Surviving Irma: A next-generation hurricane

On Sept. 5, 2017, as a newly christened storm system rolled across the Atlantic Ocean towards the British Virgin Islands, forecasters made a chilling diagnosis: Hurricane Irma had strengthened to a category five. That classification, the highest level of hurricane possible, promises damage on a “catastrophic” level.  Ultimate

“A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse,” the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale says of category five storms. “Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

One day later, that prediction took on life. Irma slammed into the Virgin Islands with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, obliterating the landscape and leveling homes. At the time, Irma was named the strongest hurricane ever observed in the open Atlantic, and one of just five storms with 185-mph winds or higher in the Atlantic basin, according to the National Weather Service.

Irma also became something of an environmental forerunner for later Atlantic storms. Hurricane Maria came two weeks after Irma, further destroying the Virgin Islands and crippling neighboring Puerto Rico. Hurricane Dorian made headlines in 2019 after devastating the Bahamas for days on end.

But before the storms that followed, the British Virgin Islands weathered Irma. For long, blurred hours, people cowered under beds, inside closets, in bathtubs – cramped spaces within the confines of ruined buildings – as concrete walls and wooden roofs fell around them.   

Kate Mullan, a UK native who works for a local law firm, watched from inside her home as the roof was ripped away in a span of seconds. Virgin Islander Dame Peters sequestered himself in a friend’s bathroom with his wife and two-year-old daughter. And Ravenal Santos, an accountant from the Philippines, took refuge inside a refrigerator when the walls and ceiling of his apartment came down.  

Their stories, retold here, are becoming increasingly familiar, as more and more people on coastlines and islands are forced to confront hurricanes of heightened intensity. Scientists expect that as oceans continue to warm, extremely strong storms will be more frequent in the coming decades. Three to six “major” hurricanes, category three and higher, have been projected for this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June to November.

The two most intense categories come with the same foreboding Saffir-Simpson tagline as Irma: “Catastrophic damage will occur.”

The British Virgin Islands, with a population of roughly 30,000, maintain a natural remoteness, despite a relative proximity to other Caribbean island nations.

The western tip of Tortola – the largest and most populated island in the chain – is within spitting distance of the US Virgin Islands, with nothing but an invisible international line drawn through the ocean to mark the border between them. Still, the island is set apart. Though Tortola has a small airport on its eastern side, many visitors arrive via ferry, a trip that takes about an hour from the island of St. Thomas. Some Tortola roads lack names and most houses and buildings don’t have numbered addresses. And because the island is volcanic in origin, like most in the wider archipelago, it’s defined by a heavily forested sweep of mountains, crisscrossed by roads that struggle up steep grades and dotted by homes built precariously into hillsides. 

The afternoon before Irma was set to make landfall, Tortola was humming with nervous energy, as residents stocked up on 11th-hour supplies and nailed plywood across windows, anticipating that the island would be cut off from the outside world for some time. 

That day, 31-year-old Kate Mullan remembers cleaning her apartment. The instinct to scrub and sweep must have been a control thing, Mullan said; so long as her apartment’s roof stayed in place during the hurricane, she’d have a clean house at the end of it. 

Mullan shared a rented two-bedroom with her boyfriend, Lee, in a protected beachfront community on western Tortola called Cane Garden Bay. The half moon-shaped cove is positioned at the very bottom of a nearly vertical street that winds itself, up and over the spine of the island, to Road Town, the island’s main economic hub. Along with her boyfriend, two friends and two dogs were set to ride out the storm in Mullan’s apartment. 

In the early morning hours of Sept. 6, the power went out island-wide, section by section. The BVI’s main electricity company had cut it, rather than wait for Irma to step in, hoping to safeguard the grid and avoid injuries from downed live wires. Without power, water stopped flowing through homes: toilets stopped running, taps didn’t work. Those who didn’t have access to portable generators would live without electricity or running water for months. 

Mullan recalls that moment when the power first turned off, just before dawn. The fans sputtered to a stop. “And I just had this feeling of, ‘It’s beginning,’ ” Mullan said.

But for a few hours her group had nothing to do but wait. They were fortunate to have a generator, and they hooked up an internet router and cooked breakfast. Mullan took a photo of a flag whipping in the wind over one of the beachside bars.  

“There was a lot of high-anxiety waiting around for it to hit,” she said. “That weird mix of anticipation – none of us had been through a bad storm – and perverse excitement to see what it was like, to experience it.”

When the group’s internet connection cut out mid-morning, it was a strange relief, Mullan said. There were no more panicked social media posts about how Irma was already carving its way through other Caribbean islands – Dominica, Barbuda, Saint Martin, Anguilla. The radio stations played only tinny static. 

The strength of the hurricane picked up rapidly. By 11 am, maximum sustained wind speeds hovered just below 200 miles per hour, with much higher gusts, as clocked by the National Hurricane Center. Mullan paced her apartment, worried about the worsening conditions. The wind felt like a physical entity, emitting a deafening howl that masked the sound of other buildings being ripped apart just outside.

The air pressure quickly dropped and Mullan’s ears started popping. Typical pressure at sea level is about 1,013.25 millibars (or mb), and 980 mb or higher during a category one hurricane; Irma’s minimum central pressure was recorded at 918 mb just before noon.

“That might have been the scariest thing because I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “You could almost taste the drop in air pressure.”

Soon after, Mullan went to her bedroom to put on a pair of sneakers, preparing to flee if necessary. She felt a drop of water on her head, looked up, and saw water running down one of the ceiling’s wooden beams. Her boyfriend speculated that the outer layer of the roof was likely gone and that the planks below wouldn’t be far behind. They grabbed their shoes and backpacks and left. 

Not even a minute later, the entire ceiling was sucked from their bedroom and disappeared into the maw of the storm. 

Dame Peters, 39, lived towards the center of Tortola with his wife and three children. The road that led to their house was made of packed dirt and dug into the slope of a hill, and so early on the morning of Sept. 6, Peters moved their cars to a larger, paved thoroughfare. He assumed that by the next day the dirt road wouldn’t exist or, at the very least, would be transformed into a slash of mud. 

The family had taken other precautions, too. Just a week prior, not anticipating a category five hurricane, Peters had left his job as a manager at a local food wholesaler to start a full-time photography business, and his camera and hard drives were critical to his burgeoning new career. He had packed those, along with his computer and important family documents, in plastic bags. 

Peters had also sent two of his children, both 12, to stay with their grandparents farther down the island, hoping the pre-teens could help out if the situation got dire. Peters, his wife, their two-year-old daughter and the family dog were now holed up at home, waiting. 

Around 10 am, the wind picked up and rain lashed the house. Peters’s wife was in the kitchen cooking lunch, and Peters told her to drop it. “There was one point where I thought, ‘It’s go time. We need to move and shelter,’” he said. They left the uncooked food on the stove and started moving. 

The family’s apartment was covered by sections of both wooden and concrete roofing, and as the building shook, Peters could see dust falling from the seam where the two materials met. Fearing the wood would be torn away or cave in, Peters and his wife started pulling their belongings under the relative shelter of the concrete-topped living room. As they ferried bags and mattresses and furniture between rooms, the first window shattered.

A tiny projectile – only about the size of a pebble – sailed through the bedroom window and hit the opposite wall. The object cut through the glass like it was butter, Peters said. That small moment seemed to spark a chain reaction. Other windows around the house began smashing in quick succession. The double doors on the balcony snapped in, and a miniature whirlwind of furniture took over the room.

The family fled to a back bedroom, where an inch of water swamped the floor. Peters propped himself against the flimsy door to keep it closed against the building pressure. His wife and daughter flattened themselves to the bed under blankets, using them as a provisional shield from potential flying debris or broken glass. The toddler was crying. She had a limited vocabulary, Peters said, but she whispered: “Mommy I’m scared.” 

Before his phone signal was lost completely, Peters shot off a few texts to friends, writing that he wasn’t sure what would happen next. He also forwarded his location, in case the three of them later had to be dug out of the rubble of their home. 

The little family huddled there until a lull: the eye of the storm. 

Dame Peters had just begun his new photography business just one week before Irma struck the British Virgin Islands | Courtesy of Dame Peters

When the wind began to batter the island in earnest that morning, Ravenal Santos was alone in his second-story apartment in Huntums Ghut, a little village crammed between two hills near Road Town.

Santos, a 38-year-old accountant, has lived in the BVI for over a decade since moving from the Philippines, where his family and two young children still live. Without the aid of his two roommates, who rode out the storm elsewhere, Santos started the day camped out in his living room.

Meanwhile, the hurricane’s core was moving steadily closer to Tortola at a speed of about 15 mph. At 11 am, the National Hurricane Center pinpointed the exact location of the eye, an undulating dot on the map in the Caribbean Sea, as less than 50 miles from the coast of the Virgin Islands.

Irma’s storm surge, coupled with “large and destructive waves,” threatened to inundate shorelines and flood inland, potentially bringing the water as high as 7 to 11 feet above the ground in the BVI, the center warned. And at the rate it was going, the hurricane would pass near Puerto Rico that afternoon and sweep just north of the Dominican Republic and close to the southeastern Bahamas the following day.

For Santos, the wind was already getting stronger and windows began crashing in, so he retreated to a narrow corridor in the middle of his apartment. He soon received a text from the island’s Department of Disaster Management, cautioning that the eye would pass over shortly. Until then, and during the ramped-up winds of the eyewall, “take shelter,” the officials said. 

The National Hurricane Center had another warning, typed in all caps, in an hourly status report: “EYE OF POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC CATEGORY 5 HURRICANE IRMA CLOSING IN ON THE VIRGIN ISLANDS.” 

Before the semi-reprieve of the eye could come, Santos heard a creaking sound from directly above. He watched, almost in slow motion, as a small portion of the ceiling fell down on top of him. He stood up, unharmed, and made it into his bedroom. He forced the door closed. 

“I realized then that I’m in big trouble,” Santos said. He could see a crack in the ceiling of his bedroom opening wider and wider. Space in his apartment was finite, and he was running out of places to hide.

Santos tried other rooms. The bathroom seemed too risky – the walls were “shaking like a piece of paper.” In the kitchen, now missing its roof and multiple walls, furniture, food and dishes were airborne, flying clumsily through the space. 

Desperately, Santos tried to clear out the kitchen cabinets and wedge himself inside. They were too small. Then the refrigerator. He wondered if it would be large enough to hold him. Santos pulled everything out – food, shelves – and got in, closing the door behind him.

Minutes, maybe an hour, passed. 

“I don’t even know how much time I spent in the fridge,” he said. “I knew to myself that the hurricane would stop at some point, but I don’t know when.”

As he waited in that dripping, dark place, Santos remembered that his daughter, back in the Philippines, would be turning three in just a few days. He hoped to be alive to see it.  

Ravenal Santos, who survived Irma by hiding in a refrigerator while his apartment was torn apart by the storm | Courtesy of Ravenal Santos

After the first section of roof was ripped back from the top of Mullan’s apartment, a strange grayish light flooded the bedroom. Their group of four was increasingly frantic, Mullan said, and proposing escape plans with varying degrees of coherence. 

One by one, the ceilings over the living room, kitchen, and spare bedroom flew away. The group crouched together in a hallway, holding mattresses over their heads to shield themselves from the now-open sky and anything that might fall from it.

They eventually migrated to the roof-less, door-less bathroom, still gripping the mattresses. “We sat there for – it felt like forever, but it must have been half an hour,” Mullan said. 

Chunks of ceiling plaster would land, every so often, with a soft thud on the lofted mattresses. Those blunted objects weren’t particularly dangerous in small amounts, but Mullan waited tensely for scaffolding or a two-by-four to come slashing through the fabric.

When the eye finally passed overhead – bringing not a cartoonishly blue sky, like Mullan had imagined, but rather slightly tempered winds and more unnerving gray light – the four evaluated their options. Pieces of the roof had landed on their cars outside, so driving away from the scene was impossible. 

The group decided to shuffle from the apartment’s balcony, now nothing more than a concrete ledge, to the balcony of the neighbors’ apartment unit. Inside was more damage – skeletal, uncovered rooms offering little protection. Outside the front door was a jungle of jagged, corrugated metal sheets that once encased the roof. 

“It was a very chaotic moment of not knowing how long we were going to be in the eye for, but we know we need to get out of here,” Mullan said.

The group of four, plus their two neighbors, identified a window in one of the bedrooms they could jump from. Cradling backpacks, the two dogs, water and other supplies, the six people awkwardly folded themselves through the opening and scrambled down to the driveway below. 

Mullan looked up into the hillside as they left the bombed-out shell of her apartment building. Once shrouded in impenetrable, ancient vegetation, the landscape was now bleak, barren. Splintered trees stood nakedly without leaves. Everything was a lifeless brown. 

Just next to Mullan’s apartment, a small police station that oversaw the beach community appeared to be intact. The group made their way there cautiously, maneuvering over nail-ridden roofs, clumps of fallen wires, tree trunks and concrete blocks that blanketed the ground. Police officers let them take refuge in the building, and they settled in the station’s holding cells away from the wind. Mullan was glad to be behind the steel bars, shielded from the elements. They sat there, shivering in generator-powered air conditioning, and waited. Within minutes the second half of the hurricane rolled in. 

“It was violent,” Mullan said. “The other side of the wall, when it comes through, it’s immediate. It’s just as bad as it was when it left.”

The rest of the afternoon passed in a “suspended state of animation,” Mullan said. Beyond the walls of the station, the world was a blank wall of wind. The sea had flooded the road and was frothing angrily against the base of buildings. Murky water made it up to the outside stairs of the police station before finally starting to recede. 

When it was all over and night began to fall, the six made their way through the streets. Mullan’s nearby apartment no longer had interior walls; the house looked like a fake set on a studio lot, she said, with a few last boarded-up windows in the front and virtually nothing behind. Some of the furniture from her apartment now littered the road, and she stepped over it.

The group slept in the nearby apartment of friends of friends that night. It was hot, damp, overcrowded, and mosquitos buzzed around their faces, but the mere fact of survival had calcified into a certain kind of high, Mullan said. 

Adding to that joy, Mullan’s boyfriend Lee got a quick flash of cellphone signal. He gathered the email addresses of the group’s family members, then instructed a friend in the US to let them know their relatives were okay. 

That little sliver of communication felt miraculous. “To not know for days if someone is alive must be one of the most awful feelings in the world,” Mullan said. 

With neighbors and friends, Kate Mullan (center), sheltered in the holding cells of a nearby police station after Irma ripped the roof and walls off of her apartment | Courtesy of Kate Mullan

Around 1 pm, during the eye, Peters assessed his home from its ruined living room. Mud had washed down from the road, running under the door and through the windows, caking the floor. Toppled bookshelves and other furniture blocked the main entryway. His daughter’s toys floated in dirty water. 

Without the door as a viable exit, Peters and his family went through part of the house that led to another small apartment upstairs. They checked on that neighbor – who was safe – and walked outside. 

Peters remembers the weather during the eye as completely docile. “It was one hundred percent calm. It was almost like nothing had happened,” he said. “It was just still and eerie and dead.”

Peters had a friend who lived in an adjacent building lodged more securely into the mountain, and the trio made their way there. Other people seeking shelter had already gathered in the studio apartment. When the storm returned, it felt much, much worse than before, Peters said. 

At first, everyone crowded together in the main living area of the studio. But the gusts of wind coming through broken windows tugged and pulled at the group, even as they clustered inside. Peters, his wife, their daughter and the dog, as well as another woman and her child, headed to the bathroom when the rest of the apartment seemed too hazardous.  

Peters again took up duty at the bathroom door, pressing hard against the wood as it pushed back at him. But the shrill sound of the wind didn’t cut through the bathroom walls as easily, meaning Peters’s daughter didn’t have to hear the brunt of it. There were moments the two-year-old even fell asleep. 

Hours later, as the hurricane tapered off, the group set up makeshift beds around the apartment. Peters slept hunched over on a kitchen stool. His wife and daughter laid down across a few stools pushed together. 

“You would think that would be hard. In the moment, yes it was uncomfortable, but we were concerned about different things,” he said. Peters didn’t know if his other two children, miles away, were safe. He wondered what his family would do for food. And though the storm was moving northwest and away, the wind continued to wail. 

The next day, Peters went to see the fresh wreckage of his house. The floor was heaped with mud, branches, shards of glass, mangled belongings. The roof was, fortunately, intact. But having a toddler meant that at least for the time being, the apartment wasn’t habitable.  

“We couldn’t go back there,” Peters said. 

Peters and his family hiked through the altered landscape to his in-laws’ house down the road. On the way, they passed a hulking shipping container, thousands of pounds in weight, that had seemingly teleported from its distant point of origin to the middle of the street. They saw cars molded clay-like into every conceivable shape of warped metal; cars with their tops severed neatly, cars wrapped around trees, cars sitting in their designated parking spots but resting tire-side up. The level of destruction was difficult to comprehend, Peters said. A Virgin Islands native who had lived through decades’ worth of hurricane seasons, he still didn’t have any memories to compare to the new, dystopian scenery.

“When you see stuff like that, initially it’s almost like you can’t wrap your mind around it,” he said. “It was like a bomb was dropped in the BVI, the devastation was just so unbelievable.”

That day, Peters also learned his kids and their grandparents had made it through the storm unscathed. It would be another 24 hours before he could make the trip down crumbling, waste-strewn roads to check on them in person. 

Photo by Amanda Ulrich

When Santos heard the storm quieting down mid-day, he stepped out of the refrigerator. He was barefoot, wearing just a pair of shorts and a sleeveless shirt.

“I’m talking to myself, I’m repeating to myself: ‘I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive,’ ” he said. 

Santos, still barefoot, left the remains of his apartment and went downstairs to the first-floor unit. There, his elderly landlord, who couldn’t walk, was hiding with her son and grandson. The older woman was sitting in the living room, but Santos recognized that projectiles could easily come slicing through the exposed room. He helped pick the woman up, and the three of them carted her to a safer place tucked away in the belly of the house.

Hours later, after the hurricane was over, Santos felt nothing. “I didn’t feel anything in that moment,” he said. “I wasn’t sad or happy. I’m just too shocked.”

Santos’s upstairs apartment was decimated. Any wall that hadn’t fallen in the first half of the storm surrendered in the second, and the entire front of the house was shorn off, with the exception of two exposed concrete beams. His refrigerator was lost to a massive, water-logged mound of debris. 

Photos of his apartment – emblematic of the island-wide ruin – later made the rounds in local media outlets. His general neighborhood of Huntums Ghut was also deemed one of the worst-hit areas of Tortola. Many homes there stood like wrecked life-size dollhouses, the intimate contents of their bedrooms and bathrooms on display to the public.  

The morning after the storm, Santos trekked the short distance into Road Town. The city was a loose suggestion of its former self; outlines of disintegrating concrete took the places of once-complete, multi-story buildings. Familiar landmarks and streets were buried in a foot-deep layer of detritus – sheet metal and pieces of homes. 

A crowd of people had formed outside the building of one telecom company, holding their phones aloft and praying for bars. Santos found a weak signal and called his family in the Philippines. 

“I did not elaborate about what really happened to me,” he said. “I just told them I’m safe, I’m alive.”

Photo by Amanda Ulrich

Three years later, Irma’s legacy looms large in the British Virgin Islands. 

Four people died during the storm. Crowds of people, left with nothing, ransacked grocery stores and some businesses after Irma passed. Hundreds of inmates from the local prison left the confines of barbed wire fences and roamed the island. Many returned to the jail willingly; some did not. Military from the United Kingdom choppered in and helped patrol the streets with semi-automatic weapons. 

Residents in some remote parts of Tortola lived without electricity for the better part of a year. A handful of newly homeless squatted in run-down structures intended only to be temporary emergency shelters – churches, schools, community centers – for years. 

People lived without running water, without roofs, without family members – generally without. And just as the local economy started to rebound, fueled partly by a recovering tourism industry, coronavirus swept through the region earlier this year and stunted that progress. 

Many foreigners found purpose in the immediate aftermath by remaining on Tortola, despite the dearth of resources, power, and, initially, a law enforcement presence. At least there were others who had gone through the same experience. 

“For me to keep sane I needed to stay and see what will happen,” Ravenal Santos said. “If I left the BVI to go back to the Philippines, I may not get over what happened to me.”

Kids adjusted to the post-hurricane reality, with some vivid memories of Irma. Dame Peters’s daughter, now five, was afraid of the rain for a long time. For many nights after the storm, she’d hear rain on the roof, crawl out of bed and show up in the doorway of her parents’ room. She made a lot of references to Irma. 

“She seemed to change emotionally after the hurricane. She got very clingy,” Peters said. 

Surviving a natural disaster cracked open Kate Mullan’s imagined sense of safety, the relatively peaceful bubble she had lived in before. “[You realize] bad things happen all the time,” she said. “And it’s just a small blip of a bad thing that happened to you, but it alters the course of your life without your say-so.”

A kind of old-world community also sprang up in the aftermath, with people banding together to find food and shelter and keep moving forward. The quotidian stressors of jobs and mortgages took a backseat to siphoning gasoline for generators and learning how to take a shower with a  bucket. 

“It was this world where the normal rules didn’t apply,” Mullan said. “There was a sense of freedom in the isolation.”

And while it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact environmental cause of any one hurricane, only a few months before Irma hit in 2017, an environmental report warned about what storms of that size and strength could do to the Caribbean region.  

“Most people are highly exposed to risks from natural hazards, such as hurricanes which have severe immediate impacts and take a long time to recover from, especially when storms strike quickly again,” the report said.

But, in the end, there was a frustrating absence of culpability on Sept. 6. No elected official, government or group could be used as an easy scapegoat for the particular devastation of Irma. It was just wind and rain and swirling seas, Peters said. 

“It was a real eye-opener in terms of what’s possible in this world,” he said.

Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells, designed by Anagha Srikanth, funded by Sunday Long Read members.