Members of the “Puerto Rican Navy” unload supplies in the VI. (Photo: PROVIDED)

This article originally appeared in the Beacon’s Sept. 6, 2018 Irma Anniversary edition.

 

It seems that everyone in the Virgin Islands knows at least one hero of Hurricane Irma.

Through a post on Facebook’s BVI Community Board, the Beacon solicited nominations for people who went above and beyond to help their friends and neighbours during and after the disaster.

What was expected to be a trickle of nominations became a powerful flood. In some cases, the nominees themselves replied, expressing surprise and gratitude for the recognition.

As of mid-August, the thread had 246 separate replies — a moving and humbling list to sort through, knowing there was no way to acknowledge everyone.

The “heroes” came in all varieties. Some sheltered the homeless. Others fed the hungry or provided care to the injured. Others simply went to work as usual, providing essential services in harrowing conditions, or opened the doors of their businesses to the community.

People outside the VI also came to the rescue, loading down boats with supplies and braving more oncoming storms to offer aid. Others worked from abroad to serve as communication hubs, giving fearful VI residents a cherished lifeline to the outside world in their time of need.

In the end, the Beacon chose to focus in on unsung heroes who may not have received much previous acknowledgement. The handful included here were chosen to represent different kinds of heroes in an attempt to recognise the thousands who helped their community in various ways. If only there were space to name them all.

All photos provided except where indicated.

 

SAVING NEIGHBOURS FROM THE SEA: ALBERT AND ANDREW STOUTT

Between them, father and son Albert and Andrew Stoutt have almost 40 years of experience diving in Virgin Islands waters. Normally, they’re seeking lobsters. But when a storm surge over 20 feet high rushed into their neighbours’ houses, they were seeking something very different: to save lives.

“Albert and his son, Andrew, helped most of the residents of Cappoons Bay … swim to higher ground when the seawater filled their homes to the ceiling,”wrote Donna Schiavone Arter.  “A very different story would have unfolded if they were not there to help.”

They almost weren’t there. Andrew Stoutt said that as the hurricane approached, he was initially planning to leave their Little Apple Bay home to seek higher ground. It was his father who insisted they stay put.

“He’s a very stubborn guy,” the son said. “He didn’t want to go up by anyone else; he wanted to sit it out in his house. I was just going to stay down for him. I didn’t know it was going to be for everyone else.”

But everyone else wasn’t as equipped to escape the surge, so they turned to the Stoutts for help. When the water came, it arrived quickly.

“Just as the water was rising in the house, we figured it was going to go
all the way and we needed to get out,” Mr. Stoutt said.

They made their way up to the roof, but the water was already up to the ceiling. “That was when we jumped off the roof and went to find everyone,”he recalled.

They soon heard their neighbours banging on their windows, shouting that they couldn’t make it out. After helping evacuate them, the Stoutts made their way to an aunt’s house nearby.

“She was jumping out the window with her daughter and we helped them swim over up to a two-storey building … up the hill,” he said. “And the last two were my uncle and his family.”

Mr. Stoutt and his father found an upside-down boat, flipped it over, and loaded the family onto it, pushing through the rising water. They, along with many of those rescued from the area, sheltered temporarily in a house on Zion Hill.

However, father and son weren’t able to make it uphill before the second half of the storm rolled through, and it was too late to head for higher ground. So they swam back home through the windows they had opened earlier. The water was up to their chests, and there was nothing to do but wait.

“It was cold and we just sat it out,” Mr. Stoutt said. “We had a couple drinks that were floating, so we popped those. We just sat and watched the last part of the storm.”

Although the experience was harrowing, Mr. Stoutt said he would gladly do it a second time, and that he welcomed the expressions of gratitude he got from those rescued.

“We were laughing about it,” he said. “It was good, it was nice, it was uplifting. … We were happy we did this.”

 

CARING FOR THE WOUNDEDJVD NURSE JULLETTE ELLIS

During and after the storm, dozens of medical professionals, both residents and visitors, leaped into action to care for the wounded. As the district nurse on Jost Van Dyke — and its only medical professional — Jullette Ellis had an entire island under her care. It was a big task for anyone, but she explained that it is in her nature to remain calm in emergencies.

“I am not a person who panics,”she said. “Even when it was announced that we expected a storm, I didn’t get frightened.”

She rode out the storm in her home with eight other people, watching nearby buildings toppling down. Soon, her own roof began to peel off, and she and her companions took shelter in the bathroom, then a cupboard, trying to outrun the wind and shielding themselves with a mattress. Then the sea came in.

“I got scared, very scared,” she said.

They waded in waist-deep water to a neighbour’s house. Along the way, a nail embedded itself into her toe.

“It wasn’t serious because I worked with it; I needed to use my toe, [but] I had to keep it out of the water,” she said.

The nurse did not seek medical treatment for herself.

“The injury wasn’t detrimental so that I would have to look for emergency care,” she explained.

Instead, as soon as she could, she went to work. The next morning at 6 she began treating the wounded.

“We had casualties, lacerations, that stuff,” she said.

For the time being, she knew that she was on her own.

“At that time there wasn’t any traffic going on; [no] boats coming to
the island, … no means of communicating with anybody,” she said. “If you were on [Tortola], they say, ‘We’re not hearing from Jost Van Dyke.’”

Her first casualty was a man trying to stanch the blood from a head wound.

“He was there; he had his head back,” she said. “I knew that if I would open it it would start bleeding. I can’t run the risk. I had no means and no supplies.”

By the time another nurse arrived on the island to provide backup, she estimated she had treated about 35 people on her own.

“I stayed in the clinic downstairs because there was nowhere on the island to go,” she explained. “[Tom Warner, general manager at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar] made sure I was comfortable by getting me a mattress and two pillows.”

Like so many professionals who went above and beyond after Irma, Ms. Ellis dodged any kind of recognition.

“That was my job: It was what I was paid to do,” she said. “I don’t really deserve thanks because this is what I was here for. I made a commitment. A lot of times people would say, ‘You know, you should go; you need help.’ But I am the person who would not leave until help came.”

 

SHELTERING THE HOMELESS: WAYNE RICHARDS AND HIS FAMILY

Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK

Wayne Richards didn’t know his neighbours well before Irma hit.

“We said good morning, good afternoon, and all that,” said the medical technician, who arrived from Guyana two years ago.

But in the aftermath of the storm, he got to know them much better, because six of them — including a baby — stayed with him and his wife Shereeza for a week afterward at their home in Hannahs, which itself sustained severe
damage.

Mr. Richards was one of the countless heroes across the territory who opened their doors to others who needed shelter.

Yvonne Mickle, nominating Mr. Richards on Facebook, said that he “opened his house although he himself was affected by the storms.”

During the first part of the hurricane, Mr. Richards recalled looking out to see roofs being blown off. During the eye, one of his neighbours, a Jamaican, brought her baby inside to take shelter. She was soon followed by other neighbours with nowhere else to go.

As they huddled inside, the wind ripped off his back door and all of his hurricane shutters.

“They were praying,” he said. “Everybody was scared, so we had a door like that and we stand, me and another guy, there for like four hours.”

By the time the storm passed, water had soaked most of the house.

“We managed to clean up, [so] everybody could have somewhere to rest. All my gas went, so we had to try and improvise to get a meal. And that was very, very devastating.”

The next morning, another neighbour brought his brother and children to stay, bringing the total number of refugees to six.

“I never made it an issue or difficulty having people stay,” Mr. Richards explained. “Even with the little we had, everybody was contented. If not, we ask, ‘You okay? Or comfortable?’”

All of them have since found other places to stay, including the young mother, who returned to Jamaica. When he talks to them now, “They always say, ‘Thank you, thank you; you saved our life.’ I feel proud [and] look at it positively because I could have been in the same situation.”

Mr. Richards said that as someone not native to the VI, the ordeal taught him a new understanding of his neighbours.

“We should try to appreciate one another more rather than trying to bring down one another,” he said. “Once you love people despite the race or ethnicity, trust me, it goes far.”

 

PROVIDING FREE WI-FI AND FOOD: TONI MCGANN AND RED ROCK RESTAURANT

Not long after Hurricane Irma downed most lines of communication across
the territory, Anthony “Toni” McGann became one of the most popular people in the Virgin Islands.

“We found out that we were the only ones in East End that had Wi-Fi,” explained the general manager of Red Rock Restaurant, which was among several businesses that provided free food and other services after the storm.

Residents thronged into the restaurant to try to get in touch with their families and other loved ones.

“We tried to accommodate as much persons as possible,” he said. “There were 30 to 40 people in the area at once.”

He recalled a woman from Argentina who came to call her mother.

“This was six or seven days after the storm; she had no means of communication; she broke down in tears,” Mr. McGann said. “She said she just want to get out of here. I said, ‘Relax; take it easy.’”

The restaurant, which lost about 30 percent of its roof in the storm, was running on a generator, though trying to use it sparingly.

Meanwhile, the owner of a neighbouring restaurant stopped by and said his refrigerators were going down for lack of electricity.

Mr. McGann knew he had to act quickly.

“There were more people who said they hadn’t eaten,” he said. “There were 14 rib eye steaks; 40 pounds of crab cakes. We just kept on cooking until done. At one point the refrigerator was cooling, so we had to drive around to give food away.”

Wrote East End resident Nicola Sorrentino, “Toni asked for nothing but had internet and food for anyone who stopped by. A huge help for anyone east trying to communicate with friends and family abroad.”

Mr. McGann said opening up the restaurant was about more than just serving practical needs.

“It was about keeping people’s mind off what happened,” he recalled. “We saw our staff sitting down wondering what would happen next.”

He was determined to reopen, and six weeks after the storm, he did.

“I would think the biggest lesson learned was preparation and togetherness,” said the Jamaica native. “We might be verbally challenged — so many different languages in the BVI. When our back is against the wall, even using sign language, we’ll help anybody who needs help, no matter their origin.”

 

FEEDING THE HUNGRY, HELPING THE SICK: ROSIE DAWSON AND THE CARROT BAY COMMUNITY

Rosie Dawson was used to feeding people out of her home in Carrot Bay.

When Hurricane Irma arrived, she just had to multiply the servings by the dozen.

In her area, the storm surge was some 25 feet high, inundating the homes and businesses of her friends and neighbours.

“Everything in my yard just started to float,” she said. “When we looked out to the horizon we couldn’t see any buildings in front. That was just how high the sea was.”

She and her husband fled to a neighbour’s home during the eye as floodwaters came rushing in.

In Carrot Bay, a group rallied together that went from door to door, checking on families with children and seniors to make sure they had enough to eat.

Feeding stations were set up, and Ms. Dawson’s home was one of them. For the next three to four weeks, people congregated there.

Residents gather at the Coal Pot to obtain relief supplies organised by a community committee. Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS

“My home became one of the home[s] where persons were being fed because we had a little business where we do barbecue and we had so much stuff in our fridge that we couldn’t use,” she said. “We gave away everything we cooked.”

Eventually, community meetings were organised to better coordinate distribution out of D’Coal Pot Restaurant.

“They didn’t have a fire, roof or nothing down in that area. [Opposition Leader] Andrew Fahie, he mentioned that, ‘Okay, you can get something to eat by Rosie.’ Most people were just cooking and we just gave away plates and plates of food.”

In the months after the storm, Ms. Dawson, the office manager of the BVI Diabetes Association, continued to help, working with other community members to check on elderly and ill community members who might not have access to the health care they needed.

“It was good because it was one thing that happened for our district,” Ms. Dawson said. “It was … the togetherness.”

 

BRINGING SUPPLIES FROM ABROAD: THE ‘PUERTO RICAN NAVY’ 

PR Navy members unload supplies in the VI.

With commercial forms of transportation unavailable after Hurricane Irma, people with access to their own planes and boats, both in the Virgin Islands and abroad, sprang into action, shipping in supplies and helping to evacuate the injured and needy.

Among the most intrepid of those volunteers was the group of boaters known as the “Puerto Rican Navy.”

Seventeen containers full of food, water, clothing and supplies arrived, sent from people and businesses in Puerto Rico. The group, many of whom are loyal visitors to the territory’s waters, provided hope and support in the critical hours after Irma and before Maria.

Ricardo Montanez, his 11-year-old daughter Natalia, and Dr. Edwin Betancourt arrived on JVD in time to help evacuate resident Gertrude Callwood-Coakley to San Juan for an emergency leg operation.

Many others contributed to the effort — including Alicia Forastieri, Natalia Rovira, Carlos Carrillo Jimenez, Luis Duprey and Ricardo Defendini — but one commenter on Facebook said they were “just a few of the Puerto Rican captains that risked their lives and boats (and their captain’s licences) to take supplies over to the [VI] and to transport people in need to Puerto Rico.”

Ricardo and Natalia Montanez, members of the PR Navy, visit VI evacuee Gertrude Callwood-Coakley in a PR hospital.

Tomas Darten, a BVI Tourist Board representative based in PR, said there was a group of about 60 “movers and shakers; people who made it happen,” organising the supplies and making sure they reached their destination.

“All of the marinas joined together; all of the boat leaders joined together; a lot of companies joined together,” he recalled.

Navy member Francisco Rivera helped pack up food and supplies.

“Many of the sailors just got into their boats and grabbed things that were needed on [an initial] basis,” he said. “They left everything behind and they just came in. It was great.”

Added Mr. Darten, “People were just going to the bays and different beaches and dropping things off.”

His home, he said, also acted as a halfway house for Puerto Rico evacuees who couldn’t get out right away.

“My house was full,” he said. “It was amazing the amount of people that were helping from all over the island.”

 

HELPING FROM AFAR: AJA ROYLE AND BVI ABROAD

Aja Royle and members of the BVI Abroad board held a meet-up at a London pub in the days following Irma.

Aja Royle, a Virgin Islands native now living in the United Kingdom, was on her lunch break the Tuesday before Irma when a friend called and told her that a Category Five hurricane was barrelling toward the VI.

“We were in the dark,” said Ms. Royle, who relocated to the UK last year. “We couldn’t fathom being in the dark.”

She set up a Facebook page, BVI Abroad, that day, and enlisted the help of Roger Carter, Sophie Leroy and Jason and Jenny Ruffell Smith, all former VI residents now located across time zones.

On the day of Irma, she remembers sitting at her computer following social media from the VI and feeling helpless.

As the storm started to hit, many VI residents still had Wi-Fi connections.

“So what we were seeing was cries for help —‘My roof’s gone! I don’t know what to do! Could anyone help?’” she said. “And then it all went dark. And all we could do was sit and pray.’”

Annie Gardner said Ms. Royle was “responsible for setting up the web page for us all to communicate from here to there, UK and US, and to keep us in touch with how we were all doing and finding people we were concerned about. It helped so much with connecting.”

The site became a central hub for people searching for information about the VI —and helped keep the storm in the public consciousness abroad.

“If the world didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t get a lot of help,” Ms. Royle said.

The site helped with coordinating relief and evacuations, as well as directing people to shelters. “People were saying, ‘Have you seen so and so?’ And then people were just looking through everything they could find, … saying, ‘Yes, yes: They’re okay.’”

When Ms. Royle started the Facebook group, she expected around 100 people would join. The forum now has more than 30,000 members and has evolved beyond its original purpose: It now focuses on sharing positive news and bringing visitors back to the VI.

“I don’t know what we would have done without it,” she said. “I’m glad that it did happen, but I feel very small compared to so many others who were just so incredible.”


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