Hurricane Irma

‘We had cars flying over our head’: traumatised Caribbeans describe surreal scenes of Irma’s wrath

‘What we experienced is like something you see in a horror movie, not something you expect to actually happen in reality’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 10:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 10:05pm

“We had cars flying over our head, we had 40ft containers flying left and right,” said Knacyntar Nedd, chairwoman of the Barbuda council. “People were literally tying themselves to roofs with ropes to hold them down.”

As Hurricane Irma blasted across the Caribbean in an arc of horror and destruction on Thursday, killing at least 10 and wreaking near-total devastation on islands at the eye of the storm, victims recalled a night of misery that exceeded even their worst fears.

The trail of damage in areas first hit by the storm’s 300km/h winds served as grim warning for those further west as they braced for its arrival hours or days later, with its intensity barely dimmed.

Hurricane Irma lays waste to the Caribbean

Barely a single Barbudan building escaped undamaged, around a quarter of properties were utterly obliterated, and half the population was left homeless by the storm.

Helicopter images showed stretches of flooded rubble that had been streets and homes crushed into piles of rubble or walls left without a roof.

On the beach-front in the Dutch side of Saint Martin, boats were crushed up against each other like damaged toys, rows of parked cars were submerged in floodwater up to their roofs and the airport battered beyond use.

“What we experienced is like something you see in a horror movie, not something you expect to actually happen in reality,” Nedd told the local ABS television.

Among the most traumatised survivors were those who tried to ride Irma out at home. “When the first part came, it was like the whole house was ripping apart,” said Jacqueline Bisa, who was in her home with seven relatives.

They took shelter in a wardrobe and the bathroom but the winds were so fierce they had to hang on to the door to keep it closed until they could be evacuated. “It was like it was sucking us up,” she said the next morning.

Several older residents with long experience of the fierce winds churned up by the Atlantic in hurricane season described Irma as unprecedented.

“Last night was the most devastating experience I have had in my life and I am almost 60,” said a man who gave his name as King Goldilocks. “Who hasn’t lost their roof, their house crumbled, like me? I am totally homeless.”

Barbudans initially struggled to reach the government on nearby Antigua, which was spared the very worst of the storm, said Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda.

“I’m of the view that as it stands now Barbuda is barely habitable,” Browne told ABS TV. “The island is literally under water and that in itself is a serious threat. We never anticipated this level of damage.”

The storm brought down telecoms towers and destroyed a backup radio system so islanders could not report back on the extent of the damage. Rescue efforts on many islands are likely to be hampered by damage to airports as planes cannot currently land safely.

The winds were so powerful that even some of the island’s storm shelters were overwhelmed, said Barbuda’s fire station chief who gave his name as Sergeant George.

“The community centre, which was one of the designated shelters, did not stand up to the task, and the churches we used did not stand up to the task,” he said. “So we had to use St Thomas hospital but that stood up well.”

“My main concern is how we are going to survive after this given that every house, every utility is completely damaged and gone,” said Barbudan Cariana Baltimore, who fled to a shelter with six family members after Irma tore the roof off their home.

Like many on the island she was terrified about the prospect of having to ride out Jose in the island’s shattered ruins, and begged for evacuation.

“All of my family members we don’t even have a home no more, and the prospect of another hurricane heading in our direction is terrifying, I think we should evacuate.”

Also badly hit were the British Virgin Islands, a string of small islands whose residents begged for aid on Facebook.

“We have nothing here, we need help, only our lives were saved,” said Germaine Smith in a video he said was taken on Tortola. “Everything smashed up, every building smashed up, nothing saved.”

The storm also badly damaged the home of entrepreneur Richard Branson, on the private island of Necker, although everyone present when Irma hit took shelter in a wine cellar and no one was hurt.

“Glad to say that all humans on Necker are OK although a lot of buildings destroyed,” Branson’s son Sam said in an Instagram post.