- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 06 December 2017
Angela Burnett can’t recall the exact moment she decided to write a book about Hurricane Irma, but it was her own harrowing experience living through the disaster in her native East End that inspired her.
“In the immediate aftermath of the storm, we set out to walk around and see if my family was alive,” said Ms. Burnett, who has set Dec. 11 as the launch date for the e-book version of The Irma Diaries: Compelling Survivor Stories from The Virgin Islands, a compilation of 20 first-person tales from people who lived through the hurricane. “It was utter devastation. Houses completely leveled, vehicles just tossed like little toys. You’re just thinking to yourself, people must be dead. They must be.”
It didn’t take long before the rumours began.
“Hundreds of people were out, and as you were walking around, you were hearing things,” Ms. Burnett recalled. “I heard there were six people in one home in East End who had died. They were big numbers, but they were certainly reasonable based on the devastation.”
Eventually, through her work with the National Emergency Operations Centre, she learned that the official death toll from Irma was only four. Given the widespread devastation she witnessed, she was amazed.
“It didn’t match, for me,” she said. “How did people survive this?”
Right away, she knew there had to be some incredible stories out there: stories that people around the world needed to know, if only to put a human face on such a large-scale disaster.
“Seeing a headline gives you an idea, but it doesn’t tell you what people went through,” she said.
Nine months earlier, Ms. Burnett had already launched a writing project, titled, “The Purpose of Life and Happiness,” involving “the crazy notion that I would interview someone every day for a year.”
So by the time Irma hit, collecting stories had more or less become second nature to her.
Now a mere three months later, The Irma Diaries is poised on the brink of publication — even though she wasn’t able to start for more than a month after the storm.
In the immediate aftermath, Ms. Burnett — who serves as the climate change officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour — was still at the NEOC, and she often wouldn’t return home until nearly midnight.
“I was working long, long days,” she said.
It wasn’t until October, when things calmed down, that she put the call out on Facebook, as well as on the radio in Virgin Gorda.
“I didn’t want to hand-select,” she said. “I wanted people to come voluntarily.”
From fearing she wouldn’t find enough people to come forward, she ended up with far more stories than she could possibly use. By then, she felt a keen sense of urgency.
“As we get farther away from the storm, people just move on and put those details beyond them; the tales become more sketchy,” she said. “I knew I had to capture them while they were still fresh.”
She can easily rattle off the dozens of extraordinary moments she experienced while compiling the stories.
“There was an elderly couple who told me a story involving their house exploding,” she said. “I went out to see the site, but I didn’t understand the logistics involved. … It was only when he pointed up and explained that there used to be a second storey to this building, now completely gone, that I understood.”
She also pointed out that not all the stories are tragic.
“There are moments of humour and moments where the human spirit just shines through,” she said.
The author recalled one particularly unlucky man — one of her coworkers — whose house caught on fire during the hurricane.
“He described the fire as being pretty,” she said. “Here you are, watching your entire life burn down, and you’re sitting there appreciating the beauty of the fire.”
Another man said he was picked up by the hurricane and thrown 30 feet through the air.
“His life was definitely at risk, and yet he actually told me it was fun because as a child he always had the dream to fly.’’
In God’s hands
Between capturing the stories, Ms. Burnett had to return to her full-time job, which compelled her to burn even more midnight oil — literally, since her East End home still lacks electricity. “At first, I was working by candlelight with paper and pen,” she said.
Nevertheless, she was finally able to hold a soft launch for the book last week, during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, which usually takes place in December. “I had always planned to launch it there. Then I googled and found out it’s in November,” she explained. “I literally made a list of all the things that had to be done — putting out the ad, capturing the stories, drafting the stories, figuring out logistics to get to the conference. I said, ‘God, all that is you.’”
She laughed and added, “I’m just going to show up.”
The launch went off without a hitch — in fact, sometimes she’s not sure that the Almighty didn’t write the entire book.
“Sometimes I just felt like the typist,” she said.
Ultimately, Ms. Burnett’s goals for the book don’t stop at mere publication. She wants to wake people up, both overseas and within the territory, to the damage being wrought by climate change.
“It’s important to humanise what climate change means. It’s vague; abstract. People can’t connect to the impact it has on human lives, and if you don’t care, then you don’t act. I saw how a project like this could affect things on a bigger scale,” she said. “And we ourselves [here in the VI] can help by taking better care of our islands.”
To those ends, she plans to give 25 percent of the book’s proceeds to the Climate Change Trust Fund, as well as one percent to those featured in the book, in order to help them continue to rebuild.
Although for now the book will only be available electronically, eventually she hopes to get it picked up by a publisher so she can get physical copies into people’s hands.
“I’d love to have schoolchildren reading it just as a means of therapy,” she said. “Sometimes when you go through traumatic events you feel like you’re the only one.”
The author urged other writers to continue to tackle the subject of Irma.
“Survival stories are just one aspect,” she said. “There so much more that could be written.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2017 Beacon print edition.