Lessons That Hurricane Irma Taught Me

So, I agonized for the longest time about writing this post! In fact, if i had a dollar for every time I’ve started trying to write it and then stopped, I’d be able to retire the day job and blog full-time… You see, I still find it incredibly difficult to read or watch anything to do with the hurricane and for a long time I just couldn’t imagine being able to write about it. One of the things that prevented me from blogging for so long following the hurricane was that I felt this huge expectation that I should write ‘my hurricane story’, even though I didn’t feel like I was able to. But after a long  heart-to-heart with one of my closest friends, after a couple of glasses of wine, I was persuaded that I should at least try and that it might well be beneficial. With the anniversary approaching it had been on my mind a lot and I have found it to be remarkably cathartic putting all these words down, even if it usually comes with fresh waves of tears.

 

I do feel I must clarify that, my thoughts and opinions are by no means indicative of anyone else’s. Please understand that everyone’s experience going through the storm will have been different and that no two stories are the same. 

Storm clouds gather on September 5th as hurricane Irma approaches the BVI

 

So here we go, on the 4th September 2017, I published this – a sneak peek inside my Hurricane kit. A cheerfully optimistic (since updated) piece as we watched and waited for hurricane Irma’s arrival. I’d been through storms, I explained. Have your basic supplies ready, I preached. Food and water to see you and your family through a few days, I advised. But I had absolutely no idea what was coming and how it was going to change everything.

 

Now, I’m writing this blog post nearly a full 12 months post-Hurricane. Since being evacuated for my own safety by my husband’s company on September 11th and then returning four weeks later to the utter devastation that was our island community.

 

I find it hard to look back on my experience during the hurricane. I can’t bring myself to go through many of the photos (even my own), videos still bring me to tears. I can’t read the books or articles published about it. Writing this has taken me 11 months… It was one of the hardest experiences of my life and one which I struggle to articulately explain or adequately describe, so I won’t even try. I did just want to share a couple of the things that living through this unique experience has taught me:

 

Your community will make or break you – 

 

It was truly terrifying to see just how quickly the looting and stealing starts when people have lost everything and they get desperate. I’m talking less than 6 hrs after the storm, as evening came and most of us were still reeling from the shock of what had just happened – the stealing had already started.

 

Scuffles at the shelters, fights over supplies and more than a little sense of Lord of the Flies. Finding out that the prison on Tortola was open did little to allay our fears. Tensions are heightened, everyone is scrambling for the last of the items at the supermarkets, the last bottles of water and batteries. You are queuing for hours and pooling every last dollar (needless to say that no electricity means no cash points or card machines at the supermarkets) weighing up the merits of each item as you purchase it, in some sort of apocalyptic supermarket sweep.

 

With regards to the looting, I am definitely talking about the minority here, just a few bad apples. But you only need a couple of incidences to unsettle you, make you concerned and worry about your safety. 

Natural disasters seem to bring out the best and worst in people. Anxiety and fear take over when you find yourself in such extreme circumstances leading to behavior that might normally be out of character. Most likely the looters were just light-fingered opportunists who saw the absolute chaos as the perfect cover for their thievery. But the British military coming in to restore law, and a life under curfew was very much necessary. 

 

At the same time, you will band together with other people in your neighborhood and you will help each other out. People you had never known before will become close friends practically overnight. You essentially only have a couple of days before everything in your fridge/freezer is going to thaw and spoil. We got together and cooked it on communal BBQs, feeding a huge group of us for breakfast and dinner for a couple of days, sharing our food and our wine. I have never been prouder or more grateful to live on Virgin Gorda as I was in those days immediately post-hurricane. There was a strength and resilience displayed by the whole community and a powerful feeling of hope in the face of such adversity and hopelessness. As some of the community started to evacuate they passed food, water, toiletries, supplies, nappies and baby formula to those staying behind. Replenishing their neighbour’s dwindling resources as best they could with their own. The hugs we exchanged when we found our friends as the days wore on in September were raw and real, and almost always accompanied by unapologetic tears of relief. 

Community meetings on Virgin Gorda after hurricane Irma hits the BVI

Sharing food and wine with neighbours after hurricane Irma in the BVI - sharing the lessons that the storm taught me

 

Speaking of evacuations, I will say that leaving our island, and everyone that I love here, was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The uncertainty of when I would be back, when we would be together again and what that would look like broke my heart a little every day. To this day, not everyone has come back. There were friends and colleagues that I never got to say goodbye to. We never could have imagined in the days leading up to the hurricane that we would be scattered and that that would be it. But…

 

Get out if you can – 

 

There is no point in trying to be a hero. If you have the means and the opportunity to leave, you should take it. On the most  basic level you are a drain on already depleted resources. Unless you have a practical skill, medical experience or the brute strength to help rebuild, you are not needed and not helpful. Lessen the burden if you can and leave.

 

I’m not talking about forever, ultimately our little community needed us all to come back. Mass evacuation does nothing to help the local economy. But for the few weeks post-storm, when there is not much  in the way of food and water, it is best that all those supplies go where they are needed – to those that unfortunately can’t get away and to the incredible people that are helping out. I understand how hard it is to leave the life you have created behind, and I appreciate the practical and economical factors may mean that it simply isn’t possible, but if you can leave you might want to take the opportunity. I will never, ever forget the desolating feeling of leaving and the mixture of feelings as I landed in London on the morning of September 15th. Feeling utterly broken and wondering how I would ever be able to put it all back together. 

Evacuating the BVI following hurricane Irma on September 6th 2017

The views from the boat as I am evacuated following hurricane Irma in the BVI. Leverick Bay, North Sound Virgin Gorda

The view looking back as I am evacuated from the BVI following hurricane Irma - Leverick Bay, North Sound Virgin Gorda

 

Look after yourself – 

 

Regardless of whether you can leave or not, you really want to make sure that you look after yourself. Easier said than done. What you don’t know at the time, but may well find out later, is that you are running around in a state of heightened anxiety. Shock has a physical effect on the body and your adrenal gland is working overtime with all the adrenaline that is coursing through your system and that can inevitably lead to burn-out and a monumental crash. You need to take the time, where possible, to look after yourself – listen to your body and rest when you can.

 

When I got back to the UK I discovered that I had adrenal fatigue – my adrenal gland had been running for so long it was exhausted, this came with a host of health issues. Added to this I kept fainting! An existing blood pressure problem was severely exacerbated by the stress. My husband was firm, I was to leave and get help. What I had never fully appreciated was the toll that a natural disaster can have on your health in the aftermath, even if you aren’t injured at the time. Diabetics and patients with hypertension need to pay particular attention. Stress and a poor diet with the lack of fresh produce can cause real issues. The actual death toll from Irma has still not fully been calculated. There is a difference between the immediate figures and the aftermath.

Now a year on, a different issue lingers as members of our community still struggle with PTSD and other ongoing anxieties. We still need to remember to pay attention to ourselves, and to our needs. PTSD aside, life is just so much harder since the hurricane. I doubt anyone could tell you exactly why, or how it is harder – it just is. Everything is more of an effort and it’s exhausting, we’re all just tired. So, so tired.

 

People care – 

 

Never having found myself in the midst of any kind of humanitarian disaster before, it was something of a surprise to me when the marines started to arrive. When dawn came on September 7th and we finally had an opportunity to look outside, I was terrified – wondering how we were going to do this all by ourselves. But help was already on its way. And it wasn’t just the military support – humanitarian relief and charitable organizations like Team Rubicon and Serve On flew in as soon as they were able and our Puerto Rican neighbours loaded containers full of supplies and sent them as fast as they could. The support was truly humbling. One of the things that I really struggled with post-storm was how much Puerto Rico had helped us, yet when Category 4 hurricane Maria hit them mere weeks later, we had absolutely nothing to give back…

 

I will never forget the incredible sense of relief that flooded through me the first time I saw one of those naval helicopters fly overhead, assessing the area. I can still pinpoint the exact moment that I saw it. I was waiting outside the supermarket for it to open, it was one of the first to open and one of our only opportunities to top up our supplies. It was so hot, as we waited outside in the sun for over an hour. The queue was gathering and jostling as more and more people came to wait, we were all irritable and aggressive as some people started to push their way to the front. First we heard it and then we saw it, and I felt this euphoric sense of relief as I realized that help really wasn’t that far away. 

 

Finding wood to board up the house after hurricane Irma devastates the BVI


Respect for the strength of Mother Nature – 

 

It is truly incredible to learn what 240 mph winds are capable of. Before Irma we had no comprehension of the kind of damage that hurricane-force wind could do. For the record, I would have been quite content not ever knowing… But, now I can tell you first-hand that category 5 winds can twist metal girders like pipe cleaners, or toss a 20 ton catamaran onto a building. They will strip every single leaf and frond from the trees and leave them looking scorched, broken, dry and twisted. They can scatter cars like LEGO bricks, peel off a roof like a can opener and reduce a house and all its contents to matchsticks in minutes. I didn’t know before September 6th that the noise that a hurricane makes is like a hundred freight trains bearing down on your house, with the rumbling, the shaking and the piercing, shrieking whistle that comes with them. I, like many people that went through Hurricane Irma, will probably still hear that noise, for many years to come.

 

Damage to Mahoe Bay, Virgin Gorda after hurricane Irma devastates the BVI

Houses destroyed across the BVI following hurricane Irma

 

It’s not about the material things – 

 

Nothing crystallizes your feelings about your possessions like having to pack a bag with the items that mean the most to you. I was so fortunate. Many of my clothes, shoes and handbags were destroyed but the majority were fine and our house was still standing. Not everyone was as lucky as we were. Before I evacuated I packed three bags. None of them were guaranteed to ride with me, the smallest had to contain the absolute essentials and then the other two were bonus; allowed to travel only if there was enough space on the boat. You had to prioritize everything.

 

What did I take? A couple of my favourite handbags, some old photographs of my grandparents and my wedding dress… About as much use to me in London during my evacuation as a chocolate teapot, but memories that I couldn’t bear to leave to get trashed. (To be clear, when I left, the house wasn’t watertight and I couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t get ransacked.) I just took what I could. I have heard similar stories from friends about what they took when they evacuated. Not the most expensive, most practical or the most stylish items but the sentimental pieces.

 

Houses, businesses, cars destroyed in the BVI following hurricane Irma

Houses, businesses and cars destroyed across the BVI following hurricane Irma

 My car ‘Ruby’ ended up inside a local bar – when I found her weeks later, anything of any value (including the steering wheel) had been stripped for parts.

 

You will adapt and your perspective will change – 

 

When I was moaning in 2010 about a 5-day power outage following tropical storm Otto, I was told about the Cayman Islands being without power for 12 weeks following hurricane Ivan in 2004. I was absolutely astounded, I found it completely incomprehensible that anyone could live for 3 months without electricity. How would they store food? How could anyone cope with tropical heat without so much as a fan? How do you manage without showers and flushing toilets (for most of us no electricity means no running water)? But it is remarkable how quickly you find work arounds to these things when every electricity pole is down, the wires have all been cut and there is no hope of restoration for weeks or months. Before long the neighbourhoods hummed with the sound of generators, paper plates quickly became a necessity and you restricted your grocery shops to store cupboard essentials. FYI we got power restored to our house after three and a half months, relying on the generous hospitality of friends until our generator arrived. There were many others less fortunate with some only getting reconnected in March. Puerto Rico only fully restored power in August of this year. 

 

Your heart will break for those around you – 

 

Not one person in our island community came out of that storm with their life still looking the same way it did on September 5th. Irma ripped through our islands, tore through the community and changed everything, the devastation was inconceivable. Whether it was the loss of possessions, car, house, job, business or, heart-breakingly, a friend or loved one – everyone’s lives have altered in some way. Mother Nature is indiscriminate, she does not care whether you are a millionaire or on minimum wage – everyone lost something. It is a very humbling and leveling experience. Many have lost everything and I am still shocked each day by the horrific conditions that I find people living in. We have been scattered, children away from their parents, wives apart from their husbands. Families separated and displaced. Survivor guilt can be crippling – we fared so much better than many people and I find it unbearable to think about what some of my closest friends endured.

 

Once bitten, twice shy – 

 

You could accuse many of us in the BVI of being horribly blasé in the lead up to hurricane Irma (I am not in any way suggesting that we didn’t prepare, because we did, but still). It had been so long since a serious storm and we had so many near misses that we still, despite all the maps and forecasts that were determined to prove otherwise, believed that ‘everything would somehow be okay’… but it wasn’t. The size of the storm was unprecedented.

 

This year, as we edge further and further into hurricane season, there is a palpable tension and anxiety levels are climbing. Every time we get serious rain we seem to collectively have a little meltdown. And who could really blame us? Many are still without watertight roofs! Once upon a time a rain storm was just an excuse to stay inside all day watching Netflix and not feeling guilty, now they seem to have a sinister edge to them. We frantically monitor the weather news and obsessively check the apps. Unexpectedly Hurricane Irma did have many positive takeaways, if you look hard enough. Hopefully one of them will be that we will do our best to prepare better for future storms. Although quite how anyone could have ‘prepared’ for a storm of that magnitude, I don’t know.

NOAA picture of hurricane Irma as she makes her way across the Caribbean on September 6th 2017

 To date hurricane Irma is the largest Atlantic hurricane since records began. The eye of the storm passed directly over the British Virgin Islands and we spent 45 minutes in the eerie calmness before all hell broke loose again. Much of the damage to property was caused by the tornadoes that peeled off the eye wall.

 

This post feels very difficult to sign-off so I  just want to leave you with a quote that I found when I returned to London. I wasn’t looking for hurricane quotes, it sort of found me – in one of those peculiar ways that the universe has.

 

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ~ Haruki Murakami

 

 

The British Virgin Islands still has a long road to recovery – should you wish to donate please consider giving to local charities such as Adopt a Roof, The Family Support Network or Unite BVI. Alternatively donations for Team Rubicon and Serve On, as they support communities across the globe would be very much appreciated. 

*Special thanks to: my incredible action-man husband, Dominic. My ever-patient and supportive family. My generous, hospitable and beautiful sister-in-law for taking me in for 4 weeks when I was a little bit homeless and lost. And lastly, my rock-star BVI friends who continue to stay positive in the face of everything and have made it through one of the most challenging years of our lives. 

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6 Comments

  1. September 3, 2018 / 12:22 pm

    Although I have never personally experienced a hurricane, my heart goes out to all those who have. Thank you so much for sharing something so personal and deep to your heart.

  2. September 3, 2018 / 4:14 pm

    Hi Charlie, thanks for being brave and sharing this story. I’m speechless.

  3. September 3, 2018 / 6:55 pm

    This is an important post. I’m sure there are very few people in the world who actually know how bad this was. I, for one, hardly heard anything about Irma on the news. I certainly didn’t know it was the largest Atlantic hurricane since records began! I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sorry to hear about the PTSD in the community. That’s another thing I’m sure not a lot of people know about. I hope your post has a wide reach so your community can get the support it needs. If there are specific needs, I’d be happy to spread the word. Best wishes, Louise

  4. Roger
    September 4, 2018 / 2:53 am

    As a BVI resident from 02 to 06… it was heartbreaking to be on the outside. So much tragedy. However it was amazing to see the strength and resilience of everyone in the BVI and also the huge network of friends, family and ex residents or even visitors come together to do whatever little we could to help. We all love those little islands… beautifully written

  5. Marta Garraus
    September 5, 2018 / 2:08 pm

    Live life and Love your clan like there’s no tomorrow! Always!!! Thanks for sharing your feelings and experience!

  6. September 6, 2018 / 11:15 pm

    Thank you, Charlie. I feel you, and I appreciate knowing, through your sharing, that my own post-Irma survival anxiety is shared. I felt so complacent in the days just before Irma because I thought I was so “well-prepared”, and couldn’t have imagined that what we’d experience would be beyond anything imaginable…you have reminded us that some days can be more challenging than others.

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