We spent the day boating around the various British Virgin Islands on a rented twin engine powerboat. We hiked and snorkeled the famous Virgin Gorda Baths, boated over to Jost Van Dyke and snorkeled for hours. The visibility was incredible and we had the islands to ourselves! We heard a hurricane named Irma was bearing down on us but all reports said it would probably turn north and either graze or miss us completely.
As we returned to the pier we could not help but notice that all of the bars, restaurants and hotels were boarded up ready for the impending hurricane. Yea, we had heard a storm was coming but most of the locals seemed pretty nonchalant about it and felt like it would probably pass by without much ado. Tortola is a small island. Real small. Although it’s the largest of the British Virgin Islands it’s still small by comparison to an island like Puerto Rico. The idea that a hurricane could find this tiny island in the vast ocean was……inconceivable!
That being said we hit up the local grocery store before heading back to our rented mountain villa half expecting it to be empty of food and water as the day was late. The store was busy and slightly chaotic as expected. We were able to buy some food, water and booze (can’t have a hurricane without that!) get in the car and make it back to our house before dark.
Tortola is shaped like a giant speed bump. The main port of Road Town is on one side of the island and our rented villa was on the other. The only way there is to drive up extremely windy roads on radical inclines on the wrong side of the road (they drive British style here). Once you crest the top at Ridge Road you have to drive down a steep single lane road full of potholes and runs down the side of a cliff. The potholed paved road eventually gives way to a potholed….dirt road! The entire journey is probably about 2.5 miles up then 2.5 treacherous miles down to the Villa.
The Villa is solid. It’s a two story with multiple decks made of tile, concrete and plaster with Spanish roof tiles. There is a pool house and garage port made of the same that overlooks a tiled deck and infinity pool with a billion dollar view. I’m no construction engineer but this thing looks like it was built well and can hold up to a storm and whether we liked it or not we were about to find out.
That night we were able to get spotty satellite television coverage of Hurricane Irma as it turned into a Category 5 and was hammering St. Martin. Although the weather channel was reporting this fact there was no on the ground coverage so I really could not appreciate what was happening there. They kept explaining what the difference is between Category 1-5 hurricanes. I tried to wrap my brain around what they meant when describing Category 5 hurricanes as “Catastrophic”.
|Category||Sustained Winds||Types of Damage Due to Hurricane Winds|
|Very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.|
|Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.|
|Devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.|
|Catastrophic damage will occur: Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.|
|157 mph or higher|
137 kt or higher
252 km/h or higher
|Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.|
Notice that in Category 5’s “A high % of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse”. We all kind of looked at each other and realized that this shit just got real.
At this time the island of Tortola decided to shut the power off. Evidently having a hurricane down live power lines is dangerous so they just kill it ahead of time. Now we had no internet, radio or television and the last prediction for Irma as it regards our tiny island was that it would turn North before hitting us which would result in lots of high winds and rain but that would be about it.
Irma hit the next morning. We had no way of knowing what to really expect so we just waited. As the winds howled and the rain came in sideways you could begin to hear the wind “hum”. All visibility was lost outside and the windows started to buckle. Although our sliding glass doors were holding the moldings were not and water started pouring in the house fast. We retreated to the hallway hoping the windows and doors would hold. I have heard stories from hurricane victims whose roofs blew off or windows blow out. The pressure that is created is deafening and can blow out your eardrums not to mention scare the living shit out of you. Water started pouring over the upstairs hallway! We bolted upstairs into the master suite only to be in ankle deep water. The moldings had come completely loose and the rain was pushing its way into the house. I threw every towel we had down around the sliding doors then ripped the mattress from the bed and shoved it hard up against the doors. We then went back into the upstairs hall closed the door and put more towels against it to hopefully keep the water from pouring down on us. Just then….it stopped. I don’t mean the wind stopped, I mean the wind the rain, everything just went still and quiet and it became light out again. Is it over? It was quick and as bad as it seemed we survived. The house held up with a few broken windows and some flooding but we were all OK! Brad and I went outside and looked over the balcony. All the vegetation that was on the side of the mountain was…..gone. But, all the other homes in our cove were still there and had their roofs! We began to move around the house to survey any damage. The garage port was in pieces on top of our car and the shed doors were blown off but otherwise there did not seem to be much damage! Just then a guy comes running into our yard out of nowhere…..who the hell is this guy? The guy turned out to be a concerned neighbor who is a local. He came to check on the house and found us occupying it. After a very brief introduction (his name is Junior) it became apparent that the storm was not over but that we were in the eye! The wind started to kick up again and Junior high tailed it back up the mountain road towards his house. “Holy shit”, I thought……”we’re in the freakin eye!”
Brad and I threw anything that was not tied down either into the pool or over the side of the cliff. We did not want any of this stuff becoming projectiles and coming through our windows. We went back inside and hunkered down.
I am going to break up the story into multiple posts. Part two “The Tail End” will be published soon. This was a terrible disaster but disasters are in no way specific to an individual and as I have learned are relative to a situation. Unfortunately right after Irma destroyed Cuba, Tortola, St. Marteen, St. John and St. Thomas Mexico City suffered a terrible earthquake and Puerto Rico was destroyed by Hurricane Marie. Earlier Hurricane Harvey caused devastating flooding in Texas. Finally, yesterday, a deranged shooter shot over 500 people in Las Vegas killing 59 of them. I am writing about our experience with Irma because I have never been in a category 5 hurricane before and been on the ground to witness first hand the damage I usually only see in random news stories on television. This is not meant to take away from the terrible experiences others have had in recent disasters.