FORMER local woman, Megan Grundling survived a category five Hurricane, Irma, on September 6 when she found herself stuck on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), her place of work, which she considered a slice of paradise.
But paradise quickly became a living hell as Grundling recalled her ordeal, and the plight of many of the locals who, in the aftermath of the storm, are still trying to put their lives back together.
Grundling is currently in the Southern Caribbean on an island, Bequia, with an estimated population of 4,300; “Right now, surrounded by strangers, it feels like a population of one,” she said.
Grundling is a former Port Alfred High School dux pupil, and a Miss Port Alfred finalist who has been living in the British Virgin Islands for the past 2, 5 years. She recently returned to Port Alfred while awaiting her new work permit and returned to the BVI on September 3 to start her new job as a financial controller at a crewed yacht charter company.
While Grundling was aware of the hurricane threat, she said she didn’t feel too worried and her employer wasn’t alarmed either. It wasn’t the first hurricane scare for the territory and she said she focused her attention on settling back in to island life.
“When I went to the local supermarket in the afternoon (Monday September 4), I recall there was definitely a slight sense of panic among the locals – the parking lot was full (cars were parking in the middle of the parking lot, blocking cars on either side) and the store was packed with islanders who were stocking up on water, tinned food, batteries, torches, candles, match sticks and other hurricane supplies – predominantly alcohol,” said Grundling.
While staying at temporary accommodation, Grundling settled in and said Tuesday had come and gone without even a breeze.
“Then, at around 11.30am (Wednesday), Irma’s core unleashed her destruction upon the territory and her assault was merciless. One couldn’t see much, but the wind was whistling – outside and through the pipes leading into the sink – if there was an opening, the 295km per hour winds were exploiting it”, she said.
“Every so often there would be the sound of the gusts smashing hard against the outside patio. During the course of the six hours of hell I witnessed the screen doors blow right off along with the solid gas braai and concrete umbrella base outside which were easily scooped up by the wind. The landlord and his entire family came running down to the ground floor level on which I was staying during the first half of the storm to seek refuge after their roof had blown off and parts of the ceiling structure collapsed. By some miracle the glass sliding doors and windows remained intact and we only had to deal with water gushing into the one bedroom and the lounge area.”
She said the real storm wasn’t the six hours of terror during Irma’s reign – the real storm has been far worse – the unending nightmare of the devastation that lay in her wake.
The next day, Grundling’s birthday, she said it illuminated a barren landscape; what was once lush greenery was now replaced with what resembled a burnt-down forest.
“It was a strange day – for the first time since I can remember not a single person wished me happy birthday. I was a stranger in a local family’s home, placing strain on already scarce resources and the only thing alleviating the strain was the fact that I had luckily also stocked up on some food and water supplies ahead of the storm,” she said.
Some days later Grundling managed to do a short hike through forestry to get to a functioning vehicle and drive the half-cleared road to town that the true magnitude of Irma’s destruction dawned upon her.
“No pictures or stories can do justice to the complete demolition of my beloved island; gigantic trees had been uprooted and blocked the roads along with power lines and cables; tar had lifted from the road and pieces of the tar had broken off and washed away; cars lay overturned as if a toddler had picked them up and after growing bored had thrown them to the side; large metal shipping containers had been airlifted and now lay in various parking lots – one in particular was now in the exact same location my car had previously occupied, before I had decided to move it,” said Grundling.
After a tremendous struggle and effort, Grundling finally made contact with her new employers and was able to receive critical information which led her to the local BVI base where a number of crew members were based and from which an evacuation boat occurred a few days later.
“Miraculously, most of my employer’s BVI vessels survived the storm and these were set to sail to St. Kitts and Nevis, following the arrival of a relief supply boat aptly called ‘New Beginning’, on Thursday, September 14,” she said.
She sailed for about 27 hours from Tortola, BVI, to St Kitts and Nevis before Grundling and her crew arrived in Nevis as refugees. After two nights Grundling was evacuated yet again, this time to Bequia, to escape another category 5 hurricane – Maria. During this evacuation she was forced to leave behind most of her belongings in Nevis.
After everything, Grundling has a heavy heart and broken dreams, “ I was about to start a new chapter of my life – my friends and I all were, given that we had all secured new jobs and were full of excitement at future prospects. Now my friends’ jobs hang in the balance, I drift from island to island and the lonely feeling of being on a remote island far away from all those I love, uncertain what the future holds, persists,” she said.
Uncertainty aside, Grundling is overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for the many good people who crossed her path. “Individuals who had undergone more trauma than I. who were still willing to listen and could still laugh; individuals who lost everything and still continued to smile and ask for nothing in return for helping one; strangers offering their services – a community full of beautiful souls coming together to aid each other in this time of crisis,” Grundling said.