Tuesday 19 September 2017

Exclusive: 'It’s like a war zone' - Irish woman in the British Virgin Islands tells of terrifying ordeal during Hurricane Irma

The damage in Tortola, and Irish woman Clair Burke, inset
The damage in Tortola, and Irish woman Clair Burke, inset
General view of the devastation in the harbour after Hurricane Irma hit Tortola, British Virgin Islands September 7, 2017, in this still image taken from social media video
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows an aerial view showing damage caused by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017 in Road Town, on Tortola, in the British Virgin Isles
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows an aerial view showing damage caused by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017 in Road Town, on Tortola, in the British Virgin Isles
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
Caitlin McBride

Caitlin McBride

An Irish woman living in the British Virgin Islands has spoken of her terrifying ordeal during Hurricane Irma, which has levelled the Caribbean island and killed at least five people.

Clair Burke, originally from Bishopstown, Co Cork, has been living in the BVI for the last 18 years and is staying with friends as they adjust to life without water, electricity and little mobile coverage.

While reports are emerging of locals and expats trapped without access to food and water and some who were trapped in their homes while the storm ravaged the property, Ms Burke hid in a shower with five friends – and three dogs – during the Category 5 storm. 

Ms Burke, who works as the Managing Director for financial services company Tricor, is staying with friends who were well prepared and stocked plenty of provisions beforehand.

A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017

"It’s like a war zone,” she told Independent.ie. "I’m staying at a friend’s and we were well provisioned – we’re managing fine for food and water, we’re not having to ration yet, but we’re being very careful. The supermarkets have opened but it’s really disorderly. We should be able to get another week or so before we have to go to the supermarkets.

"We had plenty of notice there was a storm coming, but the storm intensified and shifted course.  There was six of us and three dogs in a shower with our dry bags – a secure bag with our passport and wallet and we literally just kept that bag next to us because we didn’t know when we would need it."

Most expats are still being evacuated from the island, with a number of law firms and financial companies based there chartering planes and boats to assist employees. Ms Burke is now trying to secure flights to Barbados, where her company has an office, and resume work. In the meantime, she is travelling to her office in Road Town to avail of mobile coverage and internet access, explaining the building experience minimum water damage and it’s “safe and secure”, despite the fact that part of the roof on the fourth floor was blown off during the storm.

"Most of the information we’re getting is from the outside, there’s no communication here. The army have set up a base at the airport, they’re in control there. Twice a day we walk over to my house and communicate with the rest of the world. There’s a curfew from 6am to 6pm every day," she added.

A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017

At first, Ms Burke recalls of the “great sense of community spirit” as all residents tried to help one another, hugging each other as they passed each other on the street, and seeking information on those who hadn’t heard from loved ones yet and there are still hundreds of people unaccounted for.

“The first day or two, there was a great sense of community spirit, everyone was walking into a bit of a daze. Now that the army are here, they’re doing patrols at night and trying to put back order. Most of the information coming is from word of mouth – you’d meet someone on the road and they ask, ‘have you heard of this person?’ I’m hoping that it’s because they lost their phones or phones were damaged.”

While she is trying to stay in contact with friends and family in Ireland and liaising with other residents, she is trying to avoid reading too much about the storm’s devastating impact.

“It’s bad enough looking at the reality,” she said.

A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017
A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) on September 10, 2017 shows destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands left by Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017

Tortola, the largest island of the BVI, has been hit hard – homes completely destroyed boats on land, cars flipped over and a general sense of unease.

“I don’t think any house was completely spared. Some houses just got completely demolished,” she added.

“We don’t have electricity, we have a small generator which we use to fire up the fridge for a couple of hours per day. For water, we’re using a bucket and cistern, it’s like the old fashioned way of getting water from the well – if you need to shower, you use a bucket and boil the kettle for it to be a little warm; if you need to wash your clothes, you use a bucket and hang them out on the line.

“It’s very emotional as well. Every time I talk to someone new, I get emotional. It was frightening during the storm, I was wondering, ‘Are we going to survive this?’

“When you see the devastation around the place, it was shocking every time we went somewhere new. It keeps going on and on.”

Safety is a growing concern – despite the fact that the military is now on the ground and there is growing criticism of the British government’s response to the disaster and UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: “The UK government is doing everything it possibly can to help those affected by the hurricane.”

Ms Burke confirmed reports of looting, while members of the army are now manning the airports and supermarkets. When asked about maintaining safety, she told Independent.ie from her office in Road Town: “We make sure there’s always someone with us. I didn’t drive here by myself, a friend of mine drove and he got word that he was being evacuated, so now someone else will pick me up.

“There’s been lots of looting, now with the troops and marines here, they’re trying to control that. They reckon they will have extra police to work with our police to increase security.”

The BVI is normally associated with white sandy beaches, clear blue water and a thriving tourism and yachting industry, which has attracted wealthy visitors including British billionaire Richard Branson, who showed a video of the damage done to his palatial retreat, Necker Island.

“It will be back to normal, but a new normal,” Ms Burke asserts.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said they are “continuing to monitor the situation closely.

“We have received no reports of any injuries or deaths of Irish citizens in the affected areas. We advise all our citizens to follow the advice of local authorities and monitor travel updates from the Departments travel advice and from local media in order to stay informed as to the latest developments.”

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