This is my husband’s story of his experience during and after Hurricane Irma when he was in Tortola.
Although I have lived in the Caribbean for four years I had never experienced a hurricane. All that changed in 2017.
I moved to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, ahead of my wife, Angela, in August 2017. We had found our dream house, I was enjoying my new job, my new colleagues and island life. I just needed her and our animals to join me to be complete.
The island received warnings of a strong hurricane approaching called Irma. As the strength of the hurricane was increasing the only question that the island had was are we going to be hit? Was it going to move direction and pass us?
I had a few days to get hurricane supplies for the first time in my time in the Caribbean. I purchased batteries, torches, water and tinned food. Everyone was doing the same and it was just crazy in the shops as people stocked up.
I worked for a car dealership on the island and we boarded up the windows of the business, the cars were moved to a safer location, anything in the workshop that was loose, was tied down or away. And rubbish was cleared.
I had moved to a hotel in Road Town for the expected duration of the hurricane and settled in for the first night. The hotel was full of a mixture of expats, locals, Captains and yachtsmen. It was a relaxed atmosphere.
The hotel had moorings at the back and people were busy chaining yachts down. Divers with huge chains were securing yachts and catamarans to the deck. They frantically worked all day until the early evening to ensure the safety of the boats.
By the end of the day, all the hotel staff but one, the chef, Omar had gone home. Omar looked after us that evening, and little did we know at that time, how pivotal he would be to be getting us through our hurricane survival.
We all sat in the hotel bar with smiles of hope, tinged with nervous trepidation as we watched CNN news. As the evening went on, we saw the coverage of St Martin and how Hurricane Irma had ripped through the island like a bomb. Angela and I had visited St Martin earlier in the year and I could just not recognise the island. Now the atmosphere in the bar changed and nerves set in amongst us.
People were drinking, and the conversation was full of denial. Based on previous experiences, some people believed that the hurricane would not hit them. Others were in full panic and screaming that we were going to die. Hysterical panic began in one lady.
At one point, two locals who were drinking at the bar, calmed the hysterical lady down, with reassurances that “it’ll be okay, we’ve lived here and never been hit hard”. They declared that they were going to settle down with a bottle of rum, play dominoes and breeze through it. Nothing could worry them.
Throughout the night I was glued to the television (no change there says the wife). Although we knew the hurricane was coming we could not imagine it and how it was going to affect us. By now it was a category 5 and we had no real idea of how powerful a category 5 hurricane truly is. The destruction of St Martin scared us, but we thought that it could not happen to us. The air was full of denial.
At that time, we believed we would be hit by the hurricane about 2-3am and having to deal with it in the dark was not something we relished. Eventually, I went back to my room and met my neighbour. He had been putting newspapers and magazines in the gaps in the windows to prevent the glass blowing out. I started to do the same with this being something to do and focus on.
I’m still not sure how I fell asleep, but I did. I awoke early the next day to normal winds and a slight sense of relief that perhaps it was not going to be as bad as expected. About 8am the wind started to pick up force. From my hotel room, I was surprised to see people about and driving instead of being safe and secure.
The information before and during the hurricane was limited and I was totally reliant upon Angela letting me know the timing of the hurricane approach, it’s size, it’s power and where it was heading. She became hurricane detective and news researcher with social media being a key source.
As the hurricane arrived on the island, my ears were in pain due to the pressure. Debris was hitting the hotel roof and smashing against the door. Everything in the room was shaking. The building itself, the fixtures and furniture. Through the window I saw tall palm trees flex and the roots beginning to lift.
Now I was scared. I was on my own and had to secure the door against the hurricane. Rain was coming in from every crevasse and gap. I knew that I had to hold the door of the room back otherwise it would have been blown out. Soaking wet, with intense ear pain, I manoeuvred myself against the bathroom wall (as it was close to the room entrance) and with my hands up on the door and feet against the bathroom using myself as a fulcrum with my bodyweight against the door. Thankfully I am tall as a shorter man would not have been able to do this.
The pain in my ears released and I knew that the eye of the storm was with us. I heard voices outside, but they just ran past the room. It took me some time and courage, but I opened the door to have a look, knowing that I was not to be lured outside by the calm of the eye. Cars were upside down, debris was everywhere and the metal fence around the car park was down.
This lull in the hurricane, gave me a chance to get towels, check the door and check with Angela, how much longer we would be in the eye of the hurricane. People were now running across the road trying to find a second shelter. The same two local guys in the bar who were full of bravado the previous night, were running and screaming. The larger one was hysterical. This made me briefly smile but made we wonder why they would abandoned ship and head for another hotel. I knew that I had to stay put and face part two of the hurricane. It was not something I relished.
When the eye of the hurricane hit, you could suddenly see the clear blue sky. The air was calm, and you could be fooled into thinking that you were safe, and everything was over. Before I knew it, the wind changed, and the sky darkened. Now the wind was becoming stronger and the pain in my ears returned with a vengeance.
I buckled down for the next part of the hurricane. I moved supplies to the bathroom, placed a chair there and planned for the next onslaught.
The second part of the hurricane was twice as bad. It grew in intensity and now blew out the windows in my room. Like a tornado, it sucked the curtains out. Glass and water were everywhere. Through the window frame I could see the terrifying wind speed. All whilst holding myself against the door. I now had to try to push the door back against the frame as it heaved to be released.
Now the power went down. Debris was hitting the door so hard I could feel it against the door. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. More water was coming in from every gap the hurricane could find. The ceiling plasterboard started falling upon me, so now I could see the roof of the room. The roof was flexing showing daylight along the edges, as the room next to mine now clearly had no roof.
I thought to myself with horror, “If the roof goes I am fucked!!”. I would be thrown out along with the contents of the room. I considered the nearby bathroom as a place to move to if the door collapsed. However, as the shower was facing the front door, it would not be safe. Curled under the sink would be my backup plan but it did not look a safe option. I was trapped and stuck.
For over 3 hours I held up that door in the darkness against the onslaught of powerful winds and rain. Throughout this I was coaching myself to get through it. I had to be mentally and physically strong to survive and be reunited with my wife.
Then the siren for the earthquake went off. I knew of the siren as it was by our new house and was tested every Friday. This was definitely not a test and had been set off by the earthquake seismometers. Now there was a potential bigger problem to face. I did not know whether a tsunami was coming and the hotel was along the waters edge. The siren went off twice within 30 minutes. Something had set them off with another level of panic sitting with me.
As the hurricane began to subside I was relieved and astounded that I had got through it. I left Angela an exnihilated voice message.
I got a knock at the door from Omar and Mick. It was such a relief to see them and to be reassured that the hurricane was over. They told me to stay in the room.
When I eventually came out, half of the balcony outside the room was missing. I looked around at the devastation. The nearby Scotia bank was completely gutted. They had spent all day boarding up the windows of the bank which had not made any difference to Irma. Most buildings around the hotel had no roofs, window, boats were in the car park, debris was just everywhere. I felt lucky that my company car was the only vehicle on the carpark still upright. It had no windows, but was upright.
As I ventured downstairs to see who was okay, I had to tackle the stairways full of corrugated iron, wood, branches. It was very dangerous to manoeuvre down a simple flight of stairs.
Reunited with the other guests, it was good to see that the hotel had no fatalities. A few stiff drinks were needed and there was a sense of survival. We had survived something we had all never experienced and nor would many people. Except for Omar. This was his third hurricane with one of them being Hurricane Hugo when it hit Jamaica. He is hardcore!
Everyone was checking the damage and we noticed the water level had risen a few metres. The room to the right of me had their door and windows blown through. The residents had left the room during the eye. The room to the left of me had the roof, windows and doors blown out. Most of the contents were now outside. They too had left during the eye. When I saw that both rooms were blown through it confirmed to me that I was right to hold the door up. It still struck me that it was amazing that my room had not been taken out by the hurricane. If I had bolted to the bathroom, the hurricane would have destroyed the room and flown me out.
I was happy to be alive and astounded that I was not hurt. Water and glass was everywhere in my room. I managed to sleep that night. through sheer exhaustion.
After The Hurricane
Day 1 – Thursday 7th September
When I woke up, I looked out at the space where my window once was, and the first thing I saw was people stealing luggage from the Condos across the road. Suitcases were rolled along the road and the people doing the rolling looked nothing like the guests I had seen there prior to the storm. I was so angry that thieves would do this to people.
In the daylight it was now clear what the true destruction of the storm was. A beautiful park across from the hotel was no longer there. Metal and debris was just everywhere. When you walked toward the moorings, yachts were on top of yachts, boats were upside down. It was complete and utter carnage.
What was once an island so lush and green, was now just a brown wasteland, scattered with cars and debris. Even up in the mountains, cars were everywhere as if they had been dropped from the sky. Which they had.
The hotel rooms had no power and no water. We had to use the small bathroom plastic bins to catch rain water to wash with. To flush the toilet, we had to use the swimming pool water which was dirty and contaminated. Clean water was scarce! We would not waste that on flushing the toilet.
Looting began that day across certain parts of Road Town. People were brandishing machete and gunshots were heard. Necessities were not being stolen at this point which angered our survival group in the hotel. Food and water is one thing, but alcohol, cigarettes and hair extensions is something else! Why steal a television when you have no power?
People were now coming into the hotel to seek refuge for shelter. We also were very aware of people walking around looking for an opportunity, who were sitting in the lobby and bar area. We worked as a team to look after each other and each other’s possessions.
A person from our group was mugged and threatened with her life. Life after the hurricane was taking a nasty turn. The police presence was very scarce and hardly noticeable. They clearly could not handle the situation they found themselves in and a couple took a dark path too. The current police uniform was black t-shirt with police in white letters. A few individuals wearing these, were seen to be turning them inside out and joining in with the looters.
What disgusted me was that there was a man who clearly looked that he had no money, by his appearance. He was walking around with a set of fresh green Puma trainers under his arm. He might as well wore a sign saying “Looter”. We did not let him out of our sight when he appeared near the hotel.
Long nails to secure the roofs of buildings prior to the hurricane were now all over the road. With hindsight the roofs should have been secured with screws. These nails were a danger to people and cars. Especially since the rain had covered them in pools.
The hotel had no generator and no power. Darkness fell early evening and torches were our only source of light. My room was soaking wet, full of black dirty water and broken glass. I put a pillow on the floor by my bed. That was the only point I could put my feet down safely before getting into bed. Sleep was intermittent.
Day 2 – Friday 8th September
More reports came through of looting. The supermarkets that were trying to open had to have armed police at the entrance and would only let people in 10 at a time.
We had some people come into the bar which were not part of our group. When they were questioned what they were doing there, they informed us that they had been released from the prison as it had been compromised. It came to light that the intention of some of them was to take a dinghy from the marina behind the hotel and escape the island. The irony of the surrounding islands being hit as much by Hurricane Irma was not lost on us. Many of the dinghies had been destroyed in the storm so that stopped their plans.
A steady stream of prisoners passed through the hotel throughout the day causing a tense atmosphere. When one of our group approached a passing policeman, to inform them of the prisoner situation, the policeman was not aware of this release. He was truly shocked of this news. It became apparent to us that there was no attempt to inform the public of this decision. Angela confirmed later that this news was at first fiercely denied by the BVI community boards. She had to quit from some of the posts she saw on this for the abuse received at stating a fact, however unpleasant it was.
I was happy to find that my car was in working condition. So off I headed to our new home to check on the damage. What I found was so heart breaking. The house looked like it had been hit by a bomb and it was now uninhabitable. The power lines were down across the entrance, so I could not get in. I aborted my mission and headed back to the hotel.
On the way to the hotel I checked on some friends only to find them on a back of a truck with a freezer. When I asked what was happening they informed me of a truly heart-breaking story. Their house had been compromised in the hurricane. Their uncle had run outside into a container, one of the large shipping containers. The 40-foot ones that weigh about 3800kg, thinking he would be safe there. The force of the hurricane had picked up the container and threw him about like a rag doll. You can only imagine the devastating result.
Back on the second floor of the hotel with half a balcony, I sat with my new-found neighbour whose room had no door or windows. We realised we had to look after each other. There were threats all around the area and hotel. We had to arm ourselves with something to defend us in case of a perilous situation. It was not a pleasant expectation to have.
That night overlooking the carpark, many vehicles pulled up and 3 or 4 people came out of them. Parts were stripped from cars, the interiors and batteries. We looked on with disgust but with no police presence, the robbers happily carried on taking the cars apart. The next day we saw the vehicle owners return to recover them, only to discover that they had been robbed and their vehicles stripped. The hurricane had left many, many people with nothing. To take the little that others had was just sickening.
Day 3 – Saturday 9th September
All the while we were recovering from Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Jose was creeping up on us. We still believed that we were on target for a second hit. Plans were being made to take refuge in the hotel pantry and survive another night. We had no power and no access to information that day and all feared for what potentially was ahead of us. It was not until about 5.30pm that we got word from someone with an AM radio that Jose would not impact us. Personally, I feel that it was the duty of the Government to let people know. I know full well that there are vehicles available equipped with megaphones for political campaigns which would have been perfect for this situation. They were not used because they used too much fuel. Saving petrol is more important than informing citizens along with maintain control it seems.
I had the need to get more supplies for myself and the group as we anticipated the second hit. It took 3 hours queuing in the sun before I could get into the supermarket. However, the time spent queuing went quickly as we all swapped stories and discussed our own situation and hurricane experiences.
I purchased more water, canned food, torches and batteries. These were our essentials. I was now eating canned, processed food that I would never normally eat. I had no choice. My wife would have burst a blood vessel if I brought these home (the only tins in our pantry are dog and cat food).
That night, four of our survival group sat on our balcony, overlooking the car park. We saw people appear, but these were not the car thieves. This time these people moved very differently and in formation. They appeared to be wearing night vision google and dark combat clothing. It was very exciting to see that the Marines had finally arrived! We watched them disappear into the darkness only to be shocked as they had turned back upon on themselves and suddenly appeared in front of us on our balcony! Without a sound! A new respect for Marine training was had. They were very pleasant, checked our rooms, took reports on our condition and made sure we were safe. Off they disappeared into the darkness of the night as quietly as they had arrived. A wave of relief came over us. Order was now going to be restored!
Day 4 – Sunday 10th September
Now we were beginning to finally see some order restored. The looting had stopped. A curfew was in place from 6pm to 9am. Marshall Law was in place with the Marines taking control of order and the streets. This was a great relief to us.
A man came into the hotel bar, and he informed us that his cousin had been shot in the head by a one of the released prisoners. That was a traumatic experience chatting to him and hearing his story. The time directly after the hurricane was just as dark, tense and frightening. At that time the prisoner was still at large which was unsettling.
Mercenaries camped out at the hotel. They were looking after the bank servers. Armed, they protected the destroyed bank in shifts. We got to know them and they also had to perform a field procedure on Angel’s hand. When Angel cut his hand open, he ignored it and the wound was not healing. The Mercenaries cut out the dead skin to fix it. If he had left it any longer, he may have lost the hand.
A British lady came into the hotel. Upon hearing my British accent, she approached me, offered me cigarettes to purchase and told me her tale. Before the hurricane, she was working for a charter company and lived in shared accommodation. The day after Hurricane Irma, her landlord arrived, gave everyone in the accommodation $100 each and told them to leave. They were now all without a job or home. She had little choice but to loot to raise money to get home. She had sought help from the British Embassy and was offered no help. Like others, the advice was to check the website. No evacuation plan or any help was offered. She managed to get a flight back to the UK via Antigua but paid a ridiculous price. Her family had stepped in to pay for her flight and she was one of the lucky ones as, so many other people like her were stranded on the island.
Day 5 – Monday 11th September
Heavy tropical rains hit the island causing flooding, contamination of cisterns and public health problems. People were getting foot injuries from stepping on nails in puddles and potholes
The rubbish was building up and rats were a concern. A medical centre near the hotel which was dealing with minor injuries had placed their bags outside with needles, medical waste. These were starting to pile up. Now that order was restored, the island faced the next problem of potential health issues.
The hotel generator was finally fixed, and we had power in the bar and restaurant. Now we could charge our phones and extended this to all people passing by as well as residents. An area for charging phones was set up but sadly many mobiles went missing as they were stolen by opportunists.
Day 6 – Tuesday 12th September
Power was restored to the kitchen and the Deli opened providing sandwiches and hot food. A part of normal life returned and it was great to eat hot food rather than processed tinned food.
Omar had been instrumental is ensuring that the right food was provided at the right time, according to sell by date and when it had defrosted. He tirelessly looked after the group and their wellbeing. We could not have gotten through the after effects of the hurricane without him.
That afternoon, a ferry that had left to travel to St Thomas has been refused entry. A couple of American tourists I had previously met in the supermarket queue were denied entry on that ferry. They had checked out of their hotel and had nowhere to stay. They came to our hotel for food, shelter and managed to charge their phones. Luckily for them, their second attempt of entering St Thomas was successful the next day.
By this time, many American tourists with lost passports were trying to get boats to San Juan to escape. They were then trapped in San Juan airport as they could not leave with no passport or papers. Some were turned back to Tortola.
Later that day, we met a man whose dog had been attacked by a machete. For no reason. Some man armed with a machete had just attacked the dog. Fortunately, the dog survived but it was another horrid tale and experience to endure.
I could not leave Tortola without a passport and was stuck. My passport was with the immigration department for my final visa stamp. Fortunately, the immigration office was not damaged by the hurricane and I was going to be able to eventually retrieve it. But we were not informed when they were going to open. I chose to wait until I could retrieve my passport before I could leave the island as I would more than likely become stranded.
By this time, as well as Marines on the streets, we also met British police volunteers who were a clear and welcome presence. Although safety was now secured on the ground I had still not seen any aid being given to people in the Road Town area. It was a dire situation.
On a drive from work, I came across a couple on the road, the man clearly in distress. The man had stepped on a large nail that went through his foot. He was stuck in his house and his sister had taken the ferry to Tortola from St Thomas just to help him and get him to a hospital. People could come into Tortola on the ferry but not leave!! I drove them to the hospital. There, it was complete chaos. You could not get in or out and no one knew what was happening.
From the hospital, I went back to our house. I could now enter it only to find that it had been looted. What was not impacted by the storm was completely taken. By now, from what I had seen and heard, this did not surprise me.
I met a Dutch Captain in the hotel who had broken his leg preparing his roof for the storm and was in crutches. He had approached the Dutch Embassy for support and to return to his home country. The Dutch government had been great in St Martin with evacuating their citizens. However, this was not the case for him in Tortola. His Colombian wife then called her embassy and was told that support would be provided for them both from San Juan. The differences in support for it’s citizen by countries was astounding. You like to think that your Embassy is there to help you but in reality it is not.
Day 7 – Wednesday 13th September
I finally received news that the immigration office would open today. Off I went and was first in line to get my passport back. Everyone in the queue were people that I had met when submitting it. We all wanted to get off the island and get home.
Now that I had my passport, I approached the UK Embassy for support. This was beyond a joke. I was told to register on a website and it was clear that there were no plans to evacuate any British citizens from a British territory. We were stuck there. Any calls to the Foreign Office back in the UK were met with the same advice. I was so angry and disgusted. To add insult to injury, the British Army, flew into Tortola to evacuate Barbados residents via military airplanes. British citizens were denied help.
The only official flights leaving the island had ridiculous prices, taking advantage of peoples’ desperation to leave the island. What did not help was that Miami airport was closed so I had to wait for that to open before being able to leave.
The Following Week
Finally, flights were booked, and I was on my way back to the wife. I was fortunate to leave when I did as Hurricane Maria was now bearing down upon Puerto Rico and was going to take out San Juan airport.
I was lucky to have survived the hurricane and the aftermath was helped by some good people. I came out of this terrifying experience with some good friends and was fortunate to have been surrounded by good caring, people who were not looking to personally benefit from the situation, but genuinely wanted to help.
These great people were:
Omar, aka Chef – He was an absolute legend. He helped pull everyone together and fed us all. He checked on people and kept everyone safe. Especially during the times before the Marines arrived. He was a natural leader and the only member of staff in the hotel from start to finish.
Mick – He was a good leader with his lifetime experience coming into play. Little normalities that got you through the day like making coffee on a camping stove helped boost our spirits.
Dahyle – Her humour helped lift our spirits and she supported us all.
David – He has one of the biggest hearts that I have ever met and was so community focused. He did so much with nothing asked in return. During Irma, he stitched up an injured person’s cut arteries with great skill. He lent his wifi from the boat so that others could use it.
Angel – He was a great support and helped me get Mick to the hospital when he fell ill.
I honestly can’t decide what is the worst part of this story. There are so many moments which were truly horrible and devastating. Thank goodness H made it through safe and sound
Anne Rogers says
I know what it’s like we have hurricane force winds (200k ph) where I live, but they don’t call them hurricanes just severe weather events. The last one ripped out a dozen trees and smashed many more on my property. It took months to clear away all the debris and the council doesn’t help. It is so frightening the wind sounds like a jet engine at full blast right outside the house which shakes like there’s an earthquake. My house is stone and the roof seems to be able to withstand the wind somehow. I’m glad you were ok and didn’t suffer any injuries.
Angela Coleby says
Wow! You are lucky the house is stone! It’s scary how destructive a wind can be! Thanks for commenting.