Alberta man weathers Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, prepares for Jose

An Alberta man in the U.S. Virgin Islands spent Saturday picking up the debris scattered by Hurricane Irma and screwing it onto a battered house, in which he plans to seek refuge when Hurricane Jose passes by on Sunday.

'I think there's a lot of people who are just terrified right now and a lot of people who have nothing left'

Eben Stolz, who weathered Hurricane Irma on St. Thomas on Wednesday, estimates 50 to 60 per cent of the homes on the island were destroyed. (CBC)

An Alberta man in the U.S. Virgin Islands spent Saturday picking up the debris scattered by Hurricane Irma and screwing it onto a battered house, in which he plans to seek refuge when Hurricane Jose passes by on Sunday. 

"I think there's a lot of people who are just terrified right now and a lot of people who have nothing left," Eben Stolz, who lives in Beaumont, just south of Edmonton, told CBC News from St. Thomas in a telephone interview.

Stolz was visiting friends on the island. He used to live just offshore with his wife and two young daughters until a few months ago.

He's been through hurricanes before, but said none of them held a candle to Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm on record. 

Irma knocked out the cellphone towers. Stolz climbed to the top of a hill on northeast of the island, where he was able to use a Garmin inReach device to get service through a satellite system. He communicated with CBC News and his family in Alberta on Saturday night before hunkering down to wait out the slightly smaller Hurricane Jose. 

He said normally his view from the hill is shrouded by a tree canopy, but with branches and leaves littering the ground, it's now one of destruction. 

Eben Stolz climbed to the top of a hill in St. Thomas on Saturday so that he could get cellphone reception through a satellite system to make calls. The U.S. Virgin Island was hit by Hurricane Irma on Wednesday. Hurricane Jose is expected to hit on Sunday. (Supplied by Eben Stolz)

The eye of the storm

Stolz, his five friends and their two children spent the first part of last week preparing for Irma.

When the storm touched down on Wednesday morning, they were waiting for it on the lowest level of a house that had been divided into three apartments. 

The winds picked up around 8 a.m. Stolz said at first, they watched from the one unshuttered door as 20- foot (six-metre) waves crashed against the rocks of a usually calm bay, causing a landslide. 

At about 2 p.m., the eye of the storm passed and the winds switched direction, ripping the tin roof off a nearby house, sending it flying past them, he said. 

They locked up and huddled together in a windowless room in the middle of house, Stolz said. The ceiling was concrete, but within an hour it was leaking. 

Soaking wet, they scrambled to find buckets and pots and pans to catch the water, he said. They ended up ripping the tiles off the floor to allow it to run into the cisterns in the basements. 

Stolz said the winds created a pressure vacuum and their ears were popping every 30 seconds. 

"It was like you were flying in a plane doing crazy ascents and descents," Stolz said.

He had his shoes on and could feel the concrete floor vibrating through them. He said he was afraid it was going to collapse. 

"Every bonk and bang that we heard was terrifying," Stolz said. 

By 7 p.m., he said the winds had slowed down and they ventured outside into a world of damage. 

Eben Stolz says Hurricane Irma downed trees all over St. Thomas. (CBC)

Stolz said the exterior of the house had been torn apart. The doors and window shutters blew off. Glass was shattered everywhere. 

The streets are barely passable, blocked off by debris and toppled power poles, he said. There's no electricity on the island. 

"The island's a disaster," Stolz said. 

The aftermath

The only way off of St. Thomas in the aftermath of Irma is by private boat, Stolz said.

He said while military planes are landing at the airport, the communications centre was destroyed in the storm. 

Stolz said some gas stations have re-opened. A restaurant, Bernie's, is charging for drinks, but giving away free containers of food. 

Stolz said people have been pleasant and reasonable so far, all things considered, but he's worried that could change on a dime. 

"I think the aftermath of a hurricane could potentially be more dangerous than the hurricane," Stolz said. 

He said he's heard that amid the destruction on the British Virgin Island of Tortola, there's widespread looting.

Stolz said that the Gucci store on St. Thomas was broken into. There has also been some fist fighting. 

"That's my biggest fear, I don't want chaos to break out." 

Stolz isn't sure when he'll be returning to Alberta.  He said he might stay on the island until mid-October. 

"I'll see how it goes and see how much help needs to be given," he said. 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell