Friday September 15, 2017

'All the glass just flew away': Shattered windows and levelled homes in the eye of Hurricane Irma

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As Hurricane Irma travelled over her home on the British Virgin Islands, Olga Osadchaya huddled in the bathroom with three friends and a dog named Poppy.

Outside, the hurricane was at the height of its power. Irma became a Category Five hurricane as it approached the islands and ravaged the lush island of Tortola where the lawyer lives.

The island, a popular tourist spot half of the size of Disney World, now looks like a war zone with levelled houses and overturned cars.

"It was the most horrifying experience of my life," Olga Osadchaya tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

While news reports have delivered a steady stream of stories about the damage Hurricane Irma has inflicted on Florida, many Caribbean islands that were in the path of the storm's peak fury have been sorting through their own aftermath.

Five people on the British Virgin Islands are dead and basic services including electricity, running water and sanitation are only beginning to return 10 days after the storm made landfall.

STORM-IRMA/

Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Jose (R) and Hurricane Katia (L) are pictured in the Atlantic Ocean in this September 7, 2017 NOAA satellite handout photo. Hurricane Irma travelled directly over the British Virgin Islands. (NOAA/Reuters)

The British government has sent more than 1000 troops to the island to aid recovery. Approximately $94 million CAD (£57 million) has been earmarked to restore services and rebuild the islands.

"It's a little bit apocalyptic," Osadchaya says.

In the days after the storm, relief efforts were hampered by lack of communication connectivity and inaccessibility between many of the island's towns.

A fire truck travelled the streets to deliver news as radio stations weren't broadcasting. Mobile phone infrastructure was destroyed.

On Thursday, according to Osadchaya, there was still no way to communicate with a lot of people on the island. But a radio station and internet access is now up and running on some parts of the islands.

   

Winds that could crack concrete

Osadchaya believed she was prepared for Irma.

"We had a lot of provisions. A lot of water, a lot of food. Lots of batteries," she says. What she wasn't prepared for was the sheer power of the storm.

Olga Osadchaya - Irma Before and After

Osadchaya sits on her terrace the day before Hurricane Irma battered the island of Tortola. On the right, Osadchaya stands with her home in the background the day after. (Supplied by Olga Osadchaya)

 

The hurricane struck early in the morning. As noon rolled around, the storm intensified. Winds pushed against the windows and doors of her concrete home.

The walls surrounding the doors to her terrace began to crack. "We thought the sliding doors were going to blow," says Osadchaya.

With her company in tow, Osadchaya realized they needed to find a safe space. They moved upstairs to the back of the home and took shelter in a bathroom. But the worst wasn't over.

Noticing an open window, Osadchaya dashed to the guest bedroom to close it. Suddenly it bent outward.

"In front of my eyes, almost in slow motion, it shattered and all the glass just flew away," she says. At the same time the sliding doors blew in, exposing the home and its residents to the elements.

As the group barricaded themselves, holding the door closed with all their might, everything stopped.

"[It was] predicted that the eye of the storm was going to hit somewhere between 1 and 3 p.m. that day," she says. And like clockwork, the sky cleared up. 

 

"It all just went away," Osadchaya says. "We knew it was the eye. It was the most eerie thing in the world. The trees have come out of the ground, the cars have been flipped, the roofs have come off a lot of buildings by this point in time."

"And suddenly it's just completely still."

The group, with dog still in tow, stepped outside. A neighbour summoned them to take refuge in her home that had windows protected from the winds. They collected some supplies and went over to ride out the remainder of the storm.

             

Surveying the damage

Irma eventually passed. But the storm left its mark.

The next morning, Osadchaya and her friends hiked across the island to examine what was left on its 55 square kilometres of land.

Hurricane Irma Fragile Islands

The wild isolation that made St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands vacation paradises has turned them into cutoff, chaotic nightmares in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which left 22 people dead, mostly in the Leeward Islands. Photo provided September 10, 2017. (MOD via AP)

"I saw many houses obliterated. I saw people wandering on the streets completely aimless trying to figure out what just happened, really," she explains.

"You keep pinching yourself thinking 'oh, I'm actually alive, this is amazing.'"

The exterior structure of Osadchaya's house remains standing, but the inside is totally flooded with doors and windows smashed.

The tropical island, previously dense with green foliage, is now covered in brown tree stumps.

Yachts docked along the shore are grounded with their bows penetrating other vessels.

Hurricane Irma hits Tortola, British Virgin Islands0:12

           

Moving forward

Osadchaya is confident that the island will be rebuilt.

"There's an incredible community spirit: everybody's helping each other, everybody's sharing supplies," she said describing the island as "beloved" by its 30,000 residents.

She's also optimistic that the island's main industries — tourism and finance — will return in short order.

"We don't always need to be right on the island to keep the industry afloat," she said.

Osadchaya will soon be relocated to the Cayman Islands to continue working. Once communications and basic infrastructure is rebuilt, she says companies and residents will return and start the work necessary to bring back tourists.

"The spirit is there. We're all going to get back on our feet," she said. "Things will get rebuilt and the wonderful vegetation will come back."

"[The British Virgin Islands] will be even stronger than before."


To hear the full interview with Olga Osadchaya, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.