Category Archives: Climate

My Irma Story – Part 1

“Two hits so far. Karma’s a bitch. Lol”

That’s the email I received from my ex on Tuesday night, September 5, barely 12 hours before Hurricane Irma began to terrorize the BVI.

(I can only guess by “two hits” that he was referring to the tropical storm that had flooded much of the BVI a month earlier, along with the upcoming storm, Irma.)

Lol.

But Irma is nothing to laugh about. It devastated the entire British Virgin Islands chain, not to mention St. Barths, Barbuda, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, Anguilla, St. Thomas and St. John, before moving towards the Bahamas and the US. I don’t know the total death count from the storm, but estimates in the BVI range from 5 to 15. Regardless, any loss of life is tragic. Not “lol.”


I’m one of the most fortunate people in the BVI. My apartment building is intact, and while there is massive cleanup to be done both inside and out, I didn’t have any major damage. Four out of the six apartments in my building lost windows. The majority of homes on the island lost their roofs. And even of those that didn’t lose their roofs, most lost some or all of their windows, meaning hurricane force winds and rain destroyed the house from the inside out. My house has a roof and all its windows. I’m in the 1 percent.

I prepared for this storm for two days prior, stocking up on water, canned foods, and cat supplies. I took everything I could off the counters, coffee table, dressers, etc. My apartment looked like it was vacant of tenants. My landlord boarded up all of the windows on the front of the building (facing north/northeast), including one side of my glass French doors. (He couldn’t board up both sides, because those doors are the only entry into my apartment.) I’m glad he did.

Hurricane Irma

My windows were boarded up. I had put away all of my “decorative” items and moved as much stuff off the floor as I could.

I had told my parents a few days prior to Irma that I wasn’t in fear for my life with the upcoming storm. My fear was of the unknown – will the roof hold, will the doors blow in, will debris smash through the windows…

Knowing that winds would be 150 mph or more, I made mental plans of what I would do if any of these things happened. My bedroom closets are the built-in king (not framed into the house) so they have a ceiling structure that’s below the ceiling of the apartment. That would be the first choice of places to go if I didn’t feel safe. Next would be the master bathroom, since it has just a relatively small window over the shower, and I would take my patio cushions, which are as thick as sofa cushions, to protect the kitties and me. I was prepared, logistically and mentally, I thought.


Wednesday, September 6 – Irma hits: The wind began to build during the morning hours, and the electric company cut power to the entire BVI around 6 am, hoping to avoid unnecessary damage to the electrical grid. I messaged my family and my boyfriend, Ari, around 8 am. “The wind is crazy. I can’t imagine how it will be in 5 hours” (when the eye was projected to pass over), “but everything is ok.” I read, dozed a little, and watched through one of the bedroom windows (that wasn’t boarded up) while everything I could see was violently destroyed. Trees fell like dominos and pieces of debris flew all around.

By 10:30 am, cell service was getting spotty, but I could still send messages to let family and Ari know that I was ok. I ventured into the living room to check on the rest of the house. My front doors (the glass French doors) – which have steel rods that come out of the top and bottom and latch into the cement door frame, along with a deadbolt holding them together – were groaning and straining against the wind. By 11:30 am, the storm had gotten unbelievably loud, with no breaks in the wind, rain, or noise. By this point, every tree within sight had its top snapped off, and the remnants looked like they had been corkscrewed. There was hardly any vegetation left anywhere. It looked like a bomb had gone off in Josiah’s Bay.

Hurricane Irma

Josiah’s Bay, taken during the eye of the storm. Most of the houses you see in this picture weren’t visible before the storm due to the lush vegetation and trees in the valley.

By around noon, the apartment was shaking like there was a never-ending earthquake. I never thought I would doubt my apartment building’s ability to remain standing, but that fear was running through my mind. I knew we were getting near the eye, because my ears were popping like crazy from the change in pressure. I ventured out of the bedroom to check on the rest of the house. In the living room, the board and reinforcement on the one French door was gone, and both doors were bending and flexing so much that water, leaves and dirt were rushing and blowing in. I tried to move furniture out of the path of the water and debris, but it was already soaked. I doubted the doors would hold much longer.

The situation was similar in the kitchen, with the kitchen windows over the sink flexing and bending so much that a huge waterfall was pouring in. It was so strong, the water didn’t even flow into the sink below – it came right through the windows, down the edge of the countertop and onto the floor. I threw as many towels as I could around the window and on the floor, but they were immediately soaked. I arranged one towel so that the water running from it would pour into a two gallon pot on the floor, but the pot filled and overflowed right away.

Hurricane Irma

Just before the eye hit, mortar started raining down from the ceiling in the master bedroom.

All of this took maybe two or three minutes. I went back into the bedroom with the intention of putting the kitties in the bathroom and joining them. But as soon as I got them into the bathroom, mortar from the ceiling in the master bedroom started raining down on everything, pelting me like a hailstorm, and water started pouring down one of the exterior walls. I thought to myself, “The roof is going to go.”

I pushed the furniture to the middle of the room, threw the kitties in the master closet (thinking it was the safest place for them since I could just keep them there and not open the closet doors for the rest of the storm) and took refuge – not in the master bathroom as my original plan had been – but in the second bathroom, which is on the back side of the apartment.

Like the master bathroom, it has a small window over the shower, and I could see pieces of metal roofing flying by the window. I laid down in the shower and covered myself with patio cushions and prayed. For the first time in almost 44 years, I was afraid for my life.

That lasted for about 30-45 minutes.


As soon as the eye came and everything was calm, my landlord, Greg, rushed up from the floor below to check on me. I showed him the damage so far and explained what had happened. He tried to reassure me that the mortar that had rained down was simply used to fill in the cracks where the wooden interior roof structure sits on the poured concrete wall. As he put it, “It’s functional, but not structural.” I wasn’t convinced.

Hurricane Irma

There’s supposed to be a door there.

The door that leads from the stairwell to my patio had also blown off – torn right off the hinges. Fortunately, it was laying on my patio and didn’t become a projectile. He picked it up and put it in my living room.

We went out onto the patio to survey Josiah’s Bay. It was surreal. What he had described just a few days prior as a “big green cushion” was a wasteland. There was no vegetation over three feet high, and no green anywhere in sight. It looked like there had been a massive wildfire. You could see every house, every car, everything in the entire bay and valley. There were very few houses with roofs still intact.

I saw my friends “bear” Chris and Horacio on the roof of their building below me, surveying the damage. I yelled down to them to let them know I was alive. It felt good to see friends and have some limited communication with them.

Josiah's Bay - Before

Josiah’s Bay September 4, 2017. Two days before Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma

Josiah’s Bay September 8, 2017. Two days after Hurricane Irma.

Greg prepared me for what the second half would be like – winds from the opposite direction and probably not as strong as the first half, but there would be more rain. He was right. I managed to send a basic text message to my family and Ari that the eye had passed and we were in round two. “It’s scary as hell and we’re freaked out, but we’re ok.” At the beginning of the second half, I left the kitties in the closet and I stayed in the second bathroom, but as the storm tapered off around 4 pm, I ventured out and let the kitties out of the closet. By the time the storm ended, it was too late to walk down to Tamarind Club or into Josiah’s Bay to check on my friends.


I cleaned up what I could of my partially flooded apartment, tried to eat, and more importantly, tried to sleep. But my mind wouldn’t let go of two thoughts: how much devastation Mother Nature can inflict, and what the next days and weeks would hold.

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Perception and Reality

In our first ten weeks on the rock, I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with people back in the States and in Europe, and there’s a common theme to their opening comments.  Every conversation tends to start with something along the lines of, “So, how’s paradise?”

It's not always like this - I promise.

It’s not always like this – I promise.

It’s difficult to temper people’s perceptions of what life on an island is like, and I understand, it sounds like a dream come true.  I won’t lie, in a lot of ways, it is.  But as I told friends and family before we left, life on a rock isn’t all palm trees and boat drinks.

To save time on future phone calls, I’ve compiled a list of perceptions/questions that you might have, and my responses.

  • Caller’s Perception:  I hear tropical birds in the background.
  • My Reality:  Those are called roosters.  And yes, they’re crowing at 10am.  And at noon.  And at 7pm.  Island Roosters Never. Shut. Up.
They've taken over the island.  Seriously.

They’ve taken over the island. Seriously.

  • Caller’s Perception:  I hear the roar of the ocean through the phone.
  • My Reality:  Actually, that’s an industrial-strength fan you hear.  It’s 89 degrees here with 95% humidity, and no air conditioning.  So we invested a small fortune in fans – floor-level, adjustable-height, oscillating, stationary – you name it, we have every style of fan you can imagine.  The plus side:  the fans tend to blow all the cat hair into one corner of the hallway, which makes quick work of sweeping the floors.  (Full disclosure, we do have AC in the bedrooms, but we only run it at night, because power here is very expensive.)
  • Caller’s Perception:  What type of fruity cocktail are you having right now?
  • My Reality:  The kind you buy in mass quantities from a vending machine.  Also known as water.  (On Tortola, it’s advised to purchase your drinking water, and the most economical way is by filling 5-gallon containers from water dispensing machines around the island.)  In this climate, you drink more water in a day than even the most health-conscious people back in the States.  And if you don’t, feelings of lightheadedness and grogginess will quickly remind you that dehydration is setting in.  The plus side:  your body processes all this water so efficiently (via SWEAT) that you don’t constantly have to pee, contrary to what you would expect.  And you’re never bloated.  So you’ll have to come up with another excuse if your tummy is hanging over your shorts or your bikini bottom a little more than usual.
  • Caller’s Perception:  How was the beach today?
  • My Reality:  In ten weeks, I’ve only hit the beach during the week on three, maybe four, occasions.  I can see Josiah’s Bay beach from my patio, and every day I look out and smile at its stunning beauty.  But typical life stuff still has to be done – cleaning, grocery shopping, taking the trash to the dumpster, getting drinkable water, searching for shaving cream… So contrary to popular belief, I’m not taking phone calls from a lounge chair under a palm tree. But don’t get me wrong, I do love the views, even if my toes aren’t in the water.
You can reach me at 1-800-Cocotel

You can reach me at 1-800-Cocotel

  • Caller’s Perception:  I’ll bet the seafood/fruit/produce is really fresh and amazing there.
  • My Reality:  I’m allergic to shellfish and don’t eat much seafood.  I imagine that this will change over time, but for now, I’m sticking primarily with beef, chicken, and pork.  And as far as produce goes, Tortola is basically a mountain in the middle of the Caribbean, and the terrain makes farming a challenge.  As a result, 99% of the food is imported, so availability and quality are somewhat spotty.  We’re learning which markets to go to on which days for which items, but it’s a fact of island life that if you have a specific recipe in mind, at least one of the ingredients will be completely sold out on the entire island.  So learning to improvise is important.  That and obsessively checking expiration dates.  And not buying any fresh fruits or veggies that you don’t plan to use within about three days.  But when you find something that’s locally grown, it is amazing.

So there you have it.  Five misconceptions about life on a rock and the not-so-glamorous realities behind them.  Feel free to share your perceptions/questions in the comments, and I’ll give you the behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like.

 

10 Days on a Rock

We made it into the double digits!

It’s still surreal that we live here, but already we’ve come to recognize the good and the bad of living on an island, so I thought I’d share a little bit of both sides.

Bad:  You can’t drink the water.  Well, you can, but most people don’t.  Virtually everyone on the island gets their water from a cistern, and the water is filtered but not purified.  It’s not likely to make you sick, but several locals have told me that they use tap water for cooking, washing, and brushing their teeth, but for pure drinking they stick with bottled water.  Now, I know plenty of people in the States who don’t drink their tap water (either they’re on a well and don’t trust it, or they’re on city water and don’t trust it).  So to me, no big deal.  But this is probably Bill’s biggest complaint so far.

Good:  The views.  Just driving around the island, from anywhere to anywhere, the views are amazing.  Either you’re on a mountain overlooking beautiful bays, or you’re on the waterfront road, riding along just feet from crystal blue water.  I will never tire of the views here.

Waterfront Highway, Looking Toward Peter Island

Waterfront Highway, Looking Toward Peter Island

Bad:  Roommates.  Before we moved, I read a lot of blogs from people who live in the USVI and the BVI, and without fail, they all mentioned living with “critters” and the good and bad of each type.  Thankfully, our cohabitants are lizards, which are harmless and the most beneficial roommates to have , as they eat mosquitos and other insects.  The only problem I foresee is that our cats will probably become lizard connoisseurs.  So far, I’ve found two dead baby lizards, so the population in/around our place is probably on the decline already.

Good.  The beaches.  Whether you want calm, flat water or a great place to surf; a hopping, people-watching mecca or a nearly deserted beach lined with palm trees, they’re all here on Tortola.  The beach closest to us, Josiah’s Bay, is of the surfing variety, with waves in the 5-foot range.  (At least until summer, when the locals tell us that it “goes flat.”)  Although I prefer calm water, the waves in this turquoise blue sea are almost transparent, and it’s gorgeous to look at.  I foresee surfing lessons in my future!

My favorite beach so far. Picture-perfect and virtually deserted.

My favorite beach so far. Picture-perfect and virtually deserted.

Bad:  Driving.  The roads are worse than bad.  (NC/SC friends – think of the worst SC roads you can imagine.  That would be considered good here on Tortola.)  The roads are only about 1.5 lanes wide, most of the curves are blind, and there are no street lights.  Now, imagine those conditions on a 13 mile x 3 mile island that is essentially a mountain (the tallest peak on Tortola is the same height as Kings Pinnacle) where you’re perpetually climbing a 20 degree grade or descending a 20 degree grade.

Good:  The people.  Sure, there are people who are indifferent at best, rude at their worst.  And some of the drivers are a-holes.  But you’ll find that anywhere.  The vast majority of people we’ve met here – both locals and expats – have been friendly and downright helpful.  One charming thing about the BVI culture is that it’s considered rude not to address someone with “good morning,” “good afternoon,” etc. before you start a conversation, or just as a general acknowledgement, in place of “hello,” when you pass someone on the street.  And when you do this, the person’s entire countenance changes.  It’s amazing how far a little cultural sensitivity can get you when you’re in a foreign place.

Bonus:  Did I mention the views?  I did?  Ok, how about the beaches?  The snorkeling isn’t bad either.

Snorkeling at Smuggler's Cove

Snorkeling at Smuggler’s Cove