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A personal story of Hurricane Irma's devastation in the British Virgin Islands

November 15, 2017; 6:42 PM

In late August 2017, a tropical wave (disturbance in the atmosphere that could become a Tropical Depression) moved off the coast of Africa. On Aug. 31, I got a Facebook Message from my friend Mahde Said, who lives in the British Virgin Islands. He is a weather enthusiast and has been a long-time fan of AccuWeather on Facebook and sends us weather photos and reports from his location. He had received an alert on his phone from the DDM (Department of Disaster Management) that read:

"Tropical Alert: Disturbance 1 (also called 92L) could pass close to the BVI Saturday night into Sunday as a tropical depression or storm. A message from DDM."

He followed it with: "Bro. Are we in for this one?" "Doesn't look good," I replied.

On the morning of Sept. 3, I posted an image showing forecast tracks for Hurricane Irma to my WeatherMatrix Facebook Page. The models continued to trend south and we could no longer say that the northern islands would not get (at least) hurricane-force winds.

The forecast continued to worsen and by Sept. 5, Hurricane Irma tied for the second-highest sustained winds (185 mph) ever measured in the Atlantic basin, as it approached the Caribbean islands. At this time, our map projected that Irma would hit, as a Category 5 hurricane, very close to the British Virgin Islands with "Devastating Impact."

Hurricane Irma vs. BVI 1

Hurricane Irma vs. BVI 2

It was now time for the islands to prepare for a life-changing storm that threatened to nearly wipe them off the map. (Mahde is not only a resident of the islands; here he is pictured with His Excellence Augustus Jaspert, Governor of the British Virgin Islands, helping prepare the night before the storm).

His Excellence Augustus Jaspert, Governor of the British Virgin Islands

The last Facebook Message I got from Mahde was at 7:53 AM Sept. 6: "Rain coming and going with some gusty winds." He had seen some of the incredible videos from the destruction of Anguilla and St. Barts, and said he hoped that his island would receive the support they needed after the storm, but I could tell that the level of destruction worried him. I replied that he should keep his family in a safe space and "strap down."

I didn't hear from Mahde again until Sept. 10. I was worried, but I also realized there would be no way to contact the outside world for several days after the storm on the group of small islands. That morning, he sent me incredible damage photos and said simply "We made it. We almost died." This was what was left of the homes on the mountain:

BVI Hurricane Irma Damage 6

And streets:

BVI Hurricane Irma Damage 2

Look closely at those photos. Note that the trees have had all branches and leaves removed, something that is usually seen in the damage path of large tornadoes. The previously green landscape has been turned brown.

I asked Mahde to take the time, when he was able, to write down his thoughts about that fateful day when Hurricane Irma destroyed his home and business, and almost killed him and his family. This is what he wrote:

"I, Mahde Said of the British Virgin Islands, would like to share my experience with the public of the passing of Hurricane Irma in the BVI on the 6th of September 2017.

The month of September was filled with tragedy and loss for many people in the BVI. Irma caused much catastrophic damage; lives were taken. Some people are homeless.

It was the day and year that I will always remember. It was a feeling that words weren't enough to explain what I felt that day, as my family and I gathered together to watch Hurricane Irma pass over us.

As the storm approached, I stepped out of my apartment to go into my yard to make a live video for Facebook that I heard on the radio that the manager of the DDM (Department of Disaster Management) on the radio, with fear in his voice, say "Run, run, RUN to the closest shelter!"

I instantly started to run to my apartment, but unfortunately I couldn't make it, so instead I ran to my brother's summer apartment. The winds were so strong it blew the hurricane shutters off and the windows started to crack while I was upstairs with my brothers and their wives and kids. My wife and 2-year-old daughter were left alone below in the lower part of the building.

There are no words that could explain that feeling I felt. I cried so much and worried about them, as it scared me to protect them as I heard very loud noises coming from my apartment and my stomach aches wondering what's happening to my wife and daughter. I mad an attempt to reach them, but because the wind was so strong, I failed to reach them.

At the very moment that the wind eased, I rushed down, with an aching heart, praying that my family is OK. God listened to my prayer and when I got into my damaged apartment I called out to my wife after I searched for her. I heard her voice coming from the bathroom area. I quickly rushed to the bathroom and I found my wife and my little girl hidden in the bathroom crying. I quickly hugged my family but shortly after felt the wind coming again. The entire building started to shake. I told my wife: "We are going to die, we have nowhere else to hide." I saw what I thought was white smoke coming towards me, but it was a tornado. I got very dizzy and felt helpless as though it were the end of my life and my families. Nevertheless we hugged each other with tears flowing in our eyes, praying to God to take us through that storm safe.

As I stayed in the bathroom with my wife and kids I heard from the upper part of the building my brothers' wives and kids screaming "Help, help, Please!" My heart ached hearing them screaming out for help but there was nothing I could do to rescue them. After that moment passed, I went to my brothers' apartment. I saw some furniture had blown through the doors. I found my brothers' wives and children in the bedroom and they were all OK. After a search found my two brothers lying behind the chair, flat on the floor, one crying out with pain in the knee.

It seemed more like a Category 7 than a Category 5 hurricane! Only about eight people lost their lives, but thank God it was in the daytime, if it would have been at night, we might have been killed. It is a feeling that I never want to experience in my life again. Let's pray for BVI's recovery. BVI STRONG!

- Mahde Said

This is what the inside of Mahde's house looked like after the storm:

British Virgin Islands Hurricane Irma Damage 4

British Virgin Islands Hurricane Irma Damage 5

He took this video of Road Town, Tortola BVI on September 14, a week after the storm:

Mahde and his family had the means to leave the island and decided to visit family in Palestine for a few weeks, to avoid any potential civil unrest, and to not suffer without necessities.

Unbelievably, two weeks after Irma, while he was still away from the islands, Hurricane Maria passed south of the BVI as a Category 5 storm, shortly thereafter devastating Puerto Rico. Fortunately, the eye of the storm was far enough away that winds were lower, and although any repairs or recovery was set back in the BVI, little additional damage was done by the wind, Mahde's relatives reported. The roads on the western parts of the island were damaged worse than during Irma, however, because of the different direction of the storm surge there.

Hurricane Maria Forecast to Pass Close to BVI

The British Virgin Islands, of course, are no stranger to hurricanes. Dozens of the storms have affected the islands since records began in 1842... but since 1933, only four major hurricanes had passed within 50 nautical miles of Road Town, Tortola: Donna in 1960, Hugo in 1989 (which also devastated Puerto Rico on a similar track to Maria), Omar in 2008, and Earl in 2010. Only two major hurricanes in 1867 and 1871 (nearly 150 years ago) had passed over the BVI (within 25 miles of Road Town), and they were only Category 3 storms. A storm the strength of Hurricane Irma had never, since records began, taken a track so close to the BVI, much less two Category 5 storms in two weeks! (The only Category 5 storm on record in the area was an unnamed hurricane in 1928, which took a track similar to Hurricane Maria 2017.)

BVI Hurricane GIF Take 5

Fast forward to Nov. 12, 2017, 67 days after Hurricane Irma. Mahde and his family have returned to BVI to face the task of rebuilding. Mahde sends me a drone video and explains: "The town (Tortola) is a ghost town. Damage everywhere. My store was destroyed and now has black mold and must be demolished and rebuilt." Here are photos of his store:

BVI Hurricane Damage 4

He continued: "Schools have reopened but most people still don't have power, there is maybe 30 percent restored. We have so much road damage. They say by April next year everything should be better, one-hundred percent. I may not get power for a couple months yet, but the buildings and the roads I can't tell you when, because they have a lot of damage. But we are finally turning green again, getting back to green trees, but there has been flooding since, which has done more damage."

Mahde took a drone video of Road Town, Tortola, BVI. The amount of damage remaining (more than two months later) is incredible.

Flash flooding occurs with some frequency on the BVI. Heavy tropical rainfalls (even outside of a tropical system), combined with hills as high as 1,700 feet on Tortola, combine to cause this. But since the hurricanes this year, every flood was made worse due to the damage the massive wind storms caused. Similar to what Californians deal with after a forest fire, the BVI had massive runoff because Hurricane Irma had literally stripped the trees of all of their leaves (something only seen with the strongest hurricanes), speeding up the amount of rainwater sent to the ground, and also helped to clog existing drainage mitigation and bodies of water. An example of the flash flooding is shown in the video below, taken by Mahde's brother, Samer Said:

After Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico, the BVI lost media attention to their suffering, but more of the people's stories are starting to get some media attention now, and I hope to add to that with this blog. Just this week, Britain's Prince Charles visited and reaffirmed the country's commitment to the Caribbean aid package, now £92 million. Ironically, heavy rain and flooding greeted him on arrival. Mahde met with the Prince and took this photo of him shown below.

Prince Charles on the BVI

The Guardian reports on the immense waste problem after 2,000 boats were destroyed and roofs were ripped off of nearly every house. The Premiere is telling his story of how he barely survived and his recommendation that the residents prepare to take shelter in an interior room -- something usually for strong twisters in tornado alley -- may have helped keep the death count low. A policeman from the U.K. who was assigned to the BVI for a month described the destruction as similar to the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. With no power or water, half of the residents of Jost Van Dyke island have fled. (UPDATE 11/29: 168 people are still in shelters, nearly 3 months after the storm).

The environmental disaster will change the British Virgin Islands forever, and we won't know exactly how for years. Animal species were nearly wiped out. New plant species may reign supreme while the forests recover.

I asked Mahde if he would stay on the islands during a Category 5 hurricane again. "No way. Not even for a Cat 3."

For those who can't afford to leave, Mahde says the DDM is refortifying shelters to be more resilient.

You can donate to relief funds for the BVI at this link.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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