Looking right into Irma's eye

Looking right into Irma's eye

Dr. Mike Paul recounts the night of Sept. 5 when Hurricane Irma struck his island home in Anguilla.
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Nov 21, 2017

In the islands, it’s common for people to name their villas—usually something romantic or descriptive or related to the location or the owner: Rum Punch, Tequila Sunrise, Bird of Paradise, Three Dolphins, Blue Waters or, in our case, Banana Wind for a favorite Jimmy Buffett album. A “banana wind” is a wind that, while not a hurricane, will blow the bananas off a tree. We may have pushed our luck with that name.

This directional sign to the Pauls' villa Banana Wind was not intended for Irma. (All photos courtesy of Dr. Mike Paul.)Our recent major hurricane, benignly named “Irma,” like a Midwest grandmother, hit the night of Sept. 5, rendering all villa and business names irrelevant. Most signs were blown into the bush or splintered on the gate. In fact, most landmarks disappeared, and finding your way around now is difficult. Almost every tree was denuded like a sprig of rosemary. Cars and houses once hidden from view stand out plainly. People speak of a loss of privacy. But soon the vegetation will return and, like Machu Picchu, the landscape will reclaim structures and houses.

First, a bit about categorization

Late in August this year, people noticed a “thing” forming in the Atlantic. On Aug. 30 it was a tropical depression and by Aug. 31 it was a Category 1 hurricane. This was the birth of Irma. It had been 22 years since a major hurricane hit the Caribbean and old-timers were concerned. We were due. People were on edge but not expecting the storm that developed.

You see, a Category 1 storm is really not that exciting. Winds are in the area of 74 to 95 mph. That’s damaging but not destructive. In preparation, you pick up loose things, move plant pots and generally put things out of harm’s way. You expect to lose a few trees and poles, but there’s no “mashup,” as they say in the islands. It becomes a perfect reason to hold a hurricane party—playing cards by lamplight, rum at the ready on the table. People gather in bars and pretend, “T’ain’t no big.”

A Category 2 hurricane raises the stakes a little since winds increase to a sustained 96 to 110 mph. Time to secure anything outdoors because otherwise your patio furniture will likely wind up next door or out to sea.

When you get to a Category 3, things get interesting. It’s sort of like the Credence Clearwater Revival song ”Bad Moon Rising.” You know something is going to happen, with 111- to 129-mph winds doing their best to blow you into your closet.

Category 4 winds are between 130 and 156 mph. Destruction will be widespread and major with a risk of injuries and death.

A Category 5 storm means major devastation and potential loss of life with sustained winds in excess of 157 mph. You expect downed trees and power poles and crumbled buildings. Metal buildings and galvanized roofs will unwrap like a can of sardines. People look for a reasonably safe place to hide. After a Category 5, nothing will be the way it was for some time. Paradise gone.

How do you say “no” to Mother Nature?

When hearing of Irma’s approach, people on Anguilla said things like, “Maybe she’ll weaken. Maybe she’ll change course.” But it was not to be. Just before noon on Sept. 5, Irma strengthened to Category 5 and, worst of all, changed course and hit us with the northeast of her eye wall, which is the worst part of the storm.

We had already secured our windows with aluminum and galvanized shutters and bolted our doors days before in hopes that we could scare Irma away. But the storm winds began about 6 p.m. and built from there. Hell hath no more imaginable fury. Through the night winds reached a sustained 185 mph, and gusts in our area probably exceeded 240 mph. We’ll never know for sure, since every measuring device was destroyed. Irma was the most powerful storm in history in the Atlantic hurricane breeding grounds, and there we were in the worst part.

Ocean swells and waves reached more than 20 feet and hammered the shore. Sprays exceeded 50 feet, and low coastal houses were washed through and through. Concrete buildings were virtually crushed by the force of winds and impact of waves.

The noise and the scurry

People say a tornado sounds like a freight train. I can’t even describe the noise of Irma. I now understand fully the word “cacophony.” Our shutters rattled. Flying debris slammed against the concrete of our house. A train wreck of screams, whistles and roars assaulted our ears until we wanted to scream, “Stop!” But it wouldn’t.

Not surprisingly, we were awake the whole night. Even in full lockdown, shutters bowed and windows blew open as we ran from room to room pushing them closed. We could feel the dramatic drop in air pressure in our ears and chests. At times the entire house felt like it was vibrating. But … Banana Wind stood strong and we did not lose integrity.

Since that night people, have asked us if we were afraid. Oh heck, no. What we felt was beyond fear—it was abject, nausea-producing terror. We knew we were at death’s door. A friend later told us he could look into a person’s eyes and tell that they had been on the island through the storm. We all had a look that said we knew we had escaped death.

The aftermath

The winds didn’t really let up until late the second day. Little by little we started to assess the damage—getting out on the veranda, peeking around the corner, crawling through debris beside the house. The still-turbulent sea was white. Everything else was brown, stripped bare of every leaf. Trees were toppled. Bushes were flat on the ground. Debris was everywhere—roof tiles, wooden beams, panels of glass.

Banana Wind's patio before and after Hurricane Irma.We had no idea who was alive or dead. After things quieted down, we picked our way through downed trees to our garage and drove over nearly blocked roads to check on a couple friends. Thankfully, they were fine. Then we picked our way home and started what, to this day, is an ongoing job of cleanup. Buckets and mops to clean the house. Chainsaws and pruners to open a path out the gate. Over the next few days we gathered up a 30-ft container of metal, wood and tile that had blown into our yard and onto our house. One piece cracked our skylight but did not break it. (If anyone wants the name of the best skylight made, email me.) We built a mountain of tree debris and branches. Still, we came through better than most—I dislocated a shoulder during cleanup but that was the worst of it.

The beasts

Naturally we were concerned for animal life. Our own indoor cats had been pretty shaken up, but what about other animals that were barely sheltered during the storm? Most livestock seemed to have been put up, though. I heard of one horse dying as well as some sheep and goats that were killed when their shelter collapsed or blew away. The local veterinary hospital that doubles as a rescue and adoption facility was damaged, but thanks to volunteers all animals survived and adoptable pets were evacuated by air.

The first morning we ventured out we saw local tortoises grazing. We heard a peeping sound and sure enough there was a big hen and six newly hatched chicks on a morning walk. A pelican and a frigate bird seemed to be relishing a breezy soar. A large iguana sat on a rock in front of the house. How any of them survived Irma remains a mystery, but it reassured us that the worst was over for now.

"What did you eat?"

When disaster preparedness officials tell you to be sure you have three days of canned or nonperishable food and water, double down. No, double double down. We are without power, going on 11 weeks and counting as of the date of this article. A couple of days after the storm, we had to clear out a chest freezer full of steaks, ribs, veal and shrimp. We gave away a ton of fine meats, stored some with friends, and cooked up the rest hoping it would keep longer that way. As someone said to me, “You eat it today and worry about follow-up events tomorrow.” Turned out to be safe. We also ate Chef Boyardee, Bush’s baked beans and canned fruit. A jar of pickled beets was a welcome change.

"What about the people?"

Most islanders have lived through many storms. (Irma was actually my fourth.) They know what to do and how to get by.

People without much to lose were grateful for what they still had. When we asked folks how they had come through the storm, we invariably heard something like, “Not too bad. We lost three windows, two doors, part of the roof and a windshield. Oh, and got some water, of course.” (Which translates to “We had an indoor pool.”) Not too bad? People were glad they had survived; that was enough. Remember a couple months back when I mentioned the phrase “God spare life”? Well, I meant what it said.

Soldier on

So now we are in a recovery phase—a very slow recovery phase. Some areas in the islands will be without power for six to eight months. Barbuda and Puerto Rico are totally destroyed, and it will be years returning if at all. French St. Martin and St. Barts are looking at an unbelievable challenge. We are fortunate Anguilla did as well as it did. Not a building escaped damage, but only one person was killed when a wall fell on him. Some islands experienced a spate of looting and crime, but Anguilla can take pride in the fact that people were honorable and helped one another. To those who have sent aid or donations to the island, thank you on behalf of a wonderful island and a great people. Anguilla will be back. We are already open for business on a limited scale. If you want to see what has been going on, check out Anguilla-beaches.com.

Life does go on. Our patients need care. We recently completed a heartworm treatment protocol. Some surgeries are necessary, such as a dystocia that required a caesarian section just a couple of weeks after the storm—without electricity, we had no lights other than the sun through the window and no air-conditioner or even fan.

Of course, there will be more storms and hurricanes just as there will be more natural disasters in the United States. In fact, a few days after Irma we were brushed by another category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria on her way to Puerto Rico. I learned what PTSD was like. I was awakened by the sound of waves and a noisy but modest wind. I realized that this was what veterans must experience when they hear a car backfire. My eyes flew open and panic set in as I jumped up and checked windows and doors and poured myself a drink hoping to get back to sleep.

It will be a while before things return to normal, but for now this is the new normal. Serenity wrapped in blue.

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.