through the set of a disaster movie. Or a war movie, come to think of it. And amidst all this chaos was the bizarre scene of four guys who’d set up a table and chairs amongst the rubble of a previously well-heeled bar. Complete with a bottle of rum, mixers and four glasses. Stoic resistance in the face of adversity anyone?
But the presence of the military was such a positive one. We spoke with a few of them – asking for news, advising them of the security risk on our isolated hill, telling them how glad we were to see them. Despite the misgivings at home of the Government’s response, these men and women made us feel proud to be British.
The reason we were in Road Town, of course, was to try and find some internet. Needless to say, the cafe we were looking for didn’t have any wifi. The Digicel office that supposedly had a phone signal outside didn’t actually possess one. And the waiting list at the hospital to have my finger re-dressed was as long as ever. We decided to cut our losses and head back.
Returning to Nanny Cay, Nicky once again used her powers of persuasion to obtain access to the site, and we again headed straight to the condo with wifi access. There were still no scheduled flights out of Tortola. Nicky’s sister, Kirsty had found some flights back to the UK from Puerto Rico but we would have to find our own way there. And as the ferries were still not running from the island either we found ourselves continually coming up against a brick wall.
Then an American girl, who’d overheard our conversation, asked us if we’d like two tickets on a private boat to St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, the next morning. It ultimately transpired that we didn’t have the right visa to make that happen. But she suggested I speak to a guy called Dylan, who used to work for Richard Branson on his Necker Island, and who was trying to coordinate flights to Puerto Rico by helicopter.
By this time I was willing to give anything a go. She took me to Dylan’s condo and I discussed the possibilities with him. He couldn’t guarantee anything but he said he was liaising with Richard Branson’s PA and the Governor’s Office in the BVI to evacuate people to Puerto Rico in a four-seater helicopter. There were two flights the next day, and due to a cancellation, there was a seat on each. And, to our amazement, there would be no cost attached. Without hesitation, we booked them both. I would be getting the first flight at 11:30 and Nicky would catch the later one at 13:30.
Before we left ahead of the 6 pm curfew Dylan warned us that the seats were still not guaranteed. He had yet to speak to the Governor to get permission for our evacuation, which he would do that evening, but said that we should still arrive ready to leave the following morning.
Ecstatic, we returned to tell Barrie and Arabella of our news before heading back to the house for an early night. Was this the moment where our luck had finally changed? We didn’t dare to take anything for granted. But we did sleep soundly for probably the first time in a what now seemed like a long while.
Day 6 – Another setback
We had to pack lightly for such a small helicopter. But choosing what to take with us and what to leave behind was a ridiculously easy decision compared with those we’d had to make over the past few days.
Barrie dropped us off at Nanny Cay – the final in a long list of brilliant gestures from someone who’d already lost so much to Irma. Including now looking after the four cats who’d been under our charge during our housesit.
Within 10 minutes we’d made it to Dylan’s condo, which sat opposite a makeshift helicopter landing space. He was still on his phone, coordinating and negotiating as usual. An ITN news crew interviewed us and asked if they could have a shot of us boarding the helicopter. Everything seemed to be coming together. We were finally going home.
And then, just 30 minutes before my flight was ready to leave, Dylan took his phone from his ear and gave us the bombshell news. There were two emergency medical evacuations which had to take priority and Nicky’s seat was no longer available. It almost felt like it was bound to happen. Nicky broke down in tears.
But Dylan wasn’t finished. He’d managed to find us two seats on another helicopter flight the next morning at 8 am. The same conditions applied, though – he couldn’t guarantee them until he’d spoken to the Governor that evening. And rather than try and get back to the house, we could stay overnight at his condo.
By now our heads were spinning with the intensity of it all. And there was still the issue of my injured finger needing further medical attention. Our house sitting hosts had arranged for a doctor to be on hand at our destination in Puerto Rico. But word about me had now got to the military stationed at Nanny Cay. So, minutes later I was sat in a hastily converted condo having my finger re-dressed by a military medic, surrounded by the Royal Marines of 40 Commando.
I couldn’t have been in safer hands.
And, our positivity was about to hit the roof as Dylan told us before we went to bed that our seats on the helicopter had now been confirmed.
Day 7 – Safe haven
Our anticipation was such that we got out of bed early and waited outside Dylan’s condo with our bags before anyone else was up. Eventually, we heard the helicopter before we saw its unmistakably yellow frame appear above the hillside. Within minutes we’d boarded, along with Bill, a British ex-pat in his 90s who’d lived on Tortola since 1968 and who was being temporarily evacuated to Puerto Rico, ahead of a flight to Norway to stay with his son.
We lifted off and took flight in the direction of St Thomas, taking us back over “our hill” one final time. I asked our pilot, Maria, about who had organised and paid for our flight. She told me that Google CEO, Larry Page, had deposited a large sum of money with Caribbean Buzz (who we were flying with) for the purpose of evacuating people off Tortola. Like Branson, he owns an island in the BVI and between them, they were actively working together to help people just like us.
An hour later we arrived at San Juan airport in Puerto Rico and were picked up by the owner of the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, where we would stay for next two days, courtesy of our hosts from Tortola.
Finding a flight back to the UK was no mean feat, either. Eventually, Kirsty managed to book us on three flights that would take us to the Dominican Republic and Germany, before arriving back in Birmingham and then straight on to Accident & Emergency to start the rehabilitation of my finger.
There was just one more sting in the tail, though as the airline managed to lose our backpacks in the Dominican Republic!
Of course, the ultimate and tragic irony of our story is that our “safe haven” of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria just five days after we’d left the island. And that, after Maria had wreaked further havoc on Tortola, too.
Three major hurricanes – Irma, Jose and Maria – in a matter of a couple of weeks. A sobering reminder of how the people of the Caribbean are exposed to such potential catastrophes every year.
We’ve watched the TV pictures of the ongoing devastation in the BVI, Puerto Rico and elsewhere with horror. We can feel the pain of the people we left behind. But we were two lucky people who could escape. Unlike many others, whose lives are invested in the homes and livelihoods that are currently lying in tatters.
Our journey to survive Irma and evacuate from the island included some good fortune and being in the right place at the right time. But we also have a lot of people to thank who helped us at key moments and without whom we simply wouldn’t have made it.
People such as Lauren who helped Nicky hold the closet door shut while Irma’s 200 mph winds raged outside. Like Barrie, without who we would never have got off our hill and into the hospital for my finger to be treated. And Dr Stoutt, who took control of a chaotic situation at the hospital and put in the stitches I desperately needed.
Like Kirsty who worked tirelessly in the UK on our behalf to raise awareness, update our family and friends and get us on a flight home. And Dylan (the Ed Sheeran lookalike) who negotiated our helicopter flight to Puerto Rico.
Like Richard Branson and/or Larry Page (probably both) for funding the helicopter flight (we’re still not entirely sure how that came about). And Chris and Eric, our house sitting hosts, who arranged for our transportation and accommodation in Puerto Rico.
But we also have to thank each other. We undoubtedly saved each other’s lives. And we’ll certainly be more prepared if we find ourselves in the path of such a potential disaster again.
And it’s also taught us about the spirit of human nature. When your life is in danger and you don’t have control of the outcome, you’re capable of doing things you never thought possible.
Our journey required, amongst other things, bravery, persistence, single-mindedness, quick decision-making, teamwork and a desire to make things happen for ourselves. Qualities that the people of the BVI and Puerto Rico are undoubtedly displaying as they try to recover their lives.
What did you think? Have you experienced living through a hurricane? Or perhaps you were in the Caribbean when Irma or Maria struck? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.