Surviving Hurricane Irma in Anguilla

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I had no idea what to expect from Hurricane Irma who was scheduled to make landfall over Anguilla where I’ve lived for the past two years, but I thought I would document how my husband Ralph, our dog Victory and I weathered the storm. We’ve had hurricane warnings in the past, and took ‘light’ precautions but Hurricane Irma made me a bit nervous. I knew for sure we would have heavy rains and power and Internet failure for a day at least. So I baked baguettes, and coconut/chocolate scones and froze them the day before so we would have something quick to eat during our ‘little escapade.”

Below is an account of what happened once Hurricane Irma started raging and we hunkered down and waited for her to pass over Anguilla. She sounded like one of my husband’s Dutch aunties who would serve us the best poffertjes (little Dutch pancakes) but no such luck for us. Somebody pissed her off, and she was here to destroy anything in her path.

Anguilla: Vidya, Ralph & dog Victory. Anguilla: Vidya, Ralph & dog Victory.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Noon – It was a typical beautiful Caribbean day, but because we have been getting minute by minute warnings about ‘Tante Irma,’ we decided to evacuate our tiny cottage, located less than 200 feet from the windward seashore, in Sile Bay, Anguilla and move to higher ground. A very kind lady offered us the downstairs apartment in the home of the ex-Chief Minister whose living quarters were upstairs; he was currently off-island. The house was a concrete bunker, and we immediately felt safe. So while it was still daylight, we set-up for ‘our little sleep-over,’ got out our reading materials, had dinner and then fell asleep.

11:15 pm – My husband Ralph woke me up to tell me that we should move from the master bedroom that was lined with glass sliding doors to the smaller guest room that had small wooden windows. I followed his instructions without protest, and we piled up our lives in one small suitcase and his briefcase and moved into the guest room that was cozy and somewhat romantic with the winds lightly howling outside.

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

2:34 am – The wind started picking up, but we still had electricity. I tried to read a police drama – “Darktown” by Thomas Mullen, but I could not focus. My husband wanted ‘sexy-time,’ but I was not having it, so we got up and made coffee instead. While drinking coffee, we also ate some of the delicious coconut/chocolate scones I had made the day before Hurricane Irma starting raging.

3:31 am – The electricity was now off which was a sure sign that “Madame” was upon us. Strangely, I was still not scared (ignorance is bliss) because I had no clue what was coming. Rather, I was arguing with my 6′ 3″ Dutch Canadian husband about saving water and not flushing the toilet after he peed. It was his first hurricane, mine too but I’m an Island Woman SO HEAR ME ROARRR!! Yeah right.

4:03 am – The shutters that lined the guest room were nailed shut so we couldn’t see what was going on outside. We could only hear and deduce. I tried reading by candlelight …. 1000&1, 1000&2, 1000&3, BANG!!! Ten seconds in between wind-gusts ‘they’ said but it was more like 3-second wind-gusts pounding us without mercy. It sounded like fighter jets in an airshow. You know when they fly down low just to mess with you, but only they were coming and going much faster.

4:37 am – The shutters and windows were shaking and banging so hard, and now the fighter jets were joined by a freight train right outside the windows. I held on to Ralph’s hand and squeezed. He calmly said, at least the car is getting a good wash! I tried to meditate and put myself in a place of calm but Victory (our dog) was anxious, and we both did a good job of calming him with belly rubs.

5:25 am – I swear the X-Men are out there trying to pry open the shutters. Maybe Wolverine was out there trying to calm down Hurricane Irma, but she was here to wreak havoc, and he could not stop her. I started asking Hurricane Irma very nicely to please leave. I’m officially frightened, and I tried to reason with her, but she was pissed and in one rotten-ass mood. My ears were getting plugged from the air pressure, and I swallowed hard and in time to hear the stones from the driveway being pitched up against the shutters and BANG!! BANG!!! BANG!! I don’t know what on earth that was, but it sounded like it was going to come through the ceiling!

6:13 am – The fighter jets turned into a couple of Transformers, and the freight train transformed into Maximus Prime, but Wolverine was surely kicking their asses because one of them just got pelted on the side of the house and then on to the roof. The house shook, and Maximus Prime roared. I think he floored Wolverine because more stones were hitting the shutters! It was a MAJOR ruckus out there, and both Maximus Prime and Wolverine were hitting the sides of the house and crashing about, shaking and vibrating the entire house like an earthquake. I started to pray. I begged God to protect us, and I bargained with him that if he spared us, I would be a better human being.

Anguilla: Waves crashing into houses along coastline from Hurricane Irma. Anguilla: Waves crashing into houses along the coastline from Hurricane Irma.

7:24 am – I felt a gust of wind from under the bedroom door and started to panic. The front door was not strong, and if it broke, the air suction would cause the opposite wall of glass sliding doors to shatter. This I calmly explained to Ralph who decided to prop up the front-door with his weight. The stones were being pelted against the door along with muddy water that was now streaming through the door-frame.

While standing there and watching my husband prop the front-door, I saw a flicker of light and turned around in time to see the bi-fold shutters being forced open by the winds. These were supposed protect the wall of glass sliding doors. I stupidly went up to the sliding doors to look outside, and sheer terror struck me in my solar plexus when I realized the villa next door was missing its roof!! The top of a palm tree was suspended in mid-air, and palm fronds were flying about like paper-kites with broken strings! The glass doors started vibrating, and I knew if it broke, it would go right through me! For the first time in my life, I understood the term “scared to death.”

I quickly grabbed Victory our dog and put him in the bathroom, stripped the cushions off the couches and lined them up on the bathroom floor. I then told Ralph to get ready to move all our belongings into the bathroom.

Ralph told me to push the small couch up to the front-door that he used to prop the door. He then grabbed the small suitcase, his computer case with both laptops and I grabbed our phones and reading glasses. Ralph ran to the kitchen and grabbed a jug of water, the car keys, Victory’s leash and his water bowl. I ran back and grabbed the rest of the candles.

The relentless pounding was getting louder, and now with my dog laid across my lap, panting, it was my husband’s turn to squeeze my hand as we sat on that tiny bathroom floor. I bargained with God some more.

Anguilla: Property damaged from Hurricane Irma. Anguilla: Roof and second floor of a house damaged from Hurricane Irma.

8:16 am – The pounding continued, and Ralph tried to calm us by going back to the kitchen to get us some more of the coffee we made earlier and MORE scones and Victory’s food. Yes – breakfast on someone else’s bathroom floor, every girl’s dream.

I tried to eat but could barely swallow and after breakfast, I said, do you think we will die here? Ralph looked at me, and his eyes got red. “No, absolutely not.” Yes, it got that bad where I knew we were in grave danger. The pounding, banging and howling winds continue and some more bargaining with God.

We used the shower stall to store the little suitcase that contained two changes of clothes for each of us and some toiletries including my hair dryer (don’t judge), but I realized that I had taken out a plastic bag that contained my underwear and left them in the abandoned bedroom. Amidst all this chaos, I kindly, and very sweetly asked my dear sweet husband if he would please go back to the bedroom to collect my bag-full of panties. “Are you kidding me”? He replied as he glared at me to which I said, “they are ALL the REALLY, REALLY good ones.” So he got up and went back to fetch my plastic bag.

9:05 am – I swore there was an army of Transformers just violently trashing this building outside, non-stop! On and on – for more than two hours.

11:30 am – The violence started dissipating slowly, but the howling continued, and we felt safe enough to open the bathroom door and after a few minutes, exit the bathroom. There were about 2-3 inches of water on the floor but nothing too crazy.

12:17 pm – Quiet. “Do you think it’s over”? Ralph asked. “I think it’s over.” We hugged each other tightly until startled by a knock on our front door. The neighbors (our soon-to-be new neighbors) were out, looking to ensure we were safe. Our first inclination was to get in the car and go back to our home to see if it was okay but there were too many utility poles down and the roads were impassable so we stayed put.

Anguilla: Downed power lines from Hurricane Irma. Anguilla: Downed power lines from Hurricane Irma.

THE AFTERMATH

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

We decided to ‘brave’ it and very slowly ventured out and towards our little cottage on the water. It was shocking to see the state on the main road. Nine out of ten light poles snapped like match-sticks were laying across the road. Every single home, whether large villas or small houses had some damage – others were just gone. The walls and roofs of some buildings were blown out. Leaves were completely stripped off trees. The saddest thing I saw was a toy truck blown into some heavy debris.

Our street was blocked, so we drove through our neighbor’s yards to get to our little cottage which was still standing strong but the shutters were ripped out, and there was water – a lot of water everywhere. We cleaned until we were tired to the bone.

While bailing water from the floor, I looked out at sea and said, “look how beautiful it is out there, thank God for today’s technology and thank God we followed our instincts and got out of here.” While mopping up, Ralph said, “Well the Caribs and Arawaks didn’t have social media, I wonder how they knew the storms were coming? Do you think they had time to hide?” “How should I know?” I replied annoyingly. Then in an exaggerated, deep-voiced, caveman accent, he shouted, “Beeg Storm Coming!! Gooo To Cave!” This man could make me laugh in any situation.

We got back to our new home, and one of the neighbors took Ralph to get cooking gas so we could get the stove going. I then baked bread and cinnamon rolls to last a few days and also the share with our new neighbors and those that had helped us ride out the storm.

Anguilla: Downed trees from Hurricane Irma. Anguilla: Downed trees from Hurricane Irma.

Friday, September 8th, 2017

My phone had been dead for two days, and we had no cell service to get word to our families or friends to let them know that we were okay. Ralph found an old FLOW sim card and put it in his phone. We both sat on our new patio, and with bated breath, watched his phone power up and watched the little bars go from zero to one and then three bars total! SUCCESS – we have a connection! The first thing Ralph did was connect with his oldest daughter Jessica in Toronto to let her know we were okay. I held his hand as he cried. After that, we took turns connecting by text with other family members and friends asking them to get the word out that we were okay. It felt incredible to be in contact again the outside world – something that we take for granted every day.

I didn’t know I had the strength that I displayed throughout the entire ordeal and I didn’t cry until I reconnected with everyone and saw all the messages from friends and family who offered to send us anything we needed. We got invitations to come and stay with family and friends in countries all around the world if we needed a place to go. After two weeks in recovery mode, we have decided to stay and lend a hand to Anguilla, and not to abandon it.

It will take some time to have some normalcy in our lives, and while we will be taking cold ‘bucket-and-pail’ showers for a while, we know there are some people right here in our neighborhood who still need help.

We have seen some incredible acts of kindness from the people of Anguilla. Ralph and I were working out of the Digicel store along with about 40 or 50 other individuals who were charging their phones and using the Internet service. Around noon time, a Digicel employee came around with sandwiches. People shared their sandwiches with others who didn’t get any. I thanked God for the kindness because there is no price – no price for a simple gesture of kindness.

The clean-up work has blown my mind; no one is sitting around depressed. Everyone is up and doing their part, moving, rearranging, helping neighbors repair roofs, baking snacks for utility workers and giving them much-needed encouragement. When you are in trouble, and your friends rally to help you, you know you are a good person. That is what Anguilla is to us. This tiny island will rebuild faster than anyone can imagine because the people here ARE pure heart and soul. Anguilla is not sitting down; she will bounce back and be ready for business in two twos!

If you would like to contribute to Anguilla’s rebuilding efforts, consider making a donation via: Bloom’s Anguilla Relief Fund or Blanchards Hurricane Relief Fund. You can also make a donation or provide relief supplies to the Rotary Club of Anguilla.

 

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Vidya Birkhoff

Vidya Birkhoff is a Trinidadian now studying art full time at the Ani Art Academy in Anguilla. Her husband Ralph Birkhoff works across the region developing infrastructure, energy and agricultural projects. They have lived on several Caribbean islands and currently reside in Sea Feathers, Anguilla with their little ‘world-traveler’, Victory; a very brave, nine-year-old Maltese.

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  • Heather Vickers Kettle

    I am happy that you were able to come out of this horrific hurricane alive and still have the will to go on. I too had to deal with Irma in Florida after it left your country. I have been through the trauma and fear which was not as bad as you had to endure. My heart goes out to all the small islands because they do not have the resources and manpower as we do , so our recovery time is much quicker. Your spirit is however great and I hope that there will be a renewal to get you back to being able to enjoy your beautiful island.