The oddest thing happened just before the tail of the storm hit. The ocean started receding and the waves were going….backwards. It took a minute to register what I was witnessing. I thought aloud “Damn good thing this house is high up because that does not look good”. Irma’s tail was vicious, pounding the Villa for over 3 hours. Luckily for us the tail of the hurricane caused wind and rain from the opposite direction than the head of the storm. The backside of the Villa was built into the cliff and had almost no windows. This allowed the mountain to act as a shield. I believe because of the change in direction of the storm combined with the mountain shielding us we were spared from extreme flooding, blown roof and blown out windows. For those 3 hours our adrenaline pumped waiting for the roof to come off or the windows to blow out. Irma pounded us screaming like a jet engine, rattling the entire house and breaking some of the windows (lucky for us they were shatterproof) and then it was over. None of us would sleep that night even though we were mentally exhausted. I think I can best describe us as “shell shocked” for lack of a better description……..and happy to be alive and in one piece.
When it got light out we could see the homes below, most of which survived as well. Unbelievable! The island had been stripped of anything green. It was all brown and the only damage we could see was the neighbors house just below us had lost part of their roof. As the sun came up Brad and I decided to hike our way into town, access the damage and find out what the plan was as far as getting off the island. We were not prepared for what we were about to see. It turned out that our little cove and the houses in it were probably in the luckiest spot on the island (we renamed it Lucky Cove and Lucky Bay).
Brad and I grabbed the 2 machetes we used to open up coconuts the night before and stuffed our packs with bottled water and bagels. As we tried to leave the Villa we found a little bit of work was going to be necessary. The car was buried by what used to be the carport and the metal security gate guarding our driveway entrance was blown off its hinges. Downed trees were blocking the driveway. The pipe to the outside shower was snapped and gushing precious water. We decided to clear some debris and see if we could get the car out. Getting the remainder of the carport off the car and over the cliff turned out to be easy. Getting the metal security gate back up and on its hinges was not. Not because it was too heavy but because a bunch of pissed off hornets and wasps decided to swarm on us at that moment. Getting stung by hornets and wasps might just be worse than riding out a Cat-5. One thing no one will ever tell you about strong hurricanes…..it uproots everything. When you uproot everything even the roaches, rats and wasps have no home…….and they’re pissed.
We were able to drive the car out onto the mountain road and made it all the way to Junior’s house (about 1/4 mile) before the road was impassable. We abandoned the car and marched up the hill. It was steep and slow going as we had to climb over downed power lines and drag and chop trees off the road when we could.
It took about 45 minutes to go a mile but we finally made it to the top of Ridge Road and all we saw was destruction and devastation. Now I understand the Hurricane Category System when it describes a Cat-5 ” A high % of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse”. As far as the eye could see were destroyed homes, homes with windows and doors blown out, furniture in the streets and people wandering in the streets as if in a daze.
While Brad tried his best to get cell service I used the binoculars to stare down at Road Town or what was left of it. I could not believe my eyes. The only way I can think to describe what I saw is that a giant with a broom had come and just swept every boat in the harbor into a corner. 35 second survey video from Ridge Road
Yachts and million dollar catamarans were just heaped into piles. The town was unrecognizable. Here and there I would recognize a building but so many were flattened or missing that it was difficult to get my bearing.
Our intent had been to hike down into town and see what the situation was and if there was any way of knowing if and when we would be able to evacuate the island. After looking down on the town we decided that going down there at least at the moment was useless.
Instead we stayed on the ridge fighting off the hornets and wasps trying to desperately get cell service with the outside world. Brad was relentless with his tactics and finally figured that he could not call, text or get internet but he could Facetime! He was able to briefly contact Colleen’s parents and let them know we were all OK. They had come from Texas to San Diego to watch Brad and Coleen’s 3 year old daughter Sawyer. It was agreed they would work on trying to find us a way off the island and that tomorrow Brad and I would come back up the ridge and hopefully they would tell us when, where and how we would be evacuated. We had to go back down the mountain and tell the girls of our situation. Neither of us was looking forward to that.
The next couple of days brought extreme emotional ups and downs. We had no way of getting off the island and it was obvious from looking down at the port of Road Town we were not getting out by boat any time soon (we had arrived from St. Thomas via ferry). We had no radio or television to get news, no internet or email to communicate with friends or family and random cell phone coverage that was unpredictable. Even when we got cell service other than being able to tell family and friends we were alive it really was not that helpful. Friends and family did their best to relay information to us……they even purchased plane tickets for us on Saturday morning! Unfortunately almost all of the information they were getting online was not accurate and the plane tickets that they bought ended up being unusable (but at the time we were told that we had plane tickets on Saturday morning we were stoked)! Because we had arrived on Tortola via a ferry from St. Thomas we had never seen the Tortola airport and because there was no news we did not even know if the airport was still functioning much less still there! We had heard rumors of rioting, looting and more. In fact, we had heard that prisoners had escaped from the jail on the island. It seemed that when the power went out the prison generator failed. The prisoners overtook the guards and rumor mill had it they were roaming the island in dangerous gangs taking over damaged hotels and homes. We decided we had no choice but to make the trek. We had to see if the airport was there and if we could get off the island by air. Good thing we are both in good shape and have done 50 mile endurance events because this was going to be an arduous and possibly dangerous hike but it had to be done. We went back to the Villa and told Colleen and Krista the plan. We would machete up and take some food and water for the 12 mile round trip. The goals were to
- See how treacherous the hike would be.
- Survey the towns and roads along the way for safety.
- See if the airport was still there
- If it was see if anyone could tell us when flights would resume.
- Get back to the Villa before dark and in one piece.
- I am going to break up the story into multiple posts. Part Three “Slo-Joeing to the Airport” 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.