As we hiked along Ridge Road Brad and I marveled at the locals who were working together and clearing roads. They worked in impromptu teams with saws, axes and the occasional chain saw. The amount they had cleared 24 hours after IRMA was remarkable. We hiked along climbing over downed trees and telephone poles. At some point the road began to clear and cars actually started passing us heading in the direction of West End Tortola and Beef Island Airport. We stuck our thumbs out hoping someone might be crazy enough to pick up two dudes walking the streets with Machetes. The first pickup that could, did. He stopped and motioned for us to hop in the back. Brad and I exchanged glances as we climbed aboard the thrashed pickup with the windows blown out and glass all over the bed of the truck. We held on as the driver wound his way around totaled cars and rubble.
The dude was heading down the mountain and this ride was going to save us miles of hiking! We could not believe our luck! Once at the bottom of the mountain he pulled over near a wrecked home or business or both (it was heard to tell what things used to be) and said this was the end of the line for him. We thanked him, hopped off the bed of the pickup with machetes in hand and on high alert. Things looked a little sketch down here like when you wander into a bad neighborhood. I started to get an uneasy feeling in my gut. As we came closer to town the scene was chaotic. Amidst the rubble there was a lone gas station and it seemed as if everyone on Tortola was cramming towards the pumps to get gas.
We wound our way through the swirling crowd keeping to ourselves. We navigated our way back onto the main road heading toward the airport. Unbelievably the two dudes (us) wielding machetes scored another ride almost immediately (inconceivable!) .
This time it was in the back of a Tortola tourist minibus. We climbed in astounded at our good fortune for being able to get rides so easily. Let’s face it if you were driving through a natural disaster in any USA city and saw to dudes with machetes hitching I doubt you would pick them up! On Tortola hitching is somewhat normal (and legal) and considering the situation I guess the machetes made sense and were not necessarily out of context (or these islanders have serious cajones!).
We did not know how far ride #2 would get us but it didn’t matter. It was saving us precious energy and helping us conserve water for the way back. In the back of the wrecked tour bus were two boxes of brochures on Tortola. I pulled one out and looked it over. The pictures of the island were beautiful luring people to come to Tortola. My mind thought about the wreckage and total carnage that was now Tortola. “Who the hell would want to come here now”, I thought. We probably made it another mile in the tourist bus when he suddenly stopped. We got out and continued our march down the wrecked road towards Beef Island Airport. We stuck our thumbs out at every car hoping to score another ride. It was not long before another pickup pulled over and we hopped in. There was a guy in the back from Canada who told us he used to own 8 yachts and/or Catamarans and that only 3 were left. As he was talking he was sizing us up. “It’s good you got those machetes” he said. “I doubt most of the locals would want to chance messing with you two”. He told us of a disaster he was present for in India. “Shit went south real fast”, he explained. “If the government doesn’t get food and water in here ASAP things will go Thunderdome quick”, he said referencing the Mel Gibson Sci-Fi post apocalyptic flick.
We knew the reports of locals looting whatever was left in town were true. What we did not know was how long it would take them if they ran out of resources in town to come up into the mountainside looking for food and water…………and when they did start coming up into the mountainside and saw our house with a roof still on it how long would it be before they came to our door…….and when they did would we share what we have left? Would we have to fight to keep what we had? What would we be willing to do to defend our shelter, food and safety? My mind was wandering….”I’d be willing to do whatever it takes”, I thought.
The pickup pulled over to the side of the road, our signal to get out. We hopped over the side of the truck and stared at the level of destruction around us. This was probably the worst part of the island yet. It felt as if we were in a disaster movie or National Geographic video.
We still had no idea how far the airport was. Locals don’t speak in terms of kilometers or miles. Rather they say things like “it’s an hour or two”. Instantly and incredibly we scored our best ride of the day from a gentleman we ultimately referred to as “Slo-Joe”. Slo-Joe stops in the middle of the road and mutters something incomprehensible at us. Unsure of what he said but because he stopped Brad and I interpret it as a sign for us to get in. We get into the back seat of the minivan and Slo-Joe asks us where we are going (at least that is what I think he said). “We’re going to the airport” we reply, “Or at least to see if the airport is still there”. Slo-Joe mumbles “Can we get across the bridge to get on Beef Island”. “Not sure” we reply. “We did not even know there was a bridge. We have never been there”. Incredulously the road was mostly clear and the bridge to Beef Island was 100%!
In the distance I could see the airport tower was still standing. This was a positive sign!
We crossed Queen Elizabeth Bridge and entered the airport. My heart sunk immediately as I saw the wreckage and carnage to the planes that had been on the ground during the storm.
Slo-Joe was cruising along at 3 mph surveying the damage. “It’s all gone”, he mumbled. We drove out of the airport and back towards the total devastation of West End. Slo-Joe would stop here or there and give us the rundown on what something used to be. “That was the so-and-so hotel. All gone. It’s all gone” he muttered. “That was the so-and- so church. Gone. All gone”. This continued all the way back to West End. Once there he stopped and picked up a couple from New Zealand that we had actually met in the morning up on Ridge Road. They climbed into the minivan and we exchanged hellos. “Where are you guys going. Is he going to Road Town”. We replied, “We are not really sure. We don’t know this dude he just picked us up and has been giving us the tour off the island”. They seemed content with that answer and we sputtered (at 3 mph) along. At West end Slo-Joe threw a curveball and took a hard right up the road up into the mountains. Brad and I exchanged knowing looks. The hike up the mountain was going to be hard. Real hard. The road is miles long and steep. Real steep. We had been conserving our water but it was the height of the day and we both knew that climb was going to suck and our water was going to run out. Because Slo-Joe wanted to see how far he could drive, because Slo-Joe wanted to survey the damage to the little island he grew up on and because the locals were so industrious in clearing the roads Slo-Joe got us all the way back to the top of Ridge Road!! The entire way he stopped to mumble about what each and every destroyed structure used to be.
It was very sad and we felt terrible for this old man. Everything he knew was….gone. When he crested the top Slo-Joe announced he would be heading back down the mountain towards Road Town. The New Zealand couple and Brad and I thanked him and handed him some cash for his efforts. He turned down and the 4 of us turned up.
We walked back towards the road that would lead us back to our Villa. Along the way we spoke with the New Zealand couple. It turned out their mission had been to check on the hand crafted family yacht. The yacht was gone. Shattered in pieces. “Destroyed”, they said. “Irreplaceable”. Sadness welled up in me. These people have literally lost everything.
Despair was mounting. I thought, “We get to leave one day. They have to stay”. We are renting a home that sustained minor damage. Their homes are damaged or destroyed and there was nothing we could do other than say “I’m sorry”. It’s like when a friend has something terrible happen to them and you want to help so badly and you say, “If there is anything I can do…..”. Yet there is nothing you can do and you both know it.
We got back to the Villa and delivered the depressing news to Krista and Coleen. The town was destroyed and people are looting. Prisoners are looking for homes, the banks are gone and the airport is closed. “It does not look………. functional”, I said. “On the upside the roads are actually clear (we relayed our Slo-Joe adventure), we personally experienced no aggressive behavior and we have a decent place to sleep along with food and water that could last us a few days”, I optimized. My logic was that it was only a matter of time before either the British Marines or US Navy rescued the island and us. Normally that probably would have been the case but, in this case St . Marteen, St. Thomas and St. John had also been hit and leveled by Irma in addition to Tortola. This created multiple sites that needed help and fell under many jurisdictions. St. Marteen is half Dutch and half French controlled. St. Thomas and St. John are American and Tortola is British! The British Royal Navy has far less experience than the US Navy in bailing out hurricane victims as England is a long way off from the Caribbean. The next reason aid was so slow to arrive was a second hurricane called Jose was headed right for us. We did not know this at the time because we had no news but once we spoke to people and got cell service they clued us in. We were potentially going to get slammed by a Category 4 Hurricane the next day! Lastly Irma was moving up towards Florida and the predictions (as we were told) had most of Florida getting mauled by IRMA. In fact they were literally evacuating Florida as they prepared for the storm to hit. We waited through the day and night waiting for Jose and wondering how the island could possibly withstand another hit. Luckily for us Jose turned North and missed us by a hair. Being prior military and having some hurricane assistance experience I was confident that the British would now appear, establish a beachhead and evacuate us off the island and eventually back to the states…….I could not have been more wrong.
Coming next……Part IV Frankie the Rat