As the BVI and the USVI are laboriously getting back on their feet after hurricane Irma, a new storm has reared its head; hurricane Maria due to arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday. Its arrival is a terrifying prospect; the islands’ fragilised or downright destroyed buildings no longer offer adequate shelter. Debris from crumbled homes and workplaces scatter the ground, ready to be blown about dangerously in the event of strong winds. Flights to get off of the islands have been cancelled from monday afternoon onwards, meaning that all of those remaining in the destroyed archipelagos can only take refuge in the few constructions still standing, and pray.
During my three years spent as a child in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, I never heard scary stories about hurricanes. There were scary stories about escaped prisoners, about jellyfish or about riptides which could pull you out into the ocean while you were surfing, but never, really, about hurricanes. Mom and Dad would look after hurricane safety, and my brother and I simply looked forward to the power being cut off.
Once boarded up in the house, with no electricity, we would light candles, click on flashlights, and gather around board games to pass the time. Little attention was given to the wind blowing against the house which, like most new constructions on the island, was hurricane-resistant, built specifically to withstand these storms which are expected over a small, tropical island.
I was eleven then. Now, nine years later, I find myself sitting in a food court in Singapore to meet up with Adya, my childhood friend from Tortola, and discuss what has happened there. Hurricane Irma has long since disappeared, its destructive winds dissipated as it passed into the USA’s landmass. Yet, two weeks ago, it was a category 5 hurricane, seemingly intent on passing directly above a neat succession of islands.
Irma first passed over Barbuda, in a surge of destruction which left it quasi uninhabitable, with thousands waiting to be evacuated. Next, the eye of the storm passed over Anguilla, St Martin and Sint Maarten (respectively, the French side and the Dutch side of the same island), reducing these islands to the same conditions. Next came the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands, as the relentless winds settled on these new targets.
When I was a child, the theoretical speed of the wind did not matter; how much we should or should not worry about a hurricane was simply defined by categories; 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, and by whether or not it would pass straight overhead or slightly to the side.
Hurricane Irma flew right over each of these islands, pitilessly battering them and, like a new, stronger bully in the playground, could barely be placed into the established categories. Category 5 applies to hurricanes with wind speeds exceeding 157 mph (252.67km/h), a velocity which the majority of the buildings on the islands are constructed to withstand. Hurricane Irma came running through the Caribbean with a velocity of 185 mph (about 298 km/h); a speed and strength which pushes Irma off the charts as the strongest hurricane in recorded history.
Since hurricane Irma, my parents, my childhood friends, myself and, I imagine, almost everyone else connected to Tortola have been relentlessly scrolling a variety of facebook groups created for the disaster, occasionally jumping or cursing at some new set of information. At first, what emerged from the groups was the incredible scale of damage as photos and videos were posted of different parts of the island; each practically unrecognisable. Even the most hurricane-resistant constructions are shown; torn apart, became nothing more than an empty structure of gaping windows and bare walls.
Now, thousands on the island do not have adequate shelter, as people either share sleeping quarters in houses which were more resistant or attempt to replace vanished roofs with tarpaulins. Chuck Krallman describes part of the situation; “The rains, combined with the inescapable mosquitoes, would have made last night misery once again. [..] It’s hot, with no breeze, and no one has slept well for the past 11 days.”
My family moved away from Tortola nine years ago, and I have not been back, since. Yet, still, the pain of seeing my past home destroyed has kept me sleepless for the past week, and given my careless existence in Singapore a constant undertone of shock and loss. It is inexpressibly worse for those whose lives were still on the island, and would have been for years, unhindered.
Deborah Maddox, the mother of my childhood friend, Adya, wrote a few beautiful words on how the BVIslanders feel; “ Like most people we tend to take so many things for granted; […] the place we call home will always be there, you make plans, you build your life, you raise your children, you dream and make plans for the future. Unless we lived in a war torn country, never in our your wildest dream could we have imagined an event of this magnitude. To get a direct hit from the worst recorded hurricane ever… there are no words that fit.”
Now, the shocked, sleep-deprived yet resilient inhabitants of the torn islands prepare for hurricane Maria. And, sincerely, they could do with some help.
Cambria Collins is currently an exchange student studying at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She is a full time student at University College Roosevelt, in the Netherlands, doing a liberal arts bachelor. She spent three years of her childhood (at the ages of 8, 9 and 11) in the British Virgin Islands.