An Unexpected Adventure

Visiting South Caicos and Salt Cay post-hurricanes.

By John Galleymore

In the ten years of being a resident of Providenciales, we had seen storms form off the west coast of Africa and either dissipate, move away or grow no larger than a tropical storm. The one exception was the 2008 “double” of Hurricanes Ike and Hannah, tearing through the TCI just weeks apart, devastating the Islands. Whoever could have imagined that this scenario was set to repeat nine years later in September 2017?

At the end of August 2017, my wife and I flew into Providenciales from the British Virgin Islands. We had been visiting there for some time and were very familiar with the Islands. Little did we know that less than two weeks later, the BVI would serve as a stark warning of what was to about to hit the Turks & Caicos Islands—Hurricane Irma.
Early September and we are in an old rented cottage on Grace Bay, tracking the storm daily and trying to agree with the general consensus that it will turn and move away. Some folks are prepping, buying up supplies, and others are securing their homes with plywood and hurricane shutters. Many say it’s a lot of work, only for the storm to pass us by. There is little anxiety amongst many residents. The hurricane has been graded as a Category 2; powerful yes, but it’s still hundreds of miles away and most people believe that the first landfall it makes will drain the power out of it. So, in the TCI, life carries on.
On September 4, Hurricane Irma was up to a Category 4 and people started to take notice. No more so than just 18 hours later, when it had strengthened into a Category 5 and made landfall, nearly wiping the island of Barbuda off the face of the earth.
Irma had become a terrifying beast, with maximum sustained winds peaking at 185 MPH on September 6 —it would remain steady and unchanged for the next 37 hours. While maintaining this intensity, Irma made successive landfalls on September 6—on St. Martin and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands—and utter devastation was the result. Suddenly we were getting press reports and messages from these islands and we feared that unless the storm deviated or broke up, we were in for the same.

The author inspects St. John’s Church on Salt Cay after the hurricanes.

Now, as the storm moved closer, we all started tracking it and it made headlines in the US and Europe. It was measured to be bigger than France and moving at just 14 MPH. Suddenly everyone was stocking up on fuel, food and searching for plywood to secure homes. We relocated to a hotel on Grace Bay, not trusting the old house we were renting, and settled in with supplies for five days along with our two very bemused dogs. That afternoon, the streets were deserted and sandbags aligned every storefront. There was nothing to do but wait.
When it came, it came with force—late afternoon, early evening, the wind and rain started and by nightfall palm trees were being bent nearly double and the rain was thick and horizontal. We would be in for many hours of this. As the storm grew closer, the noise increased to that of a freight train and our ears were popping due the sudden drop in air pressure.
We sat it out, not sleeping at all, and when dawn came we ventured out onto Grace Bay Beach. It was eerily calm and the sand line had been totally altered. Perhaps a million tons of sand along this coast had been shifted overnight. We walked the streets of Grace Bay assessing trees down and roofs blown off, although luckily we had not been subject to the annihilation of some other Caribbean Islands.
I was sent a picture, (remarkably FLOW had kept their service throughout) and it showed a photo of The Shore Club taken from hundreds of meters out with the water drained from the Caicos Bank by the wind motion.
I was being contacted by global news outlets such as CNN and the BBC, who were picking up my Instagram posts and were desperate for live news on the state of our Islands.
In the first day and those that followed, it was obvious that it was not the storm itself that would make us suffer, but the after-effects—no power, water or communications. Those of us who stocked up were thankful we had. Soon lines for gas were forming, with some drivers waiting six hours or more to be allotted a ration of some five gallons.
Already, before the now approaching Hurricane Maria hit the TCI, the community was pulling together and raising funds, supplies and awareness for those in need. I am very attached to the out islands, so it was with great relief I was able to take a boat to South Caicos to check on my good friend Tim Hamilton and take some basic supplies of food and water for him to distribute.
South Caicos had been hit hard, with many roofs taken off and 232 of its 234 developments receiving some form of damage, with 51 being totally destroyed. It was here the UK military, now in force across the Islands, had their work cut out for them. They organized logistics and started to clear the harbor, all while the sounds of helicopters and cargo planes filled the air.
Shortly after the hurricanes, the Sailrock development created the South Caicos Heritage Foundation to help preserve and support the local community in rebuilding. Immediately after Hurricane Irma, the Sailrock team provided aid in the form of materials, equipment, operators and logistical support, along with food and water.

Salt Cay’s iconic White House is still standing, although a bit worse for the wear.

My next concern was that of Salt Cay, and although the residents were subject to a mandatory evacuation order, a dozen or do had chosen to stay and there was no word from them. A few days later, a small group of us consisting of Dan and Agile LeVin, Jon Ward and Judy Dirckx were arranging supplies and relief efforts when we were offered a ride on a Chinook to visit Salt Cay.
The residents greeting us looked shell-shocked. Although they had a solar-powered reverse osmosis system set up and the TCI Government had sent over many supplies, it was fresh food they craved. Thanks to Judy on Providenciales who rounded up donations, we were able to supplement the relief efforts by sending over a ton of food underslung on the helicopter.
There was substantial damage to most roofs, lots of debris, trees down and no power. Yet within two months, power had been restored, major debris cleared from the harbour area, and the main roads were driveable. The ferry service between Grand Turk and Salt Cay currently runs three times per week, plus extra freight runs as needed. With the primary school devastated, kids are attending school in Grand Turk.
North District businesses and rental villas were open by December. The north shore beach has settled with steeper shoreline but a wonderful bright expanse of sand. The nearby reef is gorgeous and in good health. Salt Cay Divers are organizing reef cleanups with their scuba guests who wish to volunteer, church restoration projects are being developed in which guests can assist and the arrival of the whales in mid-January is hotly anticipated.
All over TCI, in the weeks that followed the storms life got back to some normality. Many expatriates chose to leave the country, albeit temporarily. Many had unlivable homes; some needed to decompress and re-charge after a harrowing ordeal. Roofs were repaired as supplies filtered in and power and water slowly restored. The TCI was down but most definitely not out, and we would rebuild and recover with a greater sense of community spirit and fortitude than ever before.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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