As we enter 2018 we are putting 2017 firmly behind us and the horror that was Hurricane Irma. Our hurricane story has two parts. My experience as a horrified onlooker and my husband’s who was in the middle of the hurricane. It’s still a miracle that he is here with me now.
This is my story.
The husband, Harold, had a job offer from a firm in Tortola so plans for us to move there in 2017 were made. He was to go ahead, get a house and settle in, with myself and the 6 animals to follow about a month later. We could not join him as soon as we planned because of the animal import waiting time with the rabies blood test which left me alone in Aruba for a while.
We were both so excited about the move to Tortola as it meant living somewhere with no language barriers, a great expat social life awaited us with beautiful beaches and island hopping. Just as Harold was set to fly out, our dream house came up on the rental market. A stunning deck with a pool overlooking the bay and lots of space for the animals. For me, the kitchen space and light for my photography was perfect. The house came with everything we could want. Even a pooper scooper for the dogs! Finally, our life was on track after the problems we had encountered in Aruba (that’s another story, another day). We could not have been happier. I waved Harold off at the airport on 19th August and planned to join him at the end of September.
News of the impending hurricane hit our regional news feed on 31st August 2017 and was then reported as a major hurricane. I chatted with the husband who told me that the island was in full hurricane preparation with boards being put up over windows and boats secured. He moved to a hotel as the previous tenant of our dream house had came back for his shipping and we thought that it would be nicer for him to have some peace and quiet to say farewell to the house.
Now we sat back and watched the weather report anxiously. The mainstream news that I normally follow from the UK were reporting it but not in any detail, so I switched to local news which was only reporting the hurricane. This region understands hurricanes and gave it full attention. My social media streams were starting to show videos of the hurricane hitting the Caribbean region. Dominica was being pounded. The news channels and social media were imperative for us both getting through this as I was able to inform Harold what was happening and coming his way. A weather app called Windy was more informative than a lot of the news channels. The Facebook BVI Community board group was one of the best sources of what was happening too. Half of the board were people like me, watching in horror from afar and trying to pass on any information that we could.
We were both nervous as the hurricane was now clearly in Harold’s path and was due to hit early in the morning. At that time, we knew the hurricane was gathering strength and although nervous, the residents in his hotel were positive that it would soon pass with minimal destruction. All hotel staff but one had gone home so the guests were on their own.
I found a live webcam in the region of his hotel and watched the winds blow, with the live feed eventually disappearing when the electric company switched off the main grid. Now the weather warnings had taken a sombre tone. Hurricane Irma had destroyed Barbuda and ripped apart Saint Martin with a level of destruction that had not been seen for many, many years. The islands looked like they had been hit by a bomb. Heart-breaking and awful to watch, now Hurricane Irma was heading to the British Virgin Islands. It was an utterly terrifying situation of watching the hurricane approach and knowing that there was not a thing that could be done to prevent it. Tide levels were now suggested of 11 feet. As Harold’s hotel was on the waters edge, my stomach churned at the thought of what could happen. He was on the second floor but that still was not high enough to escape any flooding.
As Hurricane Irma hit Tortola, we talked to each other through WhatsApp messenger. The winds were battering the hotel, water had started coming through the hotel room windows and doors. Everything in his hotel was shaking and he knew that he was going to have to endure at least 6 hours of this with the winds now up to 185 mph. He was holding up the room door against the storm. He’s a strong man, but his strength was starting to go. If the door was blown open the storm would rip through the room. We talked each other through the first part of the hurricane, with me looking at the weather apps and reports how much longer it would be until the eye of the storm arrived. Images of the devastation in Tortola were now appearing on social media so I could see what he was going through and my stomach remained on full churn of fear. His hotel and our house were right in the middle of the hurricane. This was not going to have a happy ending.
When the BBC weather reported Hurricane Irma as “just passing through” the British Virgin Islands my screams of anger at the television where heard throughout our neighbourhood, along with a few new British swear words. 30 minutes of a satisfying rant on social media at the BBC made it a little better. I could see clearly what was happening and it was certainly not “passing through” like a strong breeze. It was tearing up everything in it’s path.
Once the eye of the storm arrived, Harold popped his head briefly out of the room to assess the damage. He knew not to go outside and be lulled into a false sense of security of the sudden calm of the storm’s eye. It was currently 26 miles wide and moving. The communication network was rather shaky with telephone calls not working, but we could still chat via WhatsApp messenger. He sent me a few photos of the area. The hotel roof had been hit hard, with most of it on the ground. I sent him photos that had been posted on the BVI community board of the damage to the island so far. Although hit, it did not look as bad as St Maarten. At that point.
Round two of Hurricane Irma started and this time Irma was stronger and fiercer. Little did we know that the first half of the hurricane was the warm up for the main event. The hotel room window was now smashed through with the force of the storm. More and more photos of the island were coming through at my end and it did not look good. Most of the buildings in the area where he was, Road Town, were without roofs. Debris and cars were laying everywhere. Boats were on top of each other or upside down.
Water was coming through the room, and I was going frantic with researching every source I could use to see the tracking of the hurricane. Harold needed to know how much longer he had to endure this. Still holding up the door, he was getting tired. Social media and weather apps were essential for much needed information. As for mainstream news? Meh! They should be ashamed of themselves as their reporting was minimal. Harold had another 3 hours to go of holding the door up. His other alternative was to seek shelter from the hurricane in the bathroom, but he knew once the door blew out the force of the hurricane would suck everything out of the room.
The island warning sirens were now on with a wave surge warning. All cell phones and landlines were down but we were lucky to still have communication. Harold was getting tired after hours of battling the door. He now had about another hour of this to go. He asked me to post a message on his Facebook to let his family and friends know that his is okay. Shaken but okay. The reply from one of his friends saying that he is tough and will ride it out with and an angry cry up to the sky of “is that all you’ve got?!” still makes us laugh. We needed that moment of laughter.
The hurricane had finally passed, and Harold send me a voice message. He was okay and felt relief. Well, that was the polite translation. He doesn’t offer swear but it was full of F words. He was just glad to get through it and was on a hurricane survival high. The winds now had dropped down to 80 mph, but it was still too windy to go out. I was just so relieved he had gotten through it and to hear his voice.
Reports of the devastation were now being posted in the BVI groups. Road Town was a war zone with buildings ripped apart. Cane Bay was 80% gone, Carrot Bay flooded with boats thrown everywhere. The list went on. The nearby bar to our home had been destroyed. There did not look much hope for our house.
By now all communication between us had gone. All my messages were met with a silence. 24 hours went by and still nothing. I spent every waking hour (which was a lot as I could not sleep soundly) pouring over all the message boards looking at others asking about their loved ones, and seeing the extent of the devastation. People were posting videos of the destruction and I could see my husband’s hotel in one. It was torn apart and the churning of my stomach continued. The rooms either side of his were ruined. I kept listening to his voicemail to reassure myself that he was okay. By now the message boards were full of missing people enquiries, fraught with worry and concern. The island was without power and lines of communication difficult.
48 hours with no contact was approaching and the paranoid crazy was starting to kick in. To give a bit of context about our relationship, we call each other every day and have done so for the last 26 years. At least a lunchtime call, for a chat. We have never been without each other at the end of a telephone line. Ever. I couldn’t listen to his voice message on my phone any more for fear that this would be my last communication with him. To add to my growing panic about the communication silence, I was now stranded in another country that was not my home, with 6 animals and had 2 weeks left on the tenancy. I was utterly alone and had no idea what I was going to do. The flights out for myself and the zoo had not yet been booked by Harold’s firm. We were stranded as well as having no idea of what had happened to my husband. I recall sitting in the garden and thinking to myself “No, this is not how our story together ends. It just can’t be!”.
Just as the paranoid crazy fear was kicking in, a message to me from a stranger was posted on the BVI Community board let me know that Harold was okay. He was without power and his phone battery died but was okay. The sense of relief brought me to tears. I didn’t know who this man was, but I was so happy and grateful he had posted this message to me. I slept a bit better that night. Knowing he was okay, I just had to wait for him to call once he was able to.
The support of a couple of friends kept me going and stopped the crazy panic setting in. They were amazing and checked in on me every day which I will never forget. I had even met a couple of ladies via the community board who understood the fear we were all going through and their support was invaluable. I never thought that the upside of this experience would be a couple of new friends. Island girls far and wide rock! It’s the same with an expat community. No-one understands the horror of something going wrong in another country better than an expat.
Now that I knew he was okay, I went into plan B mode. The move to Tortola was not going to happen. There was no way that the authorities would now give me and the animals a visa to enter. I still did not know what had happened to our house in Tortola, but even with the roof off it would not have been habitable for us all. Our next decision had to be influenced by our mini-zoo and where we could travel with them. They are our priority (after each other). A move back to the UK was not something we wanted to do as it would mean that we could not leave the country with the animals again for 6 months. We don’t have a house there either so have nothing to go back to. Although it was kind of my sister and brother-in-law to offer up their home to us and our animals, it would not have been good for our relationship. They would have regretted that offer within a week. Two weeks tops.
The next logically step would be for the husband to return to Aruba. I contacted our landlady who was so understanding about our situation and allowed us to stay in the house until we got back on our feet. We would pay rent as soon as we were able to. She has been a great support. As it had only been a month since Harold had left Aruba I contacted his former Human Resources to see if there was a possibility of him returning. Meetings and discussions were held, and I was given a positive feedback.
Harold finally called, and telephone service was back up. He was still living in the hotel room with no window, no running water and limited power. Road Town was now a no-go area at night. He witnessed looting, the prisoners escaping and trying to get out of the island, people and businesses were robbed and houses ransacked. Until the marines got there to control the situation it was a very dangerous and scary place to be. His story has this in more detail for it’s his story to tell, not mine.
Sadly, our house had been reduced to rubble. The structure had been destroyed, the roof torn off and the decking ripped up and apart. Power lines had fallen all over the property. If we had all been there together with the mini zoo, we doubt that we would have all survived. After the hurricane passed, our house was completely robbed and ransacked. The place was stripped bare of any surviving belongings. I can’t get over people climbing over rubble and debris to steal our personal effects. Food, for survival is one thing but anything else is just wrong. We saw the worse and best of people because of Hurricane Irma.
Now, the battle to get Harold out of Tortola was on. Airports were closed, Miami had been hit by another hurricane and was closed too. For Harold to join me in Aruba, he had to fly from Tortola to San Juan, then onto Miami and finally to Aruba. We were stuck and had to wait for the airports to open.
Much to my anger and disgust, it seemed that we would get no help from the British Government. Despite the British Virgin Islands being a British Overseas Territory there were no evacuation plans for British citizens. None. One by one, Harold saw other countries send in planes to get their citizens out. The British Army even came in to fly out Barbados citizens. The advice from the British Foreign Office? Was to register on a website! An island that has no power and limited communication was somehow able to register their need for help on a website? You cannot make this up at times.
Immigration opened so thankfully Harold was able to retrieve his passport. He told his employers his intention was to leave as soon as we could get a flight out. In the meantime, in survived in conditions that were tantamount to survival camping. Bear Gryllus would have found the conditions tough at times.
We were given a lifeline by his former employers in Aruba. The HR called him and instructed him to ask me to look at all the flights out. I was to send her all the details, she would book everything. The relief we had that they were stepping in to sort out everything was amazing. I looked at all the connecting flights required, and emailed her the timetable and details. We both celebrated that night with relief.
The next day, Harold called to ask about the booking details. He was then told that they were not going to book the flights. Once again, we were knocked down. By now Hurricane Maria was on it way to San Juan and looked to take down the island just as Irma had Tortola. I had 24 hours to book flights that would get Harold out of Tortola and out of San Juan before Maria hit. He would have been stranded if I did not move quickly. Pushing my anger aside about the delay and lies of help, flights were booked.
With relief Harold finally boarded the small flight from Tortola to San Juan. Due to the timing of the connecting flights, he had to stay overnight in San Juan, then again in Miami. Although it meant a 2-day journey to return to me, it meant that he could stay in a hotel. With windows, running hot and cold water and a secure door!
Waiting for him at Aruba airport, I paced up and down like a tigress anxious about a cub. Security looked at me nervously as I became more impatient. My glare back almost made him whimper as by that point, no-one would get between having my husband back. 3 large charter planes had landed within minutes of each other meaning a lot of tourists were blocking up my reunion with my husband. Finally, seeing him approaching the gate, I pushed people aside with a growl and threw myself at him. I have never been so glad to see him and clung onto him like a limpet.
Almost a month after being apart, we were finally together and now had to work out what we were going to do next. We sat out in the garden that night, and he told me his tale. Which I listened with my jaw dropping and a very large measure of rum.