The day before the sky swallowed us, I sat in my car in the parking lot of one of the island’s crowded supermarkets and listened to the radio for storm updates. The 11 o’clock was late, gospel music blared hope on the AM channels and an aimless circle spun blindly on my phone.
Bobby’s is a British Virgin Islands institution, a grocery store with a prime location nestled in the middle of Road Town, the busy capital of the BVI. Both the aisles and the parking lot were full. Several customers took to double parking – and a procession of people trying to leave sparked up small arguments when they realised that they were blocked in.
The heat of September, full of hazy Saharan dust, had only just rolled in over the British Virgin Islands from the Atlantic. The Sir Francis Drake Channel runs the short distance between Tortola and the several smaller islands just 11 kilometers to its south, but the haze obscured even the view of them on my morning drive into Road Town. This time of year – the wet and rainy hurricane season which runs from May to September – meant that schools had just reopened, and families with children were just starting to fall back into their routines of dropping off and picking up.
We were no different. My first daughter was getting accustomed to her new class and teacher, I was just slipping out of summer vacation mode and back to work at the local college. Similarly, the bright-eyed freshmen were still getting accustomed to their schedules as well. We were thick into the hurricane season, but it had been years since a storm had made landfall. Us Virgin Islanders had begun to think of hurricanes the same way we do of folktales and scary stories. For almost twenty years, each time a storm threatened on the horizon, it would dip and strike any number of islands to our south or spin away north harmlessly into the Atlantic.
But this time was different. As Irma approached, what was at first a nonchalance began to turn into a minor panic. The storm’s path and rapid escalation of strength was reminding folks of Hugo, the Category Four Hurricane that had ravaged the islands in 1989. That morning, Irma was still a Category Three, but all reports warned of it intensifying. As is habitual when storms approach during the season, the island began to intensify its preparations in the day and a half prior to when it was expected to pass. Supermarkets were crowded, gas lines stretched into the roads and blocked traffic, the banks were full. The first thing I remember being difficult to buy in those two days was batteries, and then gallon bottles of drinking water. It was a moment of foreshadowing. The radio weather update started playing. Irma was a Category Four and getting stronger. By 2 o’clock, Irma had turned into a monster. The winds were 165 miles per hour, well in excess of the 157 required to be classified as a Category Five.
My hurricane app used macabre icons to indicate the strength of the storm. There were graphic representations of a house with wavy strokes to denote the force of the storm’s winds. The house was a simple square with a triangular roof, two smaller squares to symbolise the house’s windows, and a rectangular door. I scanned right. Category One, Two, Three, Four. The square house began to fall apart. The windows broke, parts of the roof blew away, cracks appeared in the walls. The image for the Category Five storm barely resembled the first. All the windows were broken. The front door hung off the hinges. Large widening cracks menaced in the walls. There was no roof.
New and altered forms of life bloom after storms. Papaya trees have sprouted up lining the roadsides where winds scattered their seeds, in the village of Long Look, two boys play basketball on the exposed foundation of a flattened house. Ribs of steel jut out of the concrete, pieces of beige tile shift under their feet, they take turns arcing their gray ball towards a crudely constructed hoop.
Across the street, a dive bar has hung a freshly painted sign on to a gate that abuts the main road. Dust plumes each time a vehicle rolls by, but the red hand-painted letters have been made with thick strokes on a white background bright enough to endure the wear of the traffic. BING’S. I remember going there for a farewell party more than a decade ago now. One of the many transient workers who I’d become friends with was leaving the island for another one. I thought they’d picked the venue as a sort of joke, the type of gag you’d expect from unattached young people with minimal responsibilities and a penchant for the deprecating. Instead, I remember everyone being quite earnest and emotional. Like we are now.
The morning after the storm passed, we crept outside of our apartment to assess the damage. What we had seen through our bedroom window, as fearsome and shocking as it was, could not prepare us for the devastation. We walked up the common hall to the spiral stair that leads to the parking lot. The stand of trees that usually barred our view of the homes in Pleasant Valley was gone. Brown trunks stood like masts. From atop the stairs we could see the ravine across the road, dangerously close to overflowing, the white waters roaring by.
What has stayed with me is the stillness. The hollow quiet that gripped us all in those morning hours after the last winds licked the hillsides. That silence was quickly filled. First by the music of the village’s voices, then the staccato of machetes as fallen trees began to be cleared. Later, we climbed into the car and drove into the gray to search for our loved ones.
Richard Georges is an award-winning writer of three collections of poetry. He works in higher education and lives in the British Virgin Islands. His latest work is Epiphaneia (Out-Spoken Press).
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