TCI Strong

Facing the fury of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

By Ben Stubenberg

For eyes reading these words today or 100 years from now, know this: When Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore across the Turks & Caicos Islands in September 2017, the people of these beautiful islands united as one. Well-off or struggling, they helped each other selflessly and without claim for credit. This was their moment, and they stood tall and strong. This is their story.

Satellite image of Hurricane Irma on September 7, 2017, with the TCI dead in its sights.

Tuesday evening, September 5, 2017. Forty-eight hours away, and smart phones flicker with time-lapse images of a giant rotating mass of white careening towards TCI for a dead centre hit. Short, anxious text messages quicken with each screen update. “Surely, it will veer to the north and out to open sea,” goes the hopeful chatter among residents. “It always does. We’ll catch some of the storm, but it won’t be bad.” But the monster Category 5 hurricane stays on track and doesn’t turn north. Reality approaches and the gut tightens.
Cars crowd back into building supply stores where folks snap up the last remaining sheets of plywood. They top off the gas tank one more time before stopping by the supermarket to buy a few extra cases of water that are suddenly rationed to one per customer. Tarps, petrol containers and flashlight D batteries are long gone.
Wednesday evening and twenty-four hours to go. Updates show the path has swerved a shade south. That means South Caicos, Salt Cay and Grand Turk will bear the brunt while blasting the south shore Providenciales communities of Long Bay, Discovery Bay, Five Cays and Chalk Sound. The sky turns to velvety cream as the wait begins. But it’s still calm, the way it’s supposed to be before the storm. No one wants to shutter in just yet. So in the pleasant weather, people gather at the bars still open or on a neighbour’s porch, like they would for a relaxing evening after work. An easy camaraderie fills familiar haunts as glasses are raised and big smiles greet friends and strangers alike, all sharing a foreboding sense of anticipation.
As much preparation as everyone has made, no one can really be sure if the roof will hold. Or if the rain or a storm surge will bring a flood of mud into the living room. Or if life’s possessions will just blow away. The angst deepens as pictures pop up of Hurricane Irma’s trail of destruction in the Lesser Antilles and the Godzilla of storms, the strongest ever in the North Atlantic, shows no sign of weakening for us. But nobody gives in to fear. “See you on the other side!” friends call out with some dark humour, as they head back to what they hope will still be home tomorrow.
Thursday morning, twelve hours out. A big gust swooshes against the house and brings a sharp, audible creak to the roof, as the windows clatter. The brain pumps out the first shot of dopamine that focuses the mind when preparing for the worst. It’s really coming. The heart skips two beats. More hours pass, and the gusts slam harder and more often. Walls start shuddering while loosened gutters clang relentlessly against the eaves. At 10 PM, Irma unleashes the full measure of her fury, engulfing our little islands that barely protrude above a turquoise sea, now whipped into a madding frenzy.

Hurricane Irma toppled this cell tower into a tire repair building on Leeward Highway.

The Internet drops off, phones go dead, lights flitter out. Flashlights are turned on and candles lit. Outside, sustained winds reach a hyper-dangerous record-breaking 175 mph (280 kmh) with gusts reaching over 200 mph (320 kmh), hurling sticks, branches and tile like bullets through the air. Trees bend, then snap, then uproot, tossed about as easily as chopsticks. The first roofs start peeling back as Hurricane Irma bears down on every home with all her power, howling and scratching like an angry animal trying to get in.

Hurricane beginnings
The journey starts in early August half a world away with ripples in the sky high above the highlands of Ethiopia, Sudan and the Nile Valley. Hot air rises from the sandy, rocky surface and drifts lazily west over the Sahara Desert before clashing with the cooler air from humid jungles of Central and West Africa. The unstable mass spills out over the Atlantic Ocean toward the Cape Verde Islands, the spawning zone for the most tempestuous of weather.
As the wind flows over the warm ocean, the surface of the water evaporates and triggers another cycle of rising air. The air is cooled at the higher elevation, forming large cumulus clouds of water droplets that fall back to the surface, generating a circulation of energy. As happens when the sea is particularly warm, July through November, more water evaporates and creates ever-bigger clouds that can intensify into tropical depressions and then storms. At this point they are given a name from an alphabetical list, alternating male and female, drawn up by the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. The ninth Atlantic storm of the 2017 season gets the name Irma.
Most of the time, these storms dissipate well before they reach the other side of the ocean, but a few, like Irma, strengthen into hurricanes (more than 74 mph/118 kmh sustained winds). Since the storms develop in the middle of the ocean far from measuring devices, scientists lack precise data to determine when or exactly why any given storm will explode into a full blown hurricane or simply fizzle out. But satellites provide clear visuals showing the beginnings of a counterclockwise spiral around an eye of calmness, influenced by the Coriolis effect of the earth’s rotation, as the hurricane churns across the vast Atlantic.
Irma’s threat is not readily apparent at first, as it bumps up to a Category 3 and then back down to a Category 2 while still in mid-ocean—bad, but manageable. But in late August, as she lurches towards the Caribbean, Irma suddenly strengthens into a massive Category 5 with sustained winds of more than 155 mph (248 kmh). The gyrating arms grow rapidly too and extend out 400 miles. She shows no mercy for the first tiny islands in her path, bringing death and devastation to Dominica, Barbuda, St. Martin and the Virgin Islands before bumping up to skirt the north coast of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. Next in her sights? The 40 islands and cays in the southern Lucayan archipelago that we call home—the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Hurricanes in history
Well before the first Europeans set foot on these islands, the native Taino and Lucayan Indians had learned to expect and adjust to the seasonal arrival of a “Jurakan” that evolved into our word for hurricane today. These fearsome winds, they believed, derived from their deity Guabanex as part of a cosmic battle between good and evil. The Indians recognised the signs of an approaching storm days before, that allowed them to prepare. Frigate birds flew inland away from the coast, while crickets, cicadas, toads and frogs disappeared, as if they all had a foreboding sense of impending disaster. The Indians could even tell months before if the hurricane season was going to be particularly bad by a bountiful crop of avocados.
When the first Spanish colonists arrived in the late 1400s and early 1500s, they too would experience the devastating effects of hurricane-force winds and rains, more powerful than anything they had seen in Europe. At first, according to Stuart B. Schwartz in his book Sea of Storms, the Spanish dismissed warnings by the Indians, whom they considered to be “unsophisticated” and “savage,” even when the natives proved to be right. Indeed, the Spanish considered such forecasting of the future sacrilegious fortune telling. The onslaught of these ferocious storms, they believed, lay entirely in the realm of divine providence, and the havoc wreaked was punishment for man’s sins and moral failure. Only prayer, procession and repentance could mitigate these pure acts of God.
A notable exception to this fatalistic notion in the earliest days of Caribbean colonisation was, paradoxically, the intensely pious Christopher Columbus. On his fourth and final voyage to the West Indies in 1502, he warned the governor of Santo Domingo of an impending storm after noting southeasterly swell of the water, high cirrus clouds and a hazy atmosphere. A large fleet of 30 ships laden with gold extracted from the Taino Indians was about to leave the port for Spain, and Columbus urged the governor to keep the ships in the protected harbour until the storm passed. Already disdainful of Columbus, who had lost his star power after three previous Atlantic crossings that began with his Grand Turk landfall in 1492 (Times of the Islands Fall 2017), the governor scoffed at the notion that storms could be predicted. Ship pilots and sailors readying the fleet in Santo Domingo expressed the same sentiment and sailed anyway, while Columbus found shelter in a bay.
A powerful hurricane did hit two days later that took twenty of the fleet’s ships straight to the bottom and disabled nine more. Only one ship made it to Spain, and it happened to be the one with the gold specifically allotted to Columbus for his earlier services as “Admiral of the Seas.” The happenstance of only the ship with Columbus’s gold making it back to Spain, coupled with foretelling and prognostication, was not lost on his rivals who accused him of being in league with the devil.
It would take decades, but the Spanish and other European colonists in the West Indies gradually recognised the cyclical pattern of hurricanes and began to value the observational and predictive skills of the fast disappearing natives. That in turn led to greater acceptance of natural forces at work and that humans had some control over protecting themselves. As the Age of Enlightenment took hold in the 18th century, a better understanding of these natural forces emerged that removed human action as the cause for these disasters. But rather than one perspective replacing the other, the two co-existed, as Schwartz points out, woven together in a belief that divine intercession could be called upon to lessen impending calamity, even if driven by natural forces. Indeed, through the centuries right up to today, people all over the West Indies pray to be spared from hurricanes and give thanks when an island escapes a storm or is spared from destruction.
In a supreme twist of historical irony, blame for hurricanes has come full circle back to humankind being responsible for its own destructiveness by way of global warming. Instead of the hand of providence meting out punishment, however, the prevailing scientific view holds that humans are reaping what they have sowed through reckless stewardship of the planet.

Springing into action

The collapse of part of the roof at Faith Tabernacle Church in Providenciales has become an iconic symbol of the storm.

After a ferocious and precarious night (when the worst of hurricanes always seem to strike!), morning breaks with a swirling, chalk-grey sky. The winds begin to subside, as Irma passes by. People peer out from cracks in plywood sheets or push away sandbags to open the door through sloshing water and get the first glimpse of nature’s wrath. Once majestically high coconut trees lie twisted and broken. Planks of wood and roof shingles cover the hard-packed sand and limestone rocks, resembling huge discarded checkerboards. Downed street lights and telephone poles sprawl across the highway with coiled lines and cables draped over the asphalt like black spaghetti. But it’s the brush stripped of all leaves along the roads that unexpectedly grabs our attention. For the first time in memory, residents driving along Leeward Highway can clearly and cleanly see the little neighbourhoods of clapboard houses nestled along its sides. Everyone knew they were there, somewhere, but what thick vegetation once made invisible had come into plain view. And that stark ocular proximity brings the ongoing plight of their occupants into sharp, unavoidable focus.
For those who got through relatively unscathed, there is no time to dwell on minor losses when more urgent needs beckon. The time for action has come. Government officials, businesses, charity groups and individuals all get moving.
Well in advance of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Department of Disaster Management and Emergencies (DDME) had begun preparations by converting into shelters 12 schools and churches throughout TCI, as well as the Gustavus Lightbourne Sports Centre on Providenciales. DDME assigned trained shelter managers to each location and provided supplies of food and water. Through electronic messaging and social media, as well as more traditional means, the DDME managed to reach all 40,000 people living in TCI. DDME Director Dr. Virginia Clerveaux explained, “While we reached a lot of people electronically, we also employed loudspeakers from vehicles, postings, handouts and just showing up at popular island meeting spots to provide warning updates and preparation tips.” Most people remained in their homes, but some 1,500 people moved to one of the government designated shelters. Nobody got left behind.
Also way out ahead of the storm were the resorts, the “rocks” of the country’s all-important tourism industry. Knowing that many of their staff might be exposed to hurricane danger, properties such as Windsong, The Alexandra, Grace Bay Club, West Bay Club, Seven Stars, The Shore Club, The Palms, Gansevoort and Villa del Mar, among many others, made their hotel rooms and condominiums available to employees and their families. Most of the managers even hunkered down with both staff and the guests who chose to stay through the storm. (Most resorts evacuated guests well ahead of time.) After the hurricane when it became apparent that some of the staff homes had been severely damaged, resorts did not waiver in keeping employees sheltered at the resort or other places until their abodes were repaired. Grace Bay Club, for example, secured commercial space for displaced employees to live, while The Shore Club rented out the dining hall at St. Monica Anglican Church (and made The Shore Club Ballroom available for Sunday services).

TCI’s resilient spirit showed up in immediate relief efforts.

Just about everyone in the food business got involved immediately. Supermarkets such as Graceway IGA (which had kept its generators running throughout the storm), restaurants including Retreat, Bay Bistro, Big Al’s Island Grille, Le Bouchon and Rickie’s Flamingo Cafe, and private chefs like Josh Carlton prepared thousands of hot meals to give away on the spot or bring to anyone in need. Grace Bay Car Rentals provided vehicles and drivers from its staff to deliver many of these meals to the hard-hit settlements, often using 4X4 SUVs to reach the more difficult areas. “Food for Thought,” which has long operated a renowned breakfast program for TCI schools, also played a critical role in getting food to the needy.
Meanwhile, dozens of boat operators and captains, including Delphine Hartshorn, Bruce Barron (Panoply), and Valdez Thomas (Sea Spice), quickly organised transportation of food and supplies to North and Middle Caicos, South Caicos and Grand Turk, thus providing a critical link when none other existed. Hurricane debris in the milky ocean water, particularly near Grand Turk, put the boats at risk, but the captains and crews went anyway.
TC Crystal Water (of which Turks Head Brewery is a part) turned off the coin-operated machines at their South Dock Road facility so that anyone could fill up as many jugs of water as they needed for free. When the Caicos Conch Farm learned that they would lose 500 lbs (227 kg) of red snapper and grouper after the generator crashed, they contacted TC Crystal Water and proposed harvesting the fish for a giant fish fry in the TC Crystal Water parking lot. “Let’s do it,” came the reply. So they set up grills and gave away an outstanding fried fish meal to anyone who wanted some.
Hundreds of people initiated their own personal assistance programs to aid friends and neighbours, as well as those hurting the most. Some 20 members of the venerable Fish Fryer’s Club gathered at the house of photographer Penrhyn Brooks and worked 11 hours straight to clear debris from his yard (breaking, of course, for a fry fish BBQ). This informal social group of men and women from all over TCI has been getting together weekly for over 10 years, often raising money for donations to schools and other causes. So, when one of the group needed help, everyone showed up in force.
Social media groups wasted no time identifying needs and connecting people who could help. One of these was the WhatsApp group called “We Care Turks & Caicos.” It was set up by a group of friends and expanded organically to other friends until it reached 30+ committed individuals drawn from every part of the community—including sports stars, lawyers, a high school student and even ex-pats living in the US and Canada. The network raised hundreds of dollars every day to pay for food, personal hygiene supplies and building materials, and tapped members to bring them to the most vulnerable. The network created a bond between the members who surprised themselves at being so effective in working together. This WhatsApp group is not going away.

This drone shot shows flooding experienced in Five Cays after the storm.

Aid came from unexpected sources too. Two days before Irma hit, Haitians called friends in TCI to offer their homes as shelter should they want to evacuate to Haiti. Haitian-based charities, including Mission of Hope, had stockpiled supplies in case Irma hit Haiti. But when the hurricane missed them, Haitians loaded up tarps, water, purification bottles, food and other survival items meant for them onto the ship True North heading to Providenciales. In this way, people in Haiti, often the recipients of aid in times of tragedy, showed they were quick to give back when nearby countries suffered their own calamity. Local TCI charities Salvation Army, Convoy of Hope and Harvest Bible Church met the True North at the dock and distributed the goods throughout TCI. In late October, the government of Haiti added to the private donation by giving TCI hundreds of generators, plywood sheets, tarps and other housing materials to help with the aftermath and rebuilding.

Seeing the other side
Many people unaffiliated with any aid group simply loaded up their cars with food, ice, water and other supplies and drove to the shelters or homes of housekeepers and gardeners they had employed for years. For some living in more affluent areas of Providenciales, seeing up-close for the first time the difficult conditions under which their workers lived moved them profoundly.
For me, the young teens in the Enid Capron Primary School shelter in the settlement of Five Cays made a deep impression. Each time someone arrived with a delivery of supplies, the youngsters promptly went to unload the car or truck with utmost courtesy and thankfulness. Despite two weeks of living on cots with one sheet and maybe a single change of clothes, they looked impressively clean and well-groomed. The shelter manager, Yanique Henriquez, ran a tight, orderly ship, and the youngsters and adults responded by respecting the rules and making the best of a difficult situation.
On the last day before the shelter closed so the school could reopen, two of the teens, a boy and a girl, took me aside. They looked me straight in the eye with steady confidence and calmly explained their situation. “The shelter now has enough food and water,” the boy began. “And we are very thankful for what everyone has done to make sure we were OK. But what we don’t have is a home. We are from Five Cays, but there is no place to go back to.” “Are you brother and sister?” I asked. “Well, not before the hurricane, but we are brother and sister now, as we’ve been helping each other get through this.”
“Where is your mother or father?” I asked. “Are they here too?” “Yes, let me get my mother,” the girl said and brought her over.
Both began speaking Haitian Creole to the mother, telling her about their appeal to me. This is not an unusual situation in Turks & Caicos, as many children have one foot in the Haitian world and one in the TCI community. As is sometimes the case in North America and the UK, young teens will translate for a parent who cannot speak English and end up negotiating for the family medical services, leases, utility hookups, work expectations and school enrollment. No longer adolescents, these two teens, ages 16 and 14, dealing daily with the challenges and uncertainties on the fringes of society, had matured well beyond their years. In another time or place, they might be anticipating an upcoming school dance or making plans to watch a football game. Instead, they just wanted to find some place to live with walls, a roof that didn’t leak too much and a couple of beds or cots, even if temporary. Nothing else mattered. And so to anyone who would listen, they made their case with patient, urgent eloquence.
The teens and their families did get a short reprieve for a few more days at the Gustarvus Lightbourne Sports Centre before they and others found tiny, one-room houses in their Five Cays settlement. I visited one of the places shared by two 15 year-old girls and three adult women who had been in the Enid Capron shelter. They had no running water or electricity. When night came, they lit candles. The two girls slept in the one cot, while the three women slept on a sheet of plywood over a cement floor. Folded up clothes served as pillows. With nothing to cook with, they bought prepared food from local supermarkets, which they shared with each other. Whatever jobs they had were suspended, so they had no income. Yet nobody complained, and nobody gave up. The sobering reality of their predicament, fellow residents who live less than a 15-minute drive from anywhere on Providenciales, tugs hard at the heart and doesn’t let go.
Local lawyer and photographer Dominick Rolle, one of the members of “We Care Turks & Caicos” WhatsApp group, noted that just about everyone without a generator basically camped out for at least two weeks, sometimes more than six weeks, waiting for power to come on. “It was challenging and often uncomfortable for sure,” Mr. Rolle said. “But it also created a closer sense of community that has been sustained though weekly cookouts where everyone shares what they have.”
At the same time, Mr. Rolle emphasised, “That experience of temporary deprivation opened our eyes to a hidden segment of society that lives like this every day. It humbles you. We cannot forget that they are part of TCI society too—their kids go to school with your kids or play on the same sports teams. But when they go home, they may not have something as basic as a light, much less a refrigerator or stove.”
Dr. Sam Slattery, founder of the Grace Bay Medical Centre, pointed out, “People employed by the stores, offices and resorts of Grace Bay and all around Provo often walk a half mile in the mud to get to a paved road and then take a taxi jitney to get to work. All day we expect them to perform their jobs with cheerful efficiency. And then at night, they go back home to a very different world and deal with hardships the rest of us can scarcely imagine.”

TCI gets back on its feet
Hurricane Maria arrived a week later, quick on the heels after slashing into Puerto Rico with deadly assault. TCI residents again prepared for the worst, but this time it was different. After Irma, everyone, imbued with confidence, knew they could handle the next one, no matter how big. As it happened, Maria curved north away from TCI. It still rated a dangerous Category 3, but was nothing like Irma. The attitude was unified, “Let’s get this over with so we can clean up and rebuild.”
Right after the hurricanes had passed, DDME and Red Cross teams of trained resident volunteers fanned out to assess the damage. Well over 100 British troops landed with large Chinook helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft with supplies to distribute. The UK aid organisation Department for International Development worked quietly in the background with DDME and local groups to get food and supplies in and move them to where needed.
The preparations, sheltering and post-hurricane aid by everyone paid off, as TCI did not have a single fatality or injury attributable directly to the hurricanes. That “zero” statistic is even more impressive when one considers that TCI is not normally in the path of devastating hurricanes that have hit the Caribbean and Bahamas. It had been a full 9 years since Hurricanes Hanna and Ike struck in 2008 and 23 years from when Hurricane Kate hit in 1985. The last big hurricane before that was Donna in 1960. Applying the lessons learned, the TCI government has already begun to prepare even better for the future, including tighter enforcement of building codes.

The UK deployed units from their armed forces to aid in recovery.

The post-hurricane clean up was no less remarkable. With debris strewn about, gardening services large and small went straight to work contracting out at pre-hurricane prices. Many of the workers covered themselves in hoodies or thick flannel shirts against the sharp thorns of the brush, as well as the sudden onslaught of mosquitos that hatched in pools of water. The men worked all day in the hot sun, made excruciatingly more uncomfortable by high humidity. Sometimes they used chainsaws to cut up the fallen brush, but mostly they hacked away with machetes, counting on the job to earn some badly needed cash while delaying tending to the wreckage of their own homes.
TCI’s Canadian-based electricity provider, FortisTCI, brought in 231 electrical line repair specialists and 65 trucks from Canada and the US to supplement the local repair crews, putting the total TCI restoration workforce to well over 300. Local crews went to work as soon as they got the “All Clear,” while the first wave of foreign workers arrived within 48 hours. With so many poles, transformers and lines destroyed, restoration inevitably was uneven, especially since priority had to be given to hospitals, airports and water companies. While frustrating for many, particularly those with homes on the south shore of Providenciales as well as the other islands, Fortis crews worked dawn to sun-down to bring the all-important power back. Fortis also hired local cooks to prepare 800 hot meals and distributed them at community centres. Provo water companies, too, worked to keep “city water” flowing to customers for at least a few hours a day just after the storm as they located and fixed pipe leaks before re-pressurising the system.
Amazingly, almost all resorts and rental villas were repaired and back in business by mid-November and accepting guests at the same high standards that have made Providenciales a sought-after luxury destination.
Residents and business owners who suffered severe damage to their property tended to shrug off the misfortune as part of living in an island paradise. They typically covered their financial and personal pain with jokes, but everyone felt the ache of losses that would take months, if not years, to recoup. Despite the hit, a festive mood prevailed. DJs such as DJ Dayoh and singers like Tess Charles partnered with cafés and bars to host fundraiser nights. (In fact, a half blown-off roof at Rickie’s Flamingo Cafe did not stop a big fundraiser there.) Spirited crowds ready to party showed up to check on friends, swap stories and give food and clothes. Just days after Irma hit, businesses and individuals brought all the donations they acquired to Butterfield Square in Downtown Providenciales, set up tables and gave away items to those who needed them.
Local artists jumped in to raise relief money through wonderfully imaginative storm-related art. Jeweller Atelys sold several thousand dollars worth of her original handmade creations, all of which went to hurricane relief. Alizee Zimmermann gathered broken roof tiles, a potent symbol of the wreckage, and painted them with colourful, whimsical animals for sale to residents and visiting tourists. Painter Fay Ninon, founder of Oceanic Alchemy for marine life preservation, raised money by creating a line of clothes and accessories with a “TCI Strong” theme and then worked with the Edward Gartland Youth Centre to buy and distribute food in Grand Turk, Salt Cay and Providenciales.

TCI stronger

The good people of TCI stood strong during the storm.

You never know how people are going to react in a real crisis, especially when almost no one living today in TCI can remember anything as severe as Hurricane Irma. But perseverance and kindness have always been an integral part of Turks & Caicos culture. Charitable events consistently draw hundreds of people from all over the Islands. So it was no surprise that the quite diverse TCI community united in providing relief. In fact, for weeks after the hurricanes, that’s all anyone talked about. Native people and ex-pats alike felt pride, as if they had passed a kind of test. Folks came togther, and former animosities and grudges seemed to have been blown away with the winds.
In another place, things might have gone in a negative direction, with descent into avarice, feuding or despair. But that didn’t happen here. Instead, the best of humanity emerged, and this precious episode in TCI history must be remembered and cherished and nurtured, for there will surely be other challenges and trials down the road.
Indeed, we are on that road now, with another chance to draw on the Islands’ proven character and fortitude by keeping the post-hurricane momentum of extraordinary goodwill going. We can start by not letting the less fortunate in our society once again disappear behind the thick brush as the leaves grow back. Teens shouldn’t have to hunt for a place to stay for their families and five women shouldn’t have to live in one room without running water or electricity. And let’s pause to recognise and respect the hardships of people who touch our everyday lives—people we depend on—and do all we can to lighten their burden. Our Islands are too small and our hearts are too big. The good people of TCI stood together magnificently strong when the dark winds roared in, and they can shine brighter still in the sunlight of the aftermath.

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for Turks & Caicos Islands history. An avid ocean man, he is the co-founder of the sports and adventure tour company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.

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