Arriving in the British Virgin Islands to help with the relief effort following Hurricane Irma, the last thought that crossed my mind was that I would be facing a Category 5 storm less than two weeks later; this time Hurricane Maria. Initially, we were told that Maria could be a Tropical Storm, but the category kept increasing as she got closer. Having never been in a hurricane, I was not sure what to expect. It was clear that the locals were terrified that Maria would be a repeat of Irma. Irma had totally destroyed so much and affected so many people. I have listened to many harrowing stories since I got here and these stories are backed up visually; the super yachts which have been tossed in the air and landed in what is now a multi-million dollar ship’s graveyard, the cars drive around with smashed windscreens and half the bonnet missing, the roads are strewn with telegraph poles which lay carelessly scattered and tangled with the fallen trees or branches dangling at a precarious angles. Houses and expensive hotels have been decimated and swallowed into the sea.
It is unbelievable that nobody was killed in Virgin Gorda. A category 5 hurricane is more than I can possibly imagine. I had been told that the very worst of the storm is the eye-wall; this surrounds the eye and is volatile in its nature and by far the worst part of the eight-hour epic that the BVIs had to endure. Not only were there gusts up to 250 mph, but in the eye-wall, there were tornados ripping up everything in their path. The 30-minute respite that is the eye of the storm is swiftly followed by the second half of the terrifying eye-wall. I can clearly understand why the thought of another Cat 5 hurricane was absolutely petrifying for them.
Everybody is aware how ‘lucky’ they are here in Virgin Gorda following Irma having had no fatalities. Would they be so lucky the second time around? Two nights before Maria’s landfall was due, a curfew was in place. The island became a ghost town while the relief effort was put to one side and families prepared the homes once again; covering up their windows and doors (screwing across boards into concrete) and blockading themselves in against the impending storm. Most people never experience one Category 5 hurricane, let alone two in less than two weeks.
The four of us from the combined Team Rubicon and Serve On team had been staying in the Virgin Gorda Recovery Operations Centre (VG-ROC), which is a building, like the rest of the island, which has been without power since Irma. We had been sharing with the not-so-friendly mosquitos on the concrete floor (using roll matts to keep us off the ground). A number of the windows have been blown in by Irma.
With Maria approaching, staying here was not a viable option. A local couple (Laura and Simon Fox) invited us to stay with them. The day before, we moved all of our belongings to their house and helped them prepare their family home for the storm. They were telling us of how they coped with Irma, with children and dogs to protect and how utterly terrifying it really was. As we boarded up their house, using the INMARSAT satellite system we were able to get clear up-to-date forecast with detailed satellite imagery. From this we could see that Maria was taking a similar path that Irma had taken. From back home, it probably looked like it was exactly the same. It was not. Maria was a good 50 miles south of Irma. This was really good news for the BVIs (if devastating for Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands). Simon and Laura repeatedly stated that they could put up with anything again, but not the eye-wall.
Landfall was due in Virgin Gorda at about 10pm, and said to be at its worst 2am. By 5pm the preparations had been completed. It was now just sit and wait. The rain was incessant and the wind was picking up with some added fairly meaty gusts; Maria was inbound. Laura had a call on her maritime radio; her 15-year-old godson had fallen off the top of a house and fallen three metres to the ground (he was helping prepare his family home for the storm). The medical centre on Virgin Gorda is not state of the art and has very limited facilities. It was clear that the young lad needed to be checked out at a hospital which had more than one doctor and a dodgy generator with no equipment; he needed to be evacuated to Tortola. The wind was starting to become vicious, this combined with the storm surge meant that a boat to Tortola was not an option and we knew that helicopters would not fly. Terrifying. Laura brought the lad and his mother back to their house where we could monitor him. Suddenly we had eight people, five dogs, two cats and a tortoise all weathering out the storm together.
It was the weirdest feeling knowing that something outside of our control was about to smash into us with such terrifying consequences. Laura and Simon were one of the lucky ones during Irma; Simon is a director of a construction company and he had built the family house. It was strong, proven by how it stood up to Irma (this was also due to the effort Laura and Simon had gone to in protecting their property). Clearly, not everybody has the same degree of know-how to protect their property or indeed have as much faith in the build. Still, as the wind built up, the four of us were wide eyed as the storm whistled around the building. Actually, we had our generator running and with a computer hooked up to a projector and Bluetooth speaker, we blocked out the sound of Maria and almost ignored her! I did venture outside a few times up until about 10pm; I was not scared at all, probably to do with how calm Simon and Laura (who had been through it all) and were clearly relaxed knowing that they eye was not heading our way and their house was strong. Because we had no air in the house, it was roasting inside; particularly because of the large population of people and animals. During the night, I drifted in and out of sleep on a small sofa, others were on the floor, on beds and animals climbed all over us looking for comfort. I woke up a number of times from my half sleep to hear the wind pounding on the plywood shutters which had been drilled securely in; I was aware of a few slates flying off the roof of the house and heard stuff going on which I could only imagine. But I felt safe. No eye-wall in Virgin Gorda.
We had a strong roof over our heads, we had friends and we felt protected. There were so many people in Virgin Gorda who had nothing but a tarpaulin protecting them against the elements and my heart was breaking for them. People like Nurse Daisy I had met in the North Sounds a few days before who had broken down in tears in my arms at the memory of how during Irma she thought she was going to die while she was alone in the clinic as chunks of the roof flew off. How was she doing during it the second time around?
The rain was torrential and knowing that their already weakened houses were in a vulnerable state, we imagined the worst in the morning. Everybody was up by 5am; but going outside was not an option.
By 10am it seemed that the worst was over and communication on the maritime radio began as the locals checked on each other systematically. We dared to step outside; at first sight, there was nothing too drastic that had changed. We drove to the VG-ROC only to see that there were a number of trees which had come down, more cables across the road and flash flooding which was streaming down the roads. The VG-ROC was submersed in water, and took four people over two hours to bail it out. A couple more windows had been blown out – not staying there was the right option.
We were warned that when we picked up our bags, to shake them; scorpions and other creepy crawlies seem to fear the storm and can take refuge in small spaces such as bags and clothing. Bees and insects seem lost with no flowers to pollinate and they stay around people more than usual.
Quite a night.
Team Rubicon volunteers are at work now in the British Virgin Islands and other areas of the Caribbean affected by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.