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Home » Editorials » An Eye Witness Account Of Hurricane Irma By James Reiley
An Eye Witness Account Of Hurricane Irma By James Reiley

An Eye Witness Account Of Hurricane Irma By James Reiley

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James Reiley, ex resident of Mallorca headed off earlier this year to his new home, his beloved Yacht Saphir in Tortola BVI. He has spent a very pleasant few months at Bitter End Yacht Club on his mooring before heading off to Nanny Cay’s hurricane hole for the hurricane season. Little did he know what was about to hit .

 

Below is James’ account of his experience during Hurricane Irma.

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04 Sept, 1132h   What I find so amazing is that all the weather reports are slowly but surely categorising the Irma situation as becoming Category 4 and having it pass about only 30 miles from Tortola. Everyday a new projection comes out and the situation is shifting from grim to grimmer. I would assume that by later today, the situation will be grimmest, but that would be kind of silly as we all know that Wednesday will be the real grimmest day. Not even sure if these are real words. Grim, grimmey, grimmest, grimmeyerest?   As I look down the docks at the boats that are here in the marina, I am pretty tripped out that not many of them seem to be getting ready for the hurricane. Having said that, I give my neighbour John seriously big points for his efforts to get ready. He has experienced hurricanes previously and he has his boat lashed eighty-five different ways and has even chucked an anchor in to help keep his bow away from anything. And if his prep-work isn’t enough, he is doing it all on his own, whilst being a Dad to a 3 year old daughter and a 5 year old son. Pretty impressive. So he is one extreme. The other end of the ‘’getting ready for Irma” continuum is the seriously lackadaisical stance of so many others.  If you didn’t have a computer or smartphone (which means no news or storm projections) you would swear that today was just another day in paradise. Incredible. Maybe tomorrow (Tuesday), everyone will snap to and get cracking. Maybe.

 

 

 

 

I just went for a walk to the store and I did see that almost all the second story windows in the Nanny Cay complex have their storm shutters closed and more and more boats do seem to be adding lines and are being held off their respective docks. Still, when I was in the store, I was talking to one of my buddies who works there and he said that they would be open from 0700h to 1900h every day, regardless of a hurricane or not. I assume that means as long as the employees can actually get to the store. Time will tell on that one.

 

 

 

04 Sept, 1800h   Not much to do now other than watch telly for a bit and get some sleep. This afternoon had been pretty productive, with doing last minute checks, removing things like the stainless Dorade vents, helping Travis set lines, and potentially one of the most important things: taking lots of photos of the preparations I have made in case. Always a good thing to have in case I need to (heaven forbid) contact my insurance company.

 

05 Sept, 0700h   I woke up this morning to the sound of rain, but after a few minutes, it was clear that this was not really Irma rain, but just tropical storm rain; i.e. another one of those 5-10 minute rain deluges that we get here at this time of the year. After that cloud continued past, the sun was there, signalling another very special day. Of course in this case, the descriptors ‘’very special’’ does mean something other than sunny-and-warm-with-nice-breezes. Irma is coming later today. Last evening, after watching a movie, I was able to get online using Saphir’s network repeater to the system on shore, and was looking at information regarding hurricane rotation. Hurricane’s north of the equator all spin anti-clockwise, and typically, this means that the winds to the north of a hurricane centre are worse than they are in the south. And because Irma is going to pass so close to Tortola, that could be to our advantage. “Could” being the operative word here.

 

 

 

 

It is now 1400h, and I have left Saphir and am in the hotel here at Nanny Cay. Actually, I have made three trips here, bringing over things I might need during the storm. The reason for three trips is that some of these bags were heavy and I am doing this alone, which meant two trips. The third trip was because I felt the need to go back and check Saphir one more time. But now I am in the hotel and am reflecting on what today has been like. It was pretty amazing to see that everyone suddenly showed-up and went to work on shuttering buildings, and lashing boats together and to the various docks here. Right now, the main centre of the marina (where Saphir is) looks like this huge spider-web, with lines going every which way securing everything before the storm hits. MLR sent me several messages during the morning, each one painting a darker and darker picture of Irma. So now she is a Category 5, which means seriously f**king big winds, and its path has again shifted a bit so now we are smack in the path of Irma. Am not overly thrilled but that is the way things have turned out. Never having been in a huge hurricane (never having been in any hurricane to be really explicit), I have no idea what to expect. Having said that, I have, since settling into the hotel, seen all sorts of doom and gloom hurricane stories, so I guess my expectation is that it will be shit. My plan is to be here for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then go back to Saphir (assuming Saphir is still here and not winging her way to Miami Beach. To paraphrase an old movie, I feel like I should be standing outside, clicking my Crocs together, saying, “This sure isn’t Andratx.”

 

Still 5 September, but now it is 1800h. I went back to check on Saphir and the wind is picking up. Nothing overly dramatic yet, but you can hear the whistling sound as the wind weaves its way around all the standing masts and shrouds. And so it begins.

 

6 September, 0800h So this is the day Irma is supposed to hit. I have been up since 0400h…. howling wind, on-and-off buckets of rain. All the electricity failed about 0540h, and as of now the generators have still not started up. The wind is from the north, so that means that we are still on the leading edges of the rotation. Some trees have blown down already and Irma is still 8-10 hours away.

 

6 September, 1000h (more or less). My friends Karl and Vikki (who live in Mallorca) called, and the conversation was one of those good-news-bad-news things. The good news was that they rang and were very concerned. Very good friends. The bad news was that they had been following any information on Irma and updated me on her path and what devastation she had wrought on St Maarten on her way across the Caribbean. As we were on Facetime, I showed them live pictures from the marina, and updated them on what was going on here. They said they would put an update online as I had been receiving quite a few messages from other friends, and then they said they would ring back in a couple of hours. Not long after that, I rang MLR, and gave her the same update that I had shared with Karl and Vikki. I told her not to be scared as I had done everything possible to prepare Saphir and was now in the relative safety of the hotel at Nanny Cay. She said she would ring back in a few hours as well.

 

6 September, 1130h   Things here are going downhill at an alarming rate. Not only is there no electricity, the phone service has now stopped, so this means no communications with friends and family. No electricity also meant no water, as water-pumping systems would be out. No water meant, amongst other obvious things, no functioning loos. No broadband, no way to get in touch with emergency services, no just about everything. I had, when speaking to everyone earlier and the previous day, said that if I am not in communications, the only thing to consider is that communications are all down from Irma’s intrusion on the peace and tranquillity of the BVI. No one should think, assume, or wonder if, I was unable to communicate for some other reason.

 

 

 

 

6 September, 1200h   I guess because I have never experienced a hurricane before, much less a Category 5 hurricane, I really had no expectations of what it would be like. For the first few hours after daylight began to lighten up everything, it was possible to open a window and its persianas (shutters) and see what was occurring. By noon, this option was clearly not on the table anymore. I did have my hand-held VHF radio and was monitoring some of the traffic around the marina. What I was hearing was not good, with reports of boats sustaining some damage. That wasn’t too big of a surprise, as the wind was howling louder than I had ever experienced in my entire life. Think of what it would be like standing next to one of the Rolls-Royce jet engines on a Boeing 787…and then double it or treble it. The descriptor ‘’fierce’’ does not adequately describe what the sound was like. It was unbelievably loud, which made it doubly ominous because I knew what the wind could be doing. The last time I had been able to look out the window, I had seen good-sized waves screaming through the marina, accompanied by dead-flat-horizontal rain. Even though I did not feel that it was wise to try to open a window again, I was able to see a nice, constant flow of water coming in from under the balcony doors of my hotel room. And by the time I was placing every towel I had in front of the door, the doors blew open, ripping the locks off the doorframes. Right. Time to rearrange the room a bit. I dragged the sofa, table, two loungers, and anything else that was substantial into a nice pile with the meagre hope of keeping the doors shut. I probably am mis-using the words ‘meagre hope’ here…I should have said ‘absolute and depressing hopeless effort’ and the wind-speed was a function of Mother Nature, and all I had on my side was some semi-tacky rattan furniture. Not exactly the best odds to wager on. As I scurried around looking to see what else I could use to stop the now river-like flow, I heard the roof tearing itself off. The roof of the hotel looked to be semi-corrugated sheet metal, and it was a pretty safe bet that it was only screwed or nailed to a solid wooden support system. Inside my room (I was on the second floor, the top floor of the hotel), the ceiling was a very nicely dark stained vaulted ceiling with big beams. But as soon as the sheet metal was viciously ripped from its mounting, it was clear that the gaps between the wood boards that made up the vaulted ceiling were big enough to let water through…and let water through they did. It was pretty obvious that being in the room was not a sustainable option anymore, and I retreated to the bathroom (that had a false ceiling) and tried to get cosy reclined in the bathtub. At the time, this made lots of sense, as it was undoubtedly the strongest space in the hotel room. So there I was, semi-reclined in the bath, in damp clothes due to the now incessant waterfall in the main hotel room, reading my Kindle, and monitoring what was going on with my hand-held VHF.

 

I started to hear conversations between someone named Althea (but right now am not sure that was her name), and various other people. Althea was in the shower block with several other people and was saying that they felt very safe and there was room there if anyone wanted to try to get there. Sitting in the tub, listening to the roar and knowing that the ceiling structure itself may not last too much longer, I radioed her back to say who I was, where I was, and that I was going to attempt to get to them. I packed up what I could in one briefcase; leaving the other two bags I had with me in the bathtub and went to open the door. It would not open. The amount of air pressure doing strange things due to the circulation of Irma was incredible, and after many tugs on the handle, I managed to get the door open. That was when I first saw some of the destruction that had been going on around me. More trees down, with branches and large segments of the sheet metal roof swirling around in some post-modern dance of death. I started to re-think my plan of getting to the shower block, but as I looked back into the rest of the room, I knew it was time to go. Down along the outside hallway to the stairwell; down the stairs, which were littered with pieces of the hotel building; and around the corner. The entrance to the shower block was about 40 metres away, but it was along another exposed hallway that appeared to be an airflow chamber for horizontally beating rain, and assorted pieces of railings, sheet metal, and three branches. This was one of those terrible life decision times; you know you can’t go back (probably because it might be impossible to make it back to the room) and you know that continuing on to the shower block door is going to be the most difficult thing I had done so far. The decision sorted itself out when it became apparent that I could not stay standing there any more as too many things were flying my way. I radioed again to say I was almost there, but all I heard in response was that the wind was too strong and they couldn’t understand what I said, but would be ready at the door in case I said I was coming. A big breath of air (hoping the breath would contain energy or adrenalin or something) and I plunged out…just as a large branch fell and blocked my path forward and backward. I turned a bit and went out from under the hallway and worked my way to the door. Three people were there and pushed the door open as I staggered in, completely soaked, quite exhausted, but alive. They immediatly lashed the door closed again and I and the other seven or eight people tried to smile as we greeted each other. The main topic of conversation in the shower block hallway revolved around when the hurricane eye would arrive. We all knew by then that Irma had shifted her path so much that we would experience some lull of the eye, but no one knew if the eye would come in right over Tortola. With reports that the eye was more than ten miles in diameter, it was possible that we would be able to tell when it was here. That happened within an hour or so.

 

6 September, a bit after 1300h   It seemed to take place rather quickly, but upon reflection, it happened over a ten-minute period. The rain stopped going horizontally, and then the wind seemed to lessen considerably…and it became lighter. This all meant that we were either on the edge of the eye or damn near in the middle of it. Everyone in the shower block fled the dark, extremely humid environment where we had been huddled, and stepped outside. I decided I would go back up to my room on the second floor, but after turning the corner from the shower block doors, I could see that there was no way I would be able to climb over the massive piles of debris that had jammed themselves in a small walk path. I tried to see if there was another way to reach the second floor, but I knew that the clock was ticking away, and if the eye was 10 or 12 miles in diameter, and the storm was moving at about 16 mph (which is what we had heard), then there was damn little time to faff about outside. I returned to the shower block door and tracked down Althea. As she seemed to be the one that was de-facto in charge, I told her she needed to tell everyone what ‘the plan’ was for when the eye moved on and we were in the shit again. She agreed and did have a plan. But now there was a new problem. When the eye came over, not only did all of us that had been in the shower block go outside, everyone else that was staying in the hotel materialised at the doors to talk, share, and ask questions. Now we had a group in excess of 30 people, and when Althea made her announcement, everyone started to pile back into the shower block to wait for instructions for when we should leave.

 

Standing in the eye of Irma was pretty incredible. It only took a few minutes to go from roaring, f**king hell, to a very surreal calm. The sun was out, there was only the gentlest of breezes, sensationally warm, and surrounded by downed trees, huge pieces of metal roofs, and people who were clearly shell-shocked. It was almost like Salvadore Dali painting that had come to life. And in an almost good way. But we all knew that this surreal environment would not last for more than a short time. We also knew that when all hell broke loose again, it would be worse.

 

Althea’s plan was to head over to one of the condominiums and hunker down there. Her rationale was that when the eye would pass over, the storm surge would come flooding across the car park and it most certainly would reach the shower block. No one was keen on being stuck in a dark space with water rising incredibly quickly; especially when there was talk that the storm surge could reach over 5 or 6 feet. It was at about this point in time that I saw that people were putting on life-jackets that some had brought with them, and it was possible to hear murmuring from some that they were in fear of drowning if the surge could come pouring in. Things were going downhill. This was complicated even further when I realised that the door opened outward, and if there was a wall of water coming, it might be near impossible to even open the door to leave. I mentioned this to Althea, along with the reality that it might be better to leave before the eye was completely past. She agreed and screamed out, “That’s it, we’re going now,” and proceeded to go racing outside. I was pretty close to her as she went out, and all I was carrying was my briefcase, but it was chocker with heavy stuff, and I realised quite quickly that I would not be able to keep up with most of the people, who by now were sprinting through the puddles, desperately trying to keep up with Althea, as she was apparently the only one who knew where the condo was. Around a corner we all went, with me the only one who wasn’t running. Believe me, if I could have run, I would have. Across a small bridge and then around another corner, and suddenly I realised that I could not see anyone in front of me from the group of pretty panic-stricken people, who were, at this point, running for their lives. I kept going, with the assumption that I would see a condo door open with someone I recognised standing there. But as I was sloshing through what was now knee-deep water rushing at me pretty quickly, and rain pelting down again, even I was slowing down for fear of slipping and falling down, which would have not have been good. I came upon a group of condo gates and began to pound on each of them, yelling for Althea. At one of them, number 23 to be exact, a young man came to the gate and tore it open and hustled me into the unit. Quick introductions, ‘’Hi, I am James, and am sorry to barge in unannounced,’’ followed by ‘’Hi, Dylan, and this is Cami…come in. Are you okay?’ Well no, but I said was something like ‘I am fine to be out of that shit.’ Dylan explained that they had heard my pounding just by chance because they had been on the second floor or the condo in case the flood surge came in too quickly. We actually kept talking in their kitchen for about 15 minutes and were about to go upstairs when someone else began to pound on their garden gate. Dylan rushed out in the now raging torrent and two men and two women staggered in, with one of the women almost collapsing on the floor once in the condo. She had fallen down into now more than knee-deep water and was clearly stressed. After a few minutes, we had all retreated to the second floor and waited, but didn’t know what we were waiting for. After about 30 minutes of continual pummelling of the condo by the storm, the wind and the surge actually smashed through Dylan’s front door, making the first floor a large swimming pool in seconds.   Dylan and I ventured down the stairs a bit to see if there was anything that could be done but it was clear that there was no way we would be able to keep the door closed now that the door jam looked like a pile of floating toothpicks. We went back up and re-joined the group. We all just sat there, appreciative of the fact that we had made it through the first part of the storm, but the second bit was seeming much stronger and there was little we could do about it. By this time, I had heard on my VHF of the on-going destruction at the marina, but had no reports of where Saphir was (or used to be). Dylan went down to his kitchen-in-a-swimming-pool and about ten minutes later came up with cups of soup. Now just to clarify a bit here. Picture this: The front door of the condo has blown in from the wind and storm surge; there is over a foot of water covering the entire ground floor of the condo; Dylan is standing in the kitchen, in the foot of water, making soup on the gas hob. Damn. Back to the story..If you know me, you know I don’t do soup. Well, I never used to do soup. I ended up having two cups of soup and it was the most welcomed food I could have ever hoped for. Good man Dylan.

 

6 September, 1800h (more or less) the entire hurricane time here could have been divided into three time chunks. The first was when the centre of Irma was a bit to the east of Tortola. Chunk 2 was when the eye was more or less transiting the island; and then there was the last chunk, which was the worst. The eye was moving past, which meant the rotation of Irma would now be pummelling us with winds from the West-South-West, and after a couple of hours, from the South. This is when the storm surge was at its zenith, and when the winds seemed to have so much more power than the first chunk of Irma. By 1800h, it sounded like things were beginning to calm a bit, but to be fair, ‘’calm a bit’’ means that now it felt like the worst hurricane ever experienced by humans. Clearly, this is what the term ‘relative’ is all about. What we were experiencing then, ‘relative’ to what we had already experienced, didn’t seem all that bad. The reason ‘relative’ was so impactful was that by now it was pretty clear to everyone on the planet that Irma was the biggest, strongest, nastiest hurricane to have ever transited the Atlantic in recorded history. So in layman’s terms, Irma was a real big bitch. And she sure was.

 

6 September, 1900h   I went and laid down in one of the bedrooms that Dylan and Cami said were free to use and for some time, couldn’t get this experience out of my head. Fair enough. It was beyond brutal. It wasn’t until Thursday morning that it was possible to see what Irma left in her wake.

 

7 September, 0600h   I was the first one up and whilst Dylan had told me the night before I should feel free to make something (toast, tea, whatever…they had a gas hob so it would still work), I decided I would take a little walk. Have you ever seen photos of the damage from the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? This is what Nanny Cay looked like. Utter devastation. I walked past the hotel where I had been staying but was more focused on the marina side of the walk path. Boats under water, boats smashed into other boats, boats upended onto the walk path. I had seen photos of things like this, but actually being here seeing them in real life was a pretty powerful experience…and not in a good way. I kept walking…well, ‘’walking’’ included climbing up over boat parts and trees that had gone down…and finally, I saw Saphir. Interestingly enough, she was still connected to the boats that were on either side of her just before the storm hit. All three of them were there…but jammed in between another twenty or thirty boats that were in various states of disrepair. The good news was that Saphir was still floating. The bad news was that the entire super-structure of her was gone, and at this point in time, there was no way to know if she was floating on her own, or floating because she was still connected to other boats. I could not help but believe that Saphir will be rated as a total loss.

 

7 September, 0900h   After carrying a six-gallon floor scrubbing bucket to the part of the Nanny Cay marina that was just constructed in the past year to fill it with water (as there is still no electricity, there is no water and in order to flush the loos, you need to fill the tanks repeatedly), I thought I would take a walk over to see if I could get into my hotel room. I had food and clothes still there. The food was something that Dylan, Cami, and I could use to stay going, and the clothes would be good to have because I was still wearing the same damp/wet/soaked (at various times during the previous day, each one of those descriptors was appropriate). So, climbing over ripped-off tin roof sheeting, downed branches and tress, and the odd nautical bits that had made it up on the grass lawn in front of the hotel buildings, as well as the odd-chunk of miscellaneous debris, I found myself at the stairwell that would take me up to the second floor. This stairwell contained less debris that I expected, and after making it to my room door, I tried my key card, but to no avail. There could be a bazillion reasons why it wasn’t working, and it wasn’t worth even trying to figure out what they were, so I went back downstairs. I saw a group of youngsters (okay, probably hotel guests who were in the mid-twenties, but to me, those are youngsters) and went to see how they were doing. Two of them had just married and were on their honeymoon. The new wife made some comment about ‘’some honeymoon to remember,’’ and I jumped in with “this is a good thing to remember. No matter how much you get pissed off at each other in the future, you both need to take a breath and remember that you survived Irma together, and if that can’t keep a couple together, nothing will.” Good deed done for the day. We chatted for a bit and then one of them asked which room I was in (or had been in). I said it was 212 and I was here to try to get things out of the room, but the door lock wasn’t being overly accommodating to my plans. Brian, the newly minted husband said that he knew where there was a ladder I could use to climb up to my balcony. That seemed like a good idea, but I said I didn’t think I wanted to be the one to climb up, so would he do it. Brian said sure, and a few minutes later, he and a friend materialised with this huge aluminium ladder, so I led them around to the side of the hotel that my balcony was on.

 

This was one of those seminal, ‘holy shit, this storm was more powerful than anyone could have imagined’ moments. Brian scrambled up the ladder whilst I went back up through the stairwell to wait for him at my door. When it opened, Brian had a strange look on his face, sort of a cross between pure fear and total amazement. It was because not only was the railing around the balcony missing, the entire wall and roof were missing. All that was left of my room – the room I had been trying to ride out the storm in – were two side walls, and a wall where my front door wouldn’t even open.