Life-changing events during Hurricane Irma
By Sonja van der Drift
Life-changing events during Hurricane Irma
Published with permission and personally experienced and written in the 3rd person by John B. from Cape Town, SA
The following is an account of some life-changing events that occurred between 03 and 14 September 2017. There were many things that took place and many stories and tales that are not in these accounts. Some of them were the assistance that we rendered to the grief stricken wife of Hennie H. who had passed away the night before and she was looking for someone to help her remove the body – others were incidents where we saw things or spoke to people about their stories; none necessarily of lesser importance but simply too many to include here. One can write a complete book over the details of just our own story during such an event.
Some have since said that they wished they had been there to experience this as well – but this of course is not possible for obvious reasons but also, how does one think one can realistically experience a life threatening event if the outcome is extremely uncertain and the odds are no longer in one’s favor? When there is no ‘cut-out’ switch and no-body one can count on except the company one is in at that moment in time. When one realizes that one is walking an exponentially decreasing and wavy fine line and is able to witness the Divine’s presence and His intervention in numerous small and large things – things that can simply not be co-incidental and the odds of which would be the same as being struck by lightning 7
times on a sunny day sitting indoors….
Note from editor : John B, was in SXM to work on the new building for Remax and maintenance off the marina. He was scheduled to fly out to SA, but decided to stay in SXM and help. This all took place around Oyster Pond.
On Sunday morning of the 3rd, at 05h00 the forecast was clear – the storm was going to be massive and even IF the eye missed us, at best we would still suffer a massive blow. John’s flight had been confirmed and his boarding pass was issued the day before but it was clear to him that leaving was no longer an option – his presence would be badly needed here before, during and after the storm, my duties lay here and quite frankly, although he knew from going through 6 or 8 hurricanes (including 2 direct hits from a Cat 4 storms) it would not be a pleasant experience – there was not other place where he would imagine being during this event. He cancelled his flight on-line and emailed Phil with a request that he check with Tom on this decision and went for a walk up Naked Boy Hill to contemplate his lot and the tasks ahead. Upon his return, an answer from Tom had arrived – “Stay for BOTH storms”. The die was cast!
September 4 & 5:
Various and multiple preparations had been and were undertaken at the marina, the grocery store, Mr Busby’s and the Great House. All signs were taken down, boat lifts were reinforced, external ceiling fans and lights were taken down, the generator house secured. Instructions were given to people to prepare with drinking water, batteries and personal effects packed in a water proof container – similar to a carry-on for board long distance flights. John bought rope, tape and plastic sheeting, tarpaulins, large trash bags for water proofing, batteries and fuel. The day before the storm he decided (with Philip’s good advice!) to return his rental car as it did not seem to make sense to be responsible for it during the event. Frank from Busby’s was kind enough to collect him in Simpson Bay. Through-out the island, frantic preparations were underway. The Busby’s restaurant was kept open until the afternoon before the storm; the convenience store was manned by Philip and kept open until the evening to allow last minute shoppers to purchase emergency and general supplies.
We had stocked food of various kinds including a pizza and several rotisserie chickens. We expected the arrival of the storm’s eye at first light of Wednesday the 6th; John ate his pizza the night before the storm, watched a movie on his pc and had an early night, setting his alarm from midnight and every two hours there-after.
Wednesday, September 6 2017
John rose first at midnight – the wind was fresh at around 50 mph – all appeared OK with exception of the PYC boat at anchor which appeared to have dragged over the sandbar next to the marina.
At 02h00 the wind had strengthened at around 60 – 70 mph and was coming from the north; confirming the storm’s approach. It was raining and the catamaran Mojito on the inside docks was in some trouble with her starboard hull riding on the finger pier. He went on board, cut some halyards and attached two additional spring lines, completing this around 02h45. At the Great House, he noticed the first fence sections were down already and the old tree next to the chicken hut had been split in two. The tide was already up by about 2 feet and a mere 6 inches below the docks. He managed to tighten the ropes and insert two fenders between the dock and her hull and returned to his unit.
By now, the seas had picked up as well and were washing over the road on the north side and into the yard from the south. It was around 03h00 – the wind blowing past the Great House made it no longer feasible to do any work and hazardous to be exposed to it. The wind was now strong well past 80 or 90 mph and it was raining hard. John went back inside and saw that although mobile phones were now down, we still had power and still had wifi. He received a Skype call from Terri and chatted for a while – while they spoke, his front door’s frame failed and with a crash the door blew in – forcing the hurricane force winds into the room. He jumped up and braced the door with pool deck chairs that were stored in my unit. He then said a quick good-bye to Terri who had been watching him on the Skype camera!
At around 03h45 Wifi failed; the ceiling in John’s bedroom had collapsed indicating the start of problems in Philip’s unit above his. John’s north – Pond facing room had lost its shutters and the balcony door was blown in – he sealed the room off by closing the interior door and lashing it shut with rope. Predicting that the power would fail – he had made himself a last cup of coffee during his chat with Terri and now started to make smoothies with the remaining fruit he had. The wind in the sealed off bedroom suddenly found a gap in the drywall and his main area was suddenly filled with flying insulation through a hole in the wall and ceiling above the kitchen – spoiling most of his smoothie with its fluff but he still managed to salvage and drink one glassful!
Around 04h30 the power went out and at the same time, the shutters of the lounge of John’s unit were ripped off the wall as if they were merely attached with Velcro tape – the waters had risen to the point where the waves were breaking underneath the 1st floor balcony. It was clear that the generator would not kick in either as it was most certainly be totally submersed in the rising seas. His bedroom still had its shutters intact but he knew the Great House was condemned – they were sitting on a sinking ship. John’s things were packed and he sealed them inside heavy black waterproof bags which he secured in high closets where he hoped they would survive. Then, whilst standing in the dining room, drinking what was left of his smoothie, contemplating what to do next, he watched the Atlantic waters in the protruding moonlight (which was full). The seas had now reached just below his balcony and he saw a large brown wave arrive across the width of his window – it washed over the balcony, covered the entire window frontage and blew in the entire front window sliding door assembly. By then he had abandoned the rest of the smoothie and dove for cover from flying glass and debris. The full force of the storm was upon him and his unit was now severely compromised – he realized just how fortunate they were that the wind was still coming from the north, where-as ocean was coming in from the south. This would change once the eye had passed and he began to make plans to abandon his unit – but where could they go and how were the others? Until then, it had been physically impossible to access the staircase due to the winds that blew straight into it – it was around 05h15.
John noticed the winds lessened somewhat and he knew the eye was approaching – he quickly un-jammed his front door and accessed a chaotic staircase – the waters were just a few steps below his landing and he found Philip at the top of the staircase, taking shelter from the wind – his unit was entirely destroyed by then and he explained how his unit had come apart wall by wall – the doors holding up but the surrounding walls not… They were very happy to see each other and also to see that P & T’s unit was still intact – but this would change once the wind turned though and the two went down into John’s unit from the relative safety of which we assessed and discussed their rather bleak situation which became direr by the minute and they had to get P & T out of their unit somehow. They also realized that they were stuck in / on the Great House as the surrounding water torrent in which they saw (their) cars floating together with all sorts of debris in all directions and swimming out was simply not a survivable option. If the Great House went, then so would they.
Not pondering on the potential negative, they went into unit 6 to assess its integrity and found that, although the ocean side shutters were gone and its windows broken (both the lounge and bedroom) the pond facing bedroom had lost its shutters as well and had its single door broken out of its dead-bolt but was otherwise, in comparison with the rest of the building, generally intact. They agreed that this was the back-up place to go if John’s south facing intact bedroom was compromised by the imminent southern category 5, predicted 180 mph winds.
John then went upstairs again to see if he could raise P & T again, while Philip prepared the various two units and the various belongings. Philip then heard Jean the cat, also known as El Dopo, outside the middle passage way between the bedrooms. She had somehow survived the first half of this incredible storm and storm surge (probably using up several of her 9 lives), knew where to find Philip and John and was cowering noisily outside the narrow shutter windows facing Mr Busby’s. Philip broke open the shutters, saw her and grabbed her inside – El Dopo, resembling a drowned rat, did not resist and happily made herself at home under the bed of the bedroom.
By this time John had returned to this unit and he and Philip agreed that if they did not get the folks out of their unit now, they might not ever have another chance and they would likely not make it through the expected second half of the storm with its southern winds and seas.
They called and tried to enter P & T’s unit but did not hear them and could not get in. John went out onto the balcony which seemed still intact and watched the angry boiling seas below – hoping a wind-gust would not tear him off. The shutters in front of P & T’s lounge where gone as well and he could see into the lounge area but saw no sign of life. They then smashed a hole from the staircase’s side into the drywall high up in order for them to communicate through – by this time Tina had come out of their room, which was no easy feat as the side window-wall had blow in blocking their bedroom entrance. John told her they had to get them out and had very limited time while the eye was over us – she tried but was unable to open the door – the dead-bolt was jammed. Philip & John then commenced to start ramming the door with a plank salvaged out of Philip’s unit. Eventually, after considerable work under immense pressure, with wind gradually turning and freshening, using a combination of force and leverage, they managed to smash the heavy solid door from its frame.
They immediately entered and called Phil & Tina to come out as, having seen the havoc wreaked to Philips unit and knowing that the next half of the storm, the winds would come from the south, carrying more moisture and pushing the seas even higher – they desperately needed to evacuate this unit. With the wind increasing, time was of the essence. Phil as usual wanted to know what was going on and started asking questions, but John stopped him mid-sentence and told him to not ask or say anything, and only do as I told – to follow my orders. He looked at him, smiled and said “OK, orders I can do!” John instructed Phil to climb on his back and lifted him over the debris – as he put him down Phil started to ask something at which time John raised his finger and said “orders Phil!” and he smiled again and said, “OK, sorry, I forgot!” They carefully got them down the stairs into the still intact bedroom and getting all four together discussed the situation. Philip suggested that if Unit 6 was going to be the back-up that it would perhaps be best to move there right now while we could instead of waiting. This made a lot of sense and we went ahead to get all across the stairs-passage way where the winds were now ripping through (from Philip’s non existent unit) at such increasing strength that even for Philip and John, it was not possible to traverse the passage unassisted. The light frames of P & T could have blown away like leaves in the wind!
All the while, Phil followed his orders and calmly looked at the carnage but exclaiming “Holy Shit!” out of amazement when he saw the height of the water in the stairway, or whenever a wave broke into the room and when we saw the upside down catamaran Seaduction on the road between the C-Store and the Great House and another boat partially resting on the C-store’s roof.
The wind returned in full force and our room started to shake. They braced the entrance door by jamming a drawer cabinet against another cabinet against the water heater. Not a great brace but sufficient as long as they monitored the assembly. The wind coming out of the south now battered the opposing side of the building and driving the seas into their unit’s living room and opposing bedroom. Unbeknown to them at the time, had the large and heavy refrigerator located in the kitchen had somehow moved upwind out of the kitchen in a zig-zag direction and jammed itself in the doorway of the opposing bedroom door where the furious winds and seas were entering their unit, threatening our room’s door. This fridge was a blessing as it most certainly preserved the integrity of their room and its movement in this direction and upwind was nothing short of miraculous.
The winds did force their way through the walls and re-appeared inside their ‘hurricane shelter’ by pushing through and coming out inside the room’s closet – once again their room threatened to become compromised but they were able to close the opening by barricading the hole in the closet with a combination of furniture and cushions. The shutters were gone and they could observe the turbulent waters rushing both around and underneath the building at a level a few feet below their floor. They saw their own cars floating by, together with all types of debris – if they ended up in this water due to the building collapsing, their chances of making it would most certainly be very slim. Regardless of what could happen but just in case, they commenced to make life preservers using the heavy duty trash bags and cushions (there was a large supply of Busby chair cushions stored in this room). Using lampshade and TV cable cords they made handles on each ‘preserver’ and the seat ties on the cushions were ripped off and connected together to make a few long ropes which they would use to try and keep together if they were to have a go at it.. When this was done there was little else they could do but wait and keep faith that all would be as it was meant to be.
Gradually, after several hours the winds started to subside in spells and the seas seemed start to ebb. Although extremely powerful gusts still flashed across the waters surrounding the wrecked building, the sustained winds dropped and with the change in wind direction, they realised that they were beginning to see the beginning of the end of it. It was just as well as the building was beginning to disintegrate by the looks of things – there was a large, almost 2” gap beginning to appear between the wall and floor joint! It was with great satisfaction when visibility improved and Philip pointed out that the water had receded sufficiently and he began to see sections of lawn re-appear.
It was around 12h00 when they were able to leave the room and space. After a brief inspection, what they saw was a spectre of destruction and it was clear they now needed to endure a challenging stay with little comfort that would follow. Whilst Phil got himself as comfortable as possible and Tina began to clean the room of crumbled drywall, mud and other debris in order to make it relatively comfortable and habitable for at least the night that would follow. Philip and John went about the building and surrounding area for useful and salvageable items, water for flushing toilets, drinking water and food.
The convenience store was blown open from several sides and they knew the looting was only a stone throw away – in fact, they decided to tell people to feel free to help themselves to whatever was there (this back fired a bit of course as the employees at OBBR stopped working in order to take what they wanted and also, that the gesture merely started a “feeding frenzy” by locals and tourists alike…)
The party then gathered in the early afternoon to meet and discuss the options available. It was decided that first of all, better shelter / accommodation was to be found. It was decided that Philip and John would try to find accommodation at the Westin or Oyster Bay Beach Resort. They walked across to these, spoke to various managers but all were only able to try to relocate their own guests as both Oyster Bay and Westin has suffered serious floods and catastrophic generator failure. They tried Princess Heights as well but it seemed they had already made arrangements with the Westin and OBBR to accommodate guests. They then decided to try and find Nancy Dorenkott to ask if there was perhaps a villa managed by Remax that was still tenable which they could rent. They continued on foot and encountered a tenant who was unable to access her house due to the shutters being closed. She stated that of they could unlock the house they would be welcome to rent it. They went to her house, got some tools and quickly succeeded in disassembly of the shutter to access the house and reviewed the house available. It was reasonable but perhaps somewhat small but also without water or power. They decided to accept provisionally but would continue to find Nancy and Ken and see what would come of that. Nancy and Ken lived only a short walk higher up the hill and welcomed them with more than open arms and with no hesitation. They had water, power and several rooms that they were more than welcome to use. In that moment of know scarcity and limited resources, they even let them use their spare vehicle to transport themselves around! John & Philip would return the next morning, assist Ken to remobilize the house and bring P & T up, with whatever provisions they could lay their hands on afterward.
They returned to the Great House and filled P & T in on the good news. At last light John moved up to Tom’s bedroom which was relatively intact where Phil, Tina and Philip (and El Dopo!) shared the room below that Tina had prepared. Dinner was some fruit, crackers and chicken – there may even have been a celebratory glass of wine or two…
Thursday, 7 September
Following a somewhat damp and uncomfortably hot night, our party met and it was decided that after some basic chores, that we would persevere as soon as possible to leave the Great House for a variety of reasons – one was that it was depressing, anther was that it was not safe and also as the toilet system had failed and open sewage and flies would create a veritable problem of hygiene. Philip and John drove up to Ken and Nancy’s to assist them in getting the house back in order and the accommodations suitable. Then they brought Phil and Tina in and spend the remainder of the day bringing various and numerous loads of water, food, clothes and other supplies over the rest of the day. Philip, Phil and Tina stayed in a beautiful and large en-suite bedroom in the main house (which Phil happily described as “a palace!”), John moved in downstairs in ‘the bunker’, the boarded up and last resort shelter being the studio under the porch – it was hot and somewhat damp there but John did not mind and preferred his own space (besides, after opening some shutters and windows, enjoyed a pleasant breeze).
At the end of the day, Philip, Nancy & John drove up to Naked Boy Hill where it was said, cell phone reception was available and indeed it was. It was very good to speak to the various family members who had not heard anything except the gruesome stories on TV!
That evening a feast of pasta in tomato sauce, fresh lettuce and cucumber was served with chocolate as desert and some more celebratory wine – another successful day with all set aims fulfilled!
Friday, 8 September
Most of the party woke very early – the aims and targets for the day were to obtain diesel fuel for the generator as Ken had a limited supply and we had a very large tank by the Great house, secondly to try and establish communication with the outside world and thirdly, to bring more drinking water, food, supplies and other goods from Mr Busby’s and the Great House. We also needed to find out what the status quo was with the storm still out in the Atlantic – now named Jose and already a Category 3 hurricane.
Philip & John managed to siphon about 30 Gallons of diesel fuel from the Great House tank and started to gather more supplies. Upon return the house – the generator had a technical problem which caused some concern but after working on it for a while, Ken and John managed to get the problem jury rigged and the generator purred bringing happy smiles to everyone’s face. The afternoon and evening was spend getting the house boarded up again and getting everything ready for the storm which was now a Category 4 storm and due to arrive around noon the following day – storm strength winds to start around 06h00.
Dinner was prepared by the ladies and again a feast was presented – chicken strips, stuffing, left over pasta from the night before and a salad – combined with some wine of course!
Saturday, 9 September
John rose at 01h00 but all was calm – at around 03h00 he rose again and met Philip outside. They were joined by Ken shortly there-after as well.. All was still calm. At 04h45 John & Philip drove up to Naked Boy Hill again to phone in and get a weather update. By now, Terri had set up a network to gather information and, expecting a call at any time, kept weather and other details at hand together with the phone – should a call come in.. Incoming news was immediately forwarded to the family and friends in the US and vise versa. Jose was going to pass north of St Maarten by about 60 or more miles and at worst, it looked like they would get tropical storm winds or perhaps a category 1 but not much more. At 08h30 they went up again to get another update – Phil coming with this time.
As it was, the storm never showed itself and besides large swells and heavy rains – there was virtually no wind all day. Further telephone updates were attempted but in the heavy rains that followed – the systems were down.
Sunday, 10 September
The day started with the usual telephone update at 08h00 on the mountain top. Phil went along again and cut his leg which stated to bleed profusely. All spoke and more info was obtained and guidance received. Then the house was demobilised mostly from its hurricane status and some gasoline was obtained from Mike, a neighbour next door. Plans were formulated and it was decided that the party of four would work towards leaving the island for the time being as there was little that could be done productively at this time. Without infrastructure, water and access to supplies and all, the aspect of security became an overwhelming concern. Looting had become rampant island wide and violent robberies were heard of. Gunshots were heard in the neighbourhood and gangs of looters were spotted robbing empty homes across the street. The plan for the next day was to do the usual telephone calls and John would do an airport run to take Mike the neighbour through and at the same time see what the options were to get there and what the status of the airport itself was.
Monday, 11 September
John, Nancy and Philip started the day with the telephone calls at 08h00. The message from all vectors was clear – we had to get off the island and we had to go and see Anne Mare at OB as she would be able to make arrangements. When they returned to the house, Phil told Philip before he could convey the message, that he received his own guidance already and that before going to the airport, they were to go and see Anne Marie at OB… As was, things then happened very quickly. At 09h00 they saw Anne Marie and a taxi was arranged. At 10h00 Neville passed by and at 11h00 Phil, Tina, Philip and Mike left for the airport with John following. After a few hours waiting in the sun among a thousand or more other people waiting for a way off the island, P & T managed to get onto the private jet chartered by OB to Puerto Rico. Philip and Mike managed to get onto a later flight to Toronto where they spend the night and flew to their respective cities in the US the next morning.. It must be noted that all these flights, assistance and other services had been provided by for free.
John arranged some more diesel and gasoline fuel for Ken, gave more to Nate the Great who would take him to the airport the next day and the remainder of the diesel fuel (500+ Gallons) were given to Anne Marie of the OB resort. John flew back the following morning with a Dutch Air Force C-130 via Curacao where he joined the KLM service which delivered him back in Cape Town on Thursday morning – the 14th.
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