Today marks 114 days since Hurricane Irma wrecked the British Virgin Islands, and 107 days since I evacuated.
I’ve put off posting “Part 2” of my Irma story because it was difficult. Not difficult to write – that part was done within a couple of weeks after the hurricane – but difficult to revisit my photos and re-live the days immediately post-Irma. Every day I reflect on how incredibly fortunate I’ve been through this ordeal. But even though it’s been almost four months, many of the people there are still living with no power, no running water, and no light at the end of the tunnel.
I hope that through this post, people who know and love the BVI and its people are reminded that there’s still a long way to go before the BVI is back to “normal.”
Thursday – day one post-Irma: I woke up with the sun and went straight to Tamarind Club to find everyone there ok, but the hotel had been almost completely destroyed. There were entire trees in the pool. I think about a dozen people rode out the first half of the storm at Tamarind, and during the eye, four more people, who lived across the street, joined them because the storm had already taken the roofs to their houses.
During the walk down, the first thing I noticed – other than the unobstructed view of the bay and valley – was that power poles weren’t just “down,” they didn’t exist any more. The poles were in splinters and the metal and ceramic parts where the lines attach were shattered, twisted piles of metal strewn everywhere. This wouldn’t be a matter of repairing the equipment – it would all have to be replaced. It would be like installing electricity on the island for the very first time.
As the day went on, more and more people showed up and the “coconut telegraph” was spreading the word about who had been verified safe and who still had not been heard from. I walked down to the beach with my friend Richard Currie. The destruction was incomprehensible. Entire buildings were gone – turned into piles of rubbish or collapsed concrete. Naomi’s bar and restaurant at Josiah’s Bay beach was completely gone. The upstairs of Big D’s building on the beach – the part that he lived in – was gone. The downstairs, which was the beach bar, was partially collapsed. The container that had been Steve’s surf school had been tumbled and blown some 100 ft or more from where it once stood, and pieces of surfboards were strewn along the entire road down to the beach.
What used to be a sandy path from the parking lot to the beach was now a raging river. There was debris all over the salt pond. Currie spotted what he thought was a first aid kit in the bush by the road. He ventured into goodness knows what kind of water, sludge, and debris to retrieve it. It turned out to be an oxygen kit that had belonged to the Josiah’s Bay lifeguards. A good thing to have salvaged.
We stopped at our friend Chris’ apartment to decompress for a minute. He had vodka and red bull – luxuries at this point. Currie found a coconut and cracked it open, and I had the best coconut water I’ve ever tasted.
Chris’ place had fairly minor damage, so he could house a couple of people, and several others left Tamarind to go back to their own houses or stay with other family or friends. Tamarind had only two and a half rooms that were still livable, so every bit of strain that could be taken from their housing situation was good. But the following day, a friend of Tamarind brought in a family of four who had been on their catamaran in East End during the storm. During the first half, the wind was so strong it was lifting their boat off the water, so when the eye came, they ran to shelter on a car barge nearby. They spent the second half of the storm in the mechanical room of the barge while it was tossed around in the storm surge and wind. It finally settled in the mangroves, and they spent the night there. But it was not a safe location, so the Tamarind family took them in. There were now between eight and 10 people staying in two and a half rooms at Tamarind.
On our way back from the beach, Currie and I passed a piece of construction equipment that was going down the main roads and pushing the debris to the sides, making just enough room for a car to pass. I’m sure they were doing this for emergency personnel and electricity equipment to get through. But it was a small sign of hope that there would be a recovery.
Friday – day two post-Irma: Hurricane Jose was headed our way. I spent a good amount of time prepping my apartment for the likelihood that it would flood. I didn’t completely trust that our roof could withstand another storm, and even if it did, I would have major roof leaks. So I moved everything that I could to places higher than 12” off the floor. I stashed things in the dishwasher, oven (it’s gas and the gas wasn’t connected anyway), washer, and dryer. The top drawers of my dressers and the top shelves of my closets were bursting at the seams with clothes and linens.
As I cleaned and prepared for Jose, I also got a better perspective on the damage that my apartment had endured. Fortunately, it was minimal. But there were signs of the hurricane all around: chips of cement that had fallen from the ceiling while the apartment was violently shaking; shreds of plant matter on the walls opposite the front doors and front windows, blown in through the cracks and crevices that opened up as the doors and windows strained against the hurricane-force winds; chunks of cement missing from the patio, where the boards that had been screwed into the exterior walls to cover the windows were violently ripped off (and carried to who-knows-where).
When I had done as much as I possibly could at my place, I went to one of the first-floor apartments and prepped it, in case my place got too scary. It had lost a couple of windows in the back of the apartment, but overall, it was in pretty good shape. I cleaned up thousands of shards of glass in the living room – a result of the French doors being blown out (my landlord had boarded them up again immediately after Irma), and I got one of the bathrooms ready to serve as a secondary safe haven for the kitties and me. I was not taking any chances.
After a long day of cleaning and prepping, I was fortunate to be able to walk down to Tamarind and have a simple dinner with friends, and then take a shower. It was super-quick, but it was a real shower, which was a luxury that very few people had, with no electricity, and more importantly, no running water.
Saturday – day three post-Irma: This was a day for good news. First, Jose took a more northward turn than predicted and missed us. There was a brief period of gusty winds, but we didn’t get even a drop of rain. Prayer answered.
Then, early in the morning, I saw a relief helicopter buzz Josiah’s Bay several times, presumably looking for a place to land. The sight of outside help sent me into a mini-breakdown. That was the first, but it wouldn’t be the only breakdown that day. Later, I was able to get wifi access and FaceTime with my sister and with my boyfriend. Communication up to this point had only been via basic text messages, so actually hearing their voices and seeing their faces seemed almost magical after everything that had happened in the past four days.
Next, my landlord was able to reconnect the cooking gas, and my stove and oven have a manual pilot light, so I could do basic cooking at home. I had taken everything significant out of my fridge and freezer on the morning of the storm and put it in coolers with frozen water bottles and ice packs. But the weather was so hot that the ice was going quickly, even in what are supposed to be “good” coolers. So I had taken all of the cold stuff to Tamarind for them to use before it spoiled. Still, it was a relief to know that I could make coffee and maybe toast in the morning, or heat up soup or pasta at night.
Sunday – day four post-Irma: In a disaster situation, typical, daily activities take exponentially longer than normal, as evidenced by the trip that my friend Cat and I made to the main grocery store, near town. The drive that normally takes less than 15 minutes took nearly an hour. It was my first opportunity to see how other parts of the island fared. Irma spared no one and nothing.
We arrived at 9 am to find out that they wouldn’t be opening until noon. But we had a good place in line, so we decided to stick it out and stood in line for over three hours in the blazing sun. We soon realized that neither of us had brought water. After an hour or so, Cat saw a lady who was working in the store come out and bring a few bottles of water to some people. Cat gave her $8 and asked her to bring all the water that would buy us. It took a while, but the lady finally returned with 8 bottles of water. Cat and I each took one, and she gave the remaining 6 to people standing around us in line. I can’t believe I didn’t even take water with me. I always have water with me. Evidence that my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
Besides the threat of dehydration, operation “grocery shopping” was relatively smooth. Police officers showed up just before noon to manage the line and control who got in – 25 people at a time. They should have come sooner, though, because arguments were brewing about who was in line where, and a few minor brawls broke out. But inside the store, everything was orderly and surprisingly fast (faster than on a normal day!). We bought $575 worth of water, cleaning supplies, canned foods, and pet food.
But the best part of the day came while were standing in line, trying not to get fried in the blazing sun. When there’s no power and very little traffic, the island is amazingly quiet. We heard a bit of a rumble and looked around to find the source. Flying overhead we saw a beacon of hope – two Osprey helicopters. It’s hard to describe, but when you’re in what is quite literally a disaster zone, with little or no contact with the outside world, and no way to leave, there’s a feeling of desperation and survival. Even if you’re unhurt and have access to food, water and basic necessities, it feels like you’re barely surviving, and you live just day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. These helicopters were concrete evidence that the outside world knew what had happened and that help was on the way. And even though I was in a better situation than most people on the island, the feeling of joy and relief when I saw those helicopters was incredible.
Monday – day five post-Irma: The focus this day was cleaning. Cat and her boyfriend were staying at her parents’ house. It was spared any major damage, but the master bedroom windows had blown open during the storm, and everything was covered in mud, dirt, and leaves. I spent two hours sweeping dirt and leaves from the ceiling and walls with a broom and barely made a dent. But it was a start.
In the afternoon, my friend Geoff and I went about halfway across the island, to Nanny Cay Marina, to find one of the vet techs who had managed to save files from the veterinary office. She was offering to complete export paperwork for people trying to get off the island with their pets, and I wanted to be prepared in case I decided to (or it became necessary for me to) leave. The devastation at Nanny Cay was another unbelievable sight – boats blown onto land and piled on top of one another, or capsized and half-sunk in the water. That’s the thing about this level of destruction. Just when you think you’ve seen the worst possible devastation, you come across something even more inconceivable.
On the way back to Tamarind, I stopped by my apartment to find that my landlord had gotten a generator to run the water pump. On the day following the storm, he had opened one of the cistern covers, so water was plentiful. The problem was, the cistern is below the bottom level of the apartment, and I live on the top level. Carrying 5 gallon buckets of water up 50+ stairs is challenging to say the least! (Fun fact: A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, so 5 gallons weighs 41.7 pounds!) And the 15 gallons of drinking water and 8 gallons of cistern water that I had stockpiled were going fast. (Another fun fact: It takes nearly 5 gallons of water to flush a standard toilet. Unfortunately, I just learned this fact immediately after the storm.)
Now, I could fill my water jugs and buckets directly from the sink and tub – no more carrying water up the stairs! And more importantly, the prospect of being able to properly shower, wash dishes, flush the toilet, or even just wash my hands – even if it was only for a few hours a day – was bliss.
Tuesday – day six post-Irma: It was a day filled with futility. It started with a mission to do much-needed laundry at a laundromat we heard was open. But when Cat and I got there, we were greeted by a sign on the door: “Sorry, no water.” Disheartened, we decided to go back to Tamarind and sort out the best way to get the most critical laundry washed by hand. It was most likely going to involve a bucket and a rock. We were truly back in the frontier days.
(Disclaimer: My family does not yet know about the next series of events. If they had known at the time, they would have surely killed me.)
While we were strategizing on what to wash, how and where to wash it, and where to dry everything, three people showed up from the US Embassy in Barbados, looking for American citizens who wanted to evacuate. I jumped up and down with my hand in the air yelling “Me! Me! Me” like a five-year-old volunteering to be a taste tester at a candy factory. They were happy to have found some people (a few others were interested) because they needed to fill the evacuation plane. But when I told them that I had three cats that needed to come with me, my hopes were ruined. The guy in charge told me that the pilot might allow one cat, but there was no way he would allow three, or even two. I told him that I didn’t think I could leave without my kitties. He understood, but I only had until about 3:30 pm to decide. As we continued to talk, I discovered that he knows one of my very best friends from high school, who is a Director with the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in Barbados. Small world.
I ultimately decided not to leave without my kitties.
But amazingly, another opportunity came that afternoon, in the form of an email from my friend Jeff, who is the chief pilot with Fly BVI charter company. The company was doing an evacuation flight to San Juan at 3:30 pm, and he confirmed that I could bring all three kitties with me. Now, with a real, viable option to evacuate with my cats, I had to make the hardest decision I had ever made – to leave my home, my friends, and my island family. But I finally decided it was best to leave.
I had 30 minutes to go to my apartment, get the kitties rounded up, and pack what I needed to bring with me. A friend, Miguel, went to the airport with me to get on the same flight.
We staked out a place directly in front of the door that was being used to enter the “security” line. We told two people – whose job seemed to be to coordinate and control the chaos – which flight we were there for. (The airport was inundated with people, but many of them just showed up with no firm plans, hoping to get on any flight they could.) Miguel and I waited, but never heard our flight called. I even spotted a Fly BVI pilot and enthusiastically told him that we were on his flight. He told me that, no, we weren’t, and showed me his manifest to prove it. I said, ok, we must be on a flight with one of the other pilots, because we spoke directly to the chief pilot and ensured we were on the list. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know.
Shortly after 3:30 pm, our estimated departure time, another Fly BVI employee (Albert) came by and asked if we were ok. We told him that we were supposed to be on a Fly BVI flight at 3:30. Had it arrived? What was going on? He said, “Are you kidding? That flight just left. We couldn’t find you guys so we took another group who needed a flight.” Despair hit again.
Albert managed to catch the pilot we had seen earlier and found out that there was one seat available on the flight. Miguel only had a small backpack, whereas I had a suitcase, an overstuffed backpack, and three cats. So I told Miguel to go. Albert promised to get me on a flight the next day. There was hope again.
I went home, unpacked, and repacked, making better decisions about what was important and what was not, and got my house more properly sorted for me to be away for an unknown period of time (windows locked, blinds down, things put away). I didn’t sleep more than two hours that night.
Wednesday – day seven post-Irma: I woke up to cat vomit. My oldest cat, Trouble, is 14 years old, diabetic, and has inflammatory bowel disease. So waking up to cat vomit wasn’t that unusual. He also gets dehydrated easily, and I had been giving him subcutaneous fluids on and off for several days since the storm. But his blood sugar had been normal, so that was a good sign. The vomit was not a good sign. It was pure blood. I gave him 200 cc of fluids, he ate a few bites of food, and I checked his blood sugar. It was good. I decided that I needed to get him to a vet once we were in San Juan.
I was traveling with a carry-on suitcase so full that the zipper was about to pop, a backpack weighing about 35 pounds, two cats in soft “under-the-seat” airline approved carriers, and one cat in a larger, hard-sided carrier. It was nearly impossible for one person to carry it all.
The family of four that had come to Tamarind after the storm was leaving on my flight, and the daughter was indispensable in helping me manage everything. She carried my cat Coco, in the larger, hard-sided carrier, through the entire process – from Tamarind Club to the airport, onto the plane, off the plane, through customs in San Juan, and onto the shuttle to the hotel.
It was hot as hades that day, and the plane – a small, 9-passenger Cessna 404 – was like an oven until we reached altitude several miles out of Tortola and the AC started to sort of kick in. I was sitting in the back row, just in front of where the kitties were stowed, and I could see them panting frantically. Trouble was still and quiet, but he looked at me when I spoke or jostled his carrier.
We were fortunate to go through a special immigration section of the San Juan airport that was processing most of the evacuation flights. They were set up to handle the non-US citizens – some of whom didn’t have the proper visas to enter – without turning them away unless absolutely necessary. Only three of the nine people on my flight were American citizens, and some of the non-citizens had to go through additional paperwork and processing, but we all got through eventually. The immigration and customs officials didn’t even ask for paperwork for the cats. So much for that frantic trip to Nanny Cay on Monday. (Granted, the BVI is recognized by the US as a rabies-free country, so the paperwork was frivolous anyway.)
A shuttle took everyone to the main terminal or to their hotel. As soon as I arrived at the hotel (the only one in San Juan that was accepting pets) and got into my room, I put out the kitties’ food and water. Trouble was very weak and having trouble standing, so I immediately hooked up his fluids and gave him 100 cc. I had brought a few small cans of tuna (his favorite food), and I offered one to him. He lapped up some of the liquid on the top. I checked his blood sugar. It was a little low, but not dangerous. He was becoming more responsive and moving around a bit. Good signs.
But within an hour, he had passed away.
As I sat on the bed – a refugee who had just left her home and friends, in a San Juan hotel with no flight back to the mainland, with her dead kitty on her lap – I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with my life. I cried, for a multitude of reasons – for not being able to get Trouble to the vet in time, for the realization that I could have not made it through the storm, for my friends and island family who weren’t able to evacuate and were still there dealing with the horrible aftermath, and for the uncertainty that we would all face as we tried to pick up the pieces and move on.
But after a few minutes, I pulled myself together…
Because I am stronger, mentally and emotionally, than I ever though I could be. The first week post-Irma was hard. The following weeks and months were hard in different ways, and the coming weeks and months will be harder. But nothing will compare to what my friends and island family who stayed in the BVI have gone through, and for many of them, will continue to go through for months or even years.
I am fortunate beyond words. I did not lose anything – not one single thing – in this horrific storm, unlike countless others in the BVI and across the Caribbean.
I have a wonderful, supportive family and a boyfriend who helps me see the light when all I can focus on is how long the damn tunnel is. My friends – both in the States and in the BVI – would do literally anything for me. I have my two kitties – Coco and Albert – and I was able to have Trouble cremated, so I can ultimately take his ashes back to the BVI and give him a proper burial. I have my health. My clients have been incredibly understanding, and I know my business will continue to thrive and grow.
I am living a life that I love. It’s not always palm trees and boat drinks. In fact, it is noticeably void of those things right now. But it is my life. And everything that has happened, and will happen, just makes me stronger. If this is my karma, then I’m ok with that.