Surviving Irma: Blow by blow
September 6, 2017: "Hurricane Irma is now the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic." [o]
CHARLOTTE-AMELIE, ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS — I knew it would be hurricane season when I went down there, but one doesn't think it will happen to one, does one?
The setting was the Hotel Villa Blanca, facing west and east on a hill-saddle in a quasi-nature preserve overlooking the harbor town of Charlotte-Amalie, on St. Thomas. Many royal palms and other tall trees and lush tropical vegetation supporting an impressive fauna surrounded the two buildings. A magnificent old rubber tree stood in the parking lot.
Gene Smith, the guy I worked for, always kept an eye on some weather websites (one is called wunderground.com). The prevailing trade winds come from the east, from West Africa, sometimes bearing Sahara dust. In the Atlantic Basin, weather waves build up — endearingly called ‘ondas’ on Puerto Rican TV — which is what we mainly watched (Gene's mom is Puerto Rican). An onda can build into a tropical storm, then a hurricane. Everyone starts watching on the TV weather map. Is it getting bigger? Where is it headed? Will it veer off? Who's in its path?
Close at hand were a chainsaw, fire extinguishers, candles, headlamps and lanterns. On the morning of the 6th the wind started picking up.
It was still with a sense of unreality that I started helping with ‘paneling up’, the ubiquitous term for hurricane prepping. Surely it wouldn't be necessary, wouldn't come to that, would it? I hadn’t noticed them before, but now I did: assortments of big sheets of white-painted plywood leaning up against the hotel walls. They were there, I learned, ready to be screwed on over every door and exposed window.
Two-by-fours were screwed over the plywood or hammered them into big brackets, like barring the castle gate, and metal-louvred ‘Miami windows’ were cranked shut. We placed two-by-twos in the tracks of the ten west-facing sliding glass doors of the hotel to keep them open — just a tiny crack — so the room can breathe and the doors aren't blown out. All loose items on the patio, balconies and around the buildings were either fastened down, brought inside, or taken to the dump.
Lots of food and about 15 5-gallon bottles of water were purchased and the 150-gallon generator tank was filled up with diesel fuel. There's a concrete main house, the famous former St. Thomas Club, and the wooden hotel in which I was staying — in the best room with a glorious view of the harbor and stunning tropical sunsets.
Boarding up for Irma in Cuba. By the time it hit it was downgraded to a Category 4. [o]
Hurricane Irma was coming closer and closer. I learned that hurricanes rotate counterclockwise, move at about 25mph, and that the wall of the eye causes the worst damage. By September 5th it was clear that the eye would pass just north of us. The winds, surge, and tornadoes would hit us from the west. Irma was Category 5, meaning that the winds would be at least 156mph.
At 6am on the 5th my loaner smartphone reported ‘EXTREME HURRICANE WARNING’. I packed my stuff and was taken to the fourth bedroom of the main house, The Room of Lost Women (sad stories…), a dark, dank, mold and mosquito-filled cave. At 10:45 that night we finished the last of the paneling. Close at hand were a chainsaw, fire extinguishers, candles, headlamps and lanterns. On the morning of the 6th the wind started picking up. By 2pm we knew the hurricane had arrived. For the next five hours it just got worse and worse.
‘“Is this your first hurricane?” Gene's mother Blanca asked with a smile. I was warned to be careful with doors. They can slam forcefully and take off some fingers. Avoid big windows, even if they're boarded up. The high pressure pushes the water in the toilets down so they gurgle. The wind forces water under the doors. If you take all the gusting, howling, wailing, crashing spring winds in New Mexico and multiply them by a factor of three or four then you have some idea of the sound. I'd been reading a novel in my room until I heard large objects smash against the door to the balcony. I joined the others in the bedroom farthest away from the west side. We waded through an inch of water on the floor in our flip-flops. When we sat down we ate chips and lousy queso dip and drank wine and beer. Gene plied his mom with red wine until she went to sleep. She was still traumatized from Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, when she had to cower in a bathtub under a mattress.
Tightly wrapped chickens escape the blast. [o]
Then a new sound. Wind howled through the wide hallway that runs north-south. We knew that somewhere a window had been breached. The hurricane was in the house. Suddenly the door to the bedroom began to bow inward and the sole hotel guest, Paul Santiago, rushed to brace it while Gene screwed the door to the jamb with a cordless drill. It held. When after some time it was safe to look out, we saw that the wind pressure had blown out the hand-carved wooden door at the end of the hall, blasting it to pieces. We crept to the opening and looked out. It looked like the hurricane footage we've all seen — palms with shredded crowns bending in the wind, rain lashing horizontally, smashed and toppled leafless trees, wreckage flying by — only this was no video.
The storm raged on for several hours, but the worst had passed. We later heard that the wind had gusted at 225 mph. In the morning we surveyed the devastation. The beautiful, lush, mature landscaping was now trash; the gorgeous rubber tree in the parking lot was broken in half. No leaves were left on the trees and many had fallen, even the thick, sturdy palms. Broken limbs and branches, junk and wreckage from the town below were scattered everywhere. Most dangerous of all were the big shards of galvanized steel roofing that sailed through the air like scythes; one penetrated the balcony and the steel gate of an upper hotel room and smashed the sliding glass door. The full-sized, fiberglass swimming pool broke in half: one piece lay in the tangled jungle and the other 100 yards away in a neighbor's driveway down the hill. The pool deck, patio railings and west balcony roof were gone. But the house and hotel roofs stayed intact. We were safe, supplied and housed — unlike many on the island. There was no municipal power, no phone, no Internet. The big diesel generator ran without stopping for three months. Municipal power was restored four months later, in January.
After Irma, Maria was anticlimactic. Could we believe that another Category 5 hurricane was coming, only two weeks after the first one? It didn’t matter what we thought. We just left the panels on or replaced the few we'd taken down, boarded up the breached Miami window. Man, oh, man — was **that** room trashed. Maria hit us from the east and found precious little left to destroy. A lot of water came in under the doors, but that was about it. I slept through most of it.
Waiting to begin again. [o]
I seldom left our oasis on the hill, though I had the impression that emergency food and water had been supplied fairly quickly. As usual, the poor people were hit the hardest, and those I saw standing in line for supplies were almost all black. The roads were cleared fairly rapidly, and the sky was soon filled with helicopters going back and forth. They evacuated many of the patients in the hard-hit hospital. As we went out to replenish food and diesel I was struck by the kindness and solidarity of the people who had put aside their traditional resentments of black vs. white, poor vs. rich, local vs. tourist. That had ended by the time I left in December. The cruise ships that tower over the town began coming back in November, and everything pretty much went back to normal. ≈©≈©
DIANA THATCHER was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduated from UC Berkeley and has been wondering and wandering about the world ever since. She now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.