When British Virgin Islands solicitor Dan Wise and his family hunkered down in their two-story home to wait for Hurricane Irma, they never imagined the surreal story of survival that would follow.
After hours of wind and rain and the loss of a window, they thought the storm was over when the sky cleared over their home in the British Virgin Islands. They went outside and chatted with neighbors, but soon the winds picked up and they ran back inside, realizing the clear skies and calm was merely temporary—the eye of the storm.
Soon, they could see the whole roof starting to heave, as if it were breathing. The house began to vibrate and then Wise’s children, ages 6 and 8, watched their roof sail away. An entire doorway of sliding metal shutters that covered their high impact French doors blew in. They ran to the laundry room on the first floor, which had a concrete ceiling. Wise sat there for a long time with his back against the door, bracing his feet to keep the vibrating door from bursting in, while his children hid under pillows. Every window in the house blew out. Then came hours of driving rain that soaked everything they had, except for the children’s mattresses, which had been wrapped in plastic.
Eventually, the storm ended but the danger did not. They lost power, and while they couldn’t make phone calls within the British Virgin Islands, they could call London and the U.S., and heard news of the dangers of looters. They learned that inmates from the destroyed prison had escaped and that more than 70 percent of homes had been seriously damaged.
“We had to camp in the ruins of the house,” said Wise, a solicitor-advocate and consultant and head of the litigation department at Martin Kenney & Co. Solicitors who has lived in the British Virgin Islands for 12 years. “You were terrified at the time. You were expecting to be murdered in the rooms of your houses. … Most of the time I was carrying either an axe or a cutlass around in part to appear that there would be some opposition to be faced if anybody came to our house.”
He made an arrangement with neighbors that if they saw someone approaching each other’s homes or got into trouble, they would each blow a loud whistle. It never came to that.
But there were other dangers.
“Here I am 53, I’ve got two young kids, I work in an office as a lawyer and suddenly you have to do things like vast physical work moving trees and bashing galvanized roof to … make sure the kids don’t run into it,” Wise said.
He worked with neighbors and friends during the day to make the house safer, clear the area, and scavenge for wood and other items that could be used to keep further water out of the homes that were left. Wise said many who had impact glass found that it broke in the storm, including glass that was Miami-Dade County compliant. At night they would eat the best of what had thawed and drink the best wines before they spoiled or were stolen. Once they found and broke open coconuts and ate them with their best rum.
“It was a magical moment. We were all working really, really hard to make the best of it,” Wise said. “It was funny because you’d work most of the day, you’re filthy doing hard manual work and then you’ll have a 15-year-old French wine with a piece of steak.”
Wise’s wife cleared the rain and glass from one room, where they all slept. They washed from a bucket. Wise said they squeezed together on the children’s beds and he slept with an axe by his pillow and with the warning whistle around his neck.
“After six days we got overrun with rats and I chartered a flight and I got my family and two other families to Puerto Rico,” Wise said. “There was this explosion of rats. I just thought if we stay here with insufficient clean water and no power, we’re going to end up getting seriously sick. We had lots of rats in our house after a few days.”
In order to charter the flight, they emailed and texted pictures of their passports and documentation to a contact in Miami. Colleagues chartered two flights, one with nine people, the other with five—four passengers were fellow lawyers. A woman whose house was completely destroyed agreed to live in their home and drive their car back from the airport. Exhausted, Wise drove 5 miles an hour to avoid road debris that could easily have punctured his tires—an event that would have meant the family would miss its chance to escape from the island.
“Then I look up and thought ‘I’m hallucinating—there’s an ostrich!’” said Wise, who knew the birds often attack when angry. “It was an incredibly bedraggled ostrich with very bloodshot eyes—it lookliked it had drunk about a bottle of gin. I thought, ‘This is the end. I’ve gotten this far and I’m going to get pecked to death by an ostrich.’ I stopped the car and it just wandered past us looking dazed.”
The animal had escaped from a farm.
Arriving in San Juan still in dirty clothes, the family checked into a nice hotel and stayed until they could get passage to Baltimore, where the family has relatives. Wise tried to return to the British Virgin Islands to salvage documents and belongings they couldn’t get on the small charter flight, but he only got as far Puerto Rico before impending Hurricane Maria canceled that flight. So he went to Miami instead.
Martin Kenney & Co. Solicitors, which represents individuals, companies and states that have been defrauded in international fraud litigation, is moving its office to Antigua for at least six months, until conditions improve in the British Virgin Islands. For now, Wise’s wife and children will stay in Baltimore with family.
“It keeps coming back to you that there are so many good people [still on these islands] who either can’t leave or don’t have the resources to leave or don’t have somewhere to go,” Wise said.
Contact Monika Gonzalez Mesa at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @MonikaMesa1