Hurricane Irma, Sage Mountain, Tortola, BVI

Photo by Julian Putley
Photo by Julian Putley

On Tuesday, September 4th it became obvious that we, in the British Virgin Islands, were going to get a direct hit from unprecedented catastrophic Category 5 Hurricane Irma. It was a bone chilling realization. Less than a month prior the territory had experienced another unique weather event; torrential rains and thunderstorms for almost 20 hours, producing widespread intense flooding, unparalleled in the islands’ history; the ground on the volcanic island was already saturated

Our house, built into the side of Sage Mountain, is a strong, solid concrete house and we accepted three friends to ride out the storm with us. As part of our hurricane preparations we had filled buckets and containers with water for dish washing, drinking and toilet flushing. On the outside we removed trees and foliage that might threaten the house, cleared the gutters and downspouts, boarded a sliding door (left the PGT hurricane impact proof windows) and changed propane tanks to a full one. Then we charged our battery-operated lamps and cooked a large pressure cooker of stew and another of rice. We secured important documents and electronic items. Then we rested and waited.

The local AM radio station 780, blared pre-hurricane banter, mundane and friendly, but somehow reassuring, with call-ins from other islands describing the conditions, the benefits of roofing types and drainage systems as well as comparisons with Hurricane Hugo, the Cat 4/5 storm of 1989. As the hours went by we saw the storm intensify as it came nearer, the gusts coming in ever increasing blasts. Then the radio became silent, cell service disappeared, the power went off. As we looked out of the windows we saw tree after tree fall, crashing sounds on the roof were nerve-wracking. Finally, at about 1.30pm the eye wall approached and the screeching wind and horizontal driving rain became continuous, visibility was down to feet. We heard the guttering fly off and then the leaks started as the water found its way under the corrugated tin, through the tar paper and plywood; drips soon became streams. The three boys (19 year olds) were great at minimizing the damage by sweeping the water down to the lower level and into an emergency drain. Our dry bags of important documents, electronic gadgetry like laptops, tablets and cell phones were quickly taken to a safe area downstairs under the concrete floor. As the eye advanced the roof began to shake; dust and plaster fell and hanging lights shook and swayed as if in an earthquake. It was as if the devil himself was trying to rip the roof off. Suddenly the sky brightened, the wind calmed and temporary respite was upon us; the hurricane’s eye was over us. The sighs of relief inside the house matched the return of normalcy outside.

After 15 minutes, the wind and rain started again but since we were well protected behind the hill from the south the second half of the hurricane was insignificant by comparison. We were lucky.

 

OBSERVATIONS:
Since our relatively easy escape from absolute disaster I have made some observations that could be useful in the future. 

1. With blocked and destroyed roads collection of wet and rotting garbage is impossible. Ever increasing piles of garbage are a health hazard supporting rats, cockroaches, mice and other rodents. Solution: Trash can be sorted into plastic, glass and biodegradable. Separate dumpsters are essential.

2. Insects can become a real health hazard; mosquitoes carry diseases, Jack Spaniards become disoriented and sting people at random. Solution: Insect repellant (and there are good ones), although rejected by many, should be mandatory.

3. Electricity lines MUST be run underground. Expensive, yes, but the only way to solve the never-ending power outages. NOW is the time to implement a sensible, trouble-free system.

4. Building codes must be brought up to a SAFE standard. Flood drains on lower and basement floors. Roofs must be either concrete flat roofs or rafters tied down with re-bar. Hurricane-proof windows essential. Whole buildings redesigned to better and more rigorous standards.

5. A curfew must be in place BEFORE the impact of a major hurricane – with strict enforcement.

6. Yachts have the capability to run from a major storm. Difficult with large charter fleets but this has to be considered in the future; insurance premiums will sky rocket. End the season end of July and make arrangements to sail to Grenada, Curacao, Trinidad and other safe points south.

7. Vehicles need to be parked and protected out of flood zones and areas with potential flying debris. At least one window should be opened a crack to allow equalization of pressure to avoid window blow outs. 

Natural disasters bring out the best and worst in people. There are those who immediately reach out to others giving support, help, encouragement, advice and resources. A small minority resort to looting, price gouging, and taking advantage of those in a weakened state. Those identified as either character type need to be exposed and highlighted for future reference.

 

Julian Putley is the author of The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI, Sunfun Calypso, and Sunfun Gospel.

 

Julian_Putley
Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.