BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
THE EYE OF THE STORM – HOW WE SURVIVED DEVASTATING HURRICANE IRMA
22 September 2017
22 September 2017
Despite my attempts to hold them closed for a full 30 minutes, the two heavy wooden doors finally gave way to Hurricane Irma and burst open, only to slam shut again with one of my fingers trapped between them.
I dropped to the floor holding my left hand and pulled off the glove that I’d only just put on to improve my grip. My index finger was a bloody mess, smashed and partially severed. I screamed through a combination of agonising pain and physical tiredness. Thankfully, Lauren had the presence of mind to find a first aid kit from a bedroom close by while Nicky screamed at me to crawl across to an adjacent closet containing just a toilet, sink and about 20 square feet of living space.
Between them, Nicky and Lauren managed to slam the closet door shut behind them, while the two doors that had stood between us and the largest hurricane to ever make landfall in the Caribbean were ripped from their hinges.
It was then that I passed out.
Preparing for the worst
Of course, hurricanes don’t just suddenly appear without warning. We were well aware of Hurricane Irma’s growing threat days before it actually struck the British Virgin Islands (BVI), thanks to websites such as the National Hurricane Centre and Windy. BVI’s Department of Disaster Management provided us with updates too, together with advice on preparation and the government’s plans to combat the storm.
As house sitters on the main island of Tortola, we were also in regular contact with our hosts in the US. So, in the days leading up to 6 September 2017, we prepared for the worst by removing anything surrounding the house which might be picked up by the wind as a projectile – plant pots, gardening equipment, a pagoda, ornaments etc. Anything too heavy to move, we strapped to balustrades. We didn’t board up the windows as they were installed as hurricane-proof. And there were special hurricane shutters protecting all of the entry points to the house and outbuildings.
Elsewhere on the island we’d seen and heard plenty of hammering and drilling as locals did what they could to put up protective barriers on their properties. Meanwhile, boat owners had moved their yachts and motor boats from their original moorings to sheltered waters.
We knew that the island’s electricity power would be affected so we made sure we had a good supply of diesel to fuel our generator. We stocked up on food and bottled water. And we made sure we had emergency supplies to hand such as torches, a first aid kit, candles etc. We felt we were prepared.
All the projections said that it would be a massive Category 5 hurricane, which means a minimum sustained wind speed of 157 mph. Only the projections for Irma were for sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, and gusts of up to 250 mph. So, as it approached, our only concern was whether Irma would pass north or south of the island, or whether it would pass directly over us.
Awaiting the inevitable
The early morning of the 6 September was a calm one on Tortola. The sky was typically blue, except for some scattered clouds, and there was just the merest hint of a breeze, which was standard for an island that’s caressed by the westerly trade winds for most of the year.
Normally, there would be just Nicky and I having breakfast overlooking the Sir Francis Drake Channel. But this morning we’d been joined by Lauren, an acquaintance of ours on the island, who we’d invited to stay with us for the duration of the forthcoming storm rather than try and ride it out on her own.
After breakfast, we completed the final checks around the house, clamped the hurricane shutters on the outside and locked ourselves inside, together with the four cats we were looking after. We’d decided that the best place for us to stay was the first-floor lounge, behind a set of hurricane shutters, where we would also have access to two potential safe spaces should the situation become dangerous.
So, for the next couple of hours, we sat comfortably on sofas, checking the internet news and social media channels for updates on Irma.
As the morning drifted on it became more and more apparent that the eye of the hurricane – containing the very worst of the storm – was going to pass directly over us. Nicky posted some video footage of the strengthening wind on Facebook and we began to get media enquiries from Sweden, Canada, the US and the UK for our on-the-ground perspective on what was happening. And we received increasingly anxious Facebook messages from friends and family who were watching the hurricane approach us live on TV.
Looking out through the windows, it was clear that the wind speed was accelerating. A papaya tree had already been uprooted and crashed into the property’s swimming pool. A large mango tree had collapsed in the drive onto the roof of a car. The sea below us was surging in all directions. Trees in front of us were swaying back and forth, to the point where at times they were almost horizontal. And the air was matted with flying debris, mostly dislodged foliage from the surrounding jungle.
Although we’d felt relatively calm for most of the morning, there was now a palpable sense of increasing anxiety as the storm around us grew in intensity.
We decided it was time to move to a safer area as the eye was still 30 minutes away and so the situation was only likely to get worse. Nicky was distracted for a short while by a message from NBC who wanted to arrange an interview with us in the next few minutes.
But it was then that all our preparation and relative calmness were shattered when the double exit doors connecting the first-floor lounge to the external patio area blew open. It was as if a hole had been punched into our place of sanctuary. And from this moment, we switched to operating on gut instinct rather than following a plan of action.
My first reaction was to rush over to the doors and slam them shut. The wind outside was by now spiralling violently and seemed hell-bent on forcing the doors open again. I had two doorknobs to hold on to but my grip became increasingly tenuous as I began to sweat. In an attempt to add some strength, Nicky and Lauren found some rope, tied it around one of the door knobs and attached it to some metal railings at the top of the stairs. Nicky also found some gardening gloves and I slipped them on to provide me with more grip.
On at least four occasions the doors blew open again, almost dragging me outside and into the full force of the wind. Nicky and Lauren had at this point identified the closet over the hallway as the safest place for us to retreat to. In fact, Nicky was begging me to let go of the doors but my only thought was that they were the only things protecting us from the killer winds outside.
And then, as tiredness was setting in, another almighty gust blew the doors open once more before slamming shut again, catching the index finger of my left hand in the process. The decision had now been made for us as we retreated to the small closet.
Riding out the storm
Our first priority was to secure the room and for Nicky to dress my injury. So, while Lauren held the door, Nicky bandaged my finger tightly to stem the flow of blood. Lauren had also had the foresight to collect a couple of cushions from the sofa which were used to lay my head on as I passed out for a few minutes.
Nicky then joined Lauren holding the door closed as the worst of the hurricane now raged through the lounge. We could hear windows smashing and furniture crashing around the room as 250 mph winds ripped through the house. The closet door banged continuously as they both desperately tried to keep it shut. The noise was petrifying.
Two additional problems then became apparent. First, water started seeping in from under the door. And second, we could smell smoke. Our only choice was to place the cushions against the door, which thankfully worked. We established afterwards that the smoke was probably as a result of water getting into exposed sockets after their plugs had been ripped out.
It felt like the whole house was shaking. Almost as if we were in the midst of an earthquake rather than a storm. And we could feel our ears popping – presumably due to the frequent changes in atmospheric pressure.
We’d expected there to be a lull – a short period of calm while Irma’s eye passed over us – and we’d planned to use that time to collect food and painkillers from downstairs. Indeed, from the small window in the closet, we could see some blue sky as the eye approached. But the lull never came. The ferocious winds simply carried on. We were actually riding the wall of the hurricane to the side of the eye. So not only were we in the midst of the biggest Atlantic hurricane ever, but we were also being subjected to an extended onslaught of the worst part of the storm.
For the next TEN HOURS, we sat tight in the tiny room, exhausted, frightened and living in hope that the winds would finally abate. Nicky and Lauren took it, in turn, to hold the door closed, not taking any risks with the sudden gusts that continued to haunt us.
At around 10 pm, they took their first tentative steps back into the lounge to survey the damage and look for an opportunity to collect some provisions. Happy that the worst of the wind had now subsided, they managed to gather enough for us to at least curb our hunger and regain our strength, together with some blankets for us to try and get some sleep. And enough brandy for me to drink as an anaesthetic against the pain.
We also looked for the four cats. Two had actually escaped through a door earlier on and we presumed were hiding in their usual space under the house. The whereabouts of the other two were at this point unknown. But without light, it was impossible for us to search for them until dawn.
Having decided that the closet would still be the safest place for us to rest, we stayed there until around 5 am before we again ventured out to look around the house. To our relief, the other two cats had taken refuge in our downstairs bedroom and were unharmed.
Dawn was now starting to break and we wondered what sort of scene we’d be confronted with once we stepped outside. It was at that moment that a figure appeared at an opening where a window used to be.
“Welcome to the Caribbean!” beamed our neighbour, Barrie, who’d obviously not lost his sense of humour.
Hurricane Irma had passed and was on her way to wreak havoc elsewhere. For us, we were just glad to have survived. And, as we wandered outside into the daylight, it became ominously clear that our problems were far from over.
THANKS FOR READING!
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.
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