Windowless cars, damaged boats, rare flights aid Tortola escape after Hurricane Irma

Sep 16, 2017 by Dorie Cox

By Dorie Cox The first frightening trip was out the door of the hotel bathroom. Four charter boat guests stood up from the floor of their room at the Treasure Isle Hotel in Road Town. Hurricane Irma had just passed off Tortola in the British Virgin Islands where it hit them as a Category 5 storm, with minimum winds of 157 m.p.h. on Sept. 5. "When we came out of the bathroom, all I can say is, it was scorched-earth," Kelly Skidmore said by phone. "It was completely brown, not a single leaf anywhere." Skidmore, public relations specialist with the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, and her husband, Ray, had come to the island for their first charter to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary with friends Sandra Sovinski and Dr. Roger Corbin. But the celebration was cut short as the hurricane began to close in and the boat was called to shore. The group found refuge in rooms on the first floor of the hotel. "During the storm, our ears were popping and the windows were bowing," Skidmore said. She said the pressure was similar to an aircraft in a rapid descent. They could see out through the impact windows, but stayed far away from them as the eye of the storm passed over. "The outside glass blew out of the double-paned impact windows," Skidmore said. "We had a small flash flood inside and the guys bailed water into the sinks with garbage cans as fast as they could." [caption id="attachment_38080" align="alignright" width="150"] Friends Ray Skidmore and Dr. Roger Corbin pose after after Hurricane Irma hit Tortola. PHOTO PROVIDED[/caption] The roof of another building behind them had been torn off and guests inside had held onto what they could in their bathrooms to avoid being sucked out, she said. The next nerve-wracking trip was on roads surrounded by downed tree limbs and broken building materials. Skidmore had received a U.S. State Department message that there would be a flight off the island that would get the group closer to their homes in Florida. "We found a guy, I'm not sure how, and we packed seven people in a four-man Jeep," she said. Everyone left much of their luggage behind to lighten loads as they hoped to catch a reserved flight before the possibility that oncoming Hurricane Jose would deliver another blow. "The debris over the island was unbelievable," Skidmore said. "Ninety percent of the cars' windows were blown out and most were rolled over. People flipped them back over and were driving on flat tires; they didn't have a choice." The Jeep made it to the airport where the group waited five hours until they were ordered to leave by police with weapons drawn. "The airport was closed and again, strangers were there to help us as we got in a car with no windows and got a ride back," she said. "We heard there was looting in the remote areas. We saw people with machetes, but I'm not sure if they were good or bad people." Surprisingly, their rooms were still available at the hotel where the generator was running on a rotation schedule. [caption id="attachment_38081" align="alignright" width="150"] Friends Ray Skidmore and Dr. Roger Corbin pose for a tourist shot on Tortola before Hurricane Irma hit the island. PHOTO PROVIDED[/caption] "The staff were amazing; they had lost their own homes and were still working, helping us," Skidmore said. "They made one meal a day for guests, every day, with whatever they could find." But every day was stressful for everyone. "We were crying with the woman cleaning our room," she said. The housekeeper had lost her roof and seen a dresser fly out of a window. "The wind took her cat, it was heartbreaking. During the hurricane, one of the men in the house had broken the legs off a table and used the top for people to hide behind." Hopefulness among the group rose again the next day with talk that a ferry was scheduled to go to St. Thomas. The four packed even smaller bags and found another car ride. The group was excited as the boat made its way toward the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Thomas. "We were at the mouth of the port and the U.S. would not let us land," Skidmore said. Because the boat was from a foreign island and the customs office was not open, the boat was turned around. The group made its way back to the hotel. The next several days led to more disappointing trips as the four rode by hired cars to the harbor each morning. Resources were wearing thin. Each day the four tried to contact every helpful person they could think of stateside and worked to keep their cell phones charged. "There is a one-mile-radius area where you can use your phone, but not down by the harbor,” Skidmore said. “When your phone is out of battery, that's it. Everything requires cash and we were running out. There is no money. The one bank had no walls and the safe was in the parking lot." Then, eight days after Hurricane Irma hit, the four weary charter guests packed yet smaller bags and made progress. They finally found passage off the island. "The owner of a private boat had given the crew permission to help move supplies and evacuate people," Skidmore said. "We are in St. Croix," Skidmore said by phone on Sept. 14 where the group had arrived on the less-damaged island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "We have power and we have fully functioning water." Although they are not home, Skidmore said each of them realizes how fortunate they are to be headed there. [caption id="attachment_38079" align="alignleft" width="150"] Charter boat guests on ferry to leave hurricane ravaged Tortola for a flight out of St. Thomas before the group was turned away at the port. PHOTO PROVIDED[/caption] "Throughout all of this we understood that we are so lucky," she said. "Since we left Tortola, the area flooded. The route we took to Nanny Cay is under water, the mosquitos and bugs are erupting, and no roads are clear to remote areas. "We were in the only hotel still functioning, I believe, and the British military is housed there now," she said. "There is zero organization on Tortola. Troops are there, but I am not sure what they are doing. We saw their military dropping palettes, but we're not sure if supplies are getting to the people." As the group waits for a final trip, a flight home from St. Croix, Skidmore said she is worried about those left in the aftermath. "We felt such incredible kindness with the people there," she said of Tortola. "They are the people who are really doing the work, the locals. They are working, rescuing and clearing, and there is not anything for them." Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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