Bermuda to the rescue
A family from the hurricane-devastated British Virgin Islands thanked Bermuda yesterday for welcoming them in their hour of need.
Jeannette and Mark Forte arrived with children Leo, 17, Nina, 16, and Jasper, 14, on September 17 after Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage in Tortola.
The siblings have since started school at Warwick Academy and the family, who have lived in BVI for more than 14 years, is settling in to life on the island.
Mrs Forte said: “I want to say thank you to everyone who has been so welcoming.
“That’s everything from shops that have given us a discount, to taxi drivers. They didn’t have to, but they are all helping in some way or another.”
The family, originally from Manchester in England, lived in Tortola and suffered a direct hit from the Category 5 hurricane on September 7.
Jasper said the storm “took out most of our island”. Leo added: “It was insane. It was so much worse than everyone expected.
“The wind was just incredible. It was a really humbling experience. The house was shaking. It’s a big, concrete house so you don’t really expect that. It was something unheard of.”
He added: “Whole houses blew completely down. Concrete walls were taken down and steel was bent from the wind — you’d expect steel and concrete to hold up.
“Everyone in the media has been saying our houses are made of cardboard and wood, but they are proper houses that were completely annihilated.”
Irma battered the British Overseas Territory with 185mph winds, having already devastated other Caribbean nations.
Leo said: “We were fine compared to others but the whole island was devastated. Lots of people had to get out.”
The storm raged for about eight hours and their house was flooded, windows were blown in and parts of the walls peeled off.
Nina said a tree trunk came through the bathroom roof and Leo added that rocks had blown fist-sized holes in the outer walls.
When the eye hit, Leo said they went outside and had about ten minutes of sun.
He said: “We fixed some stuff and then the second part was probably worse.”
Their hurricane room was breached and they headed to the basement to wait out the storm. Although the siblings had experienced Category 4 hurricanes, Nina said they had “never felt unsafe in our own home at the hands of the hurricane”.
She described the aftermath as “surreal”, adding: “It was scary. It was like a bomb went off on the entire island and there wasn’t a tree standing. Tthere wasn’t a leaf on a tree; everything was brown.
“There were telephone poles down on the road, houses without roofs, there were fridges in people’s back yards that didn’t even belong to them, cars tipped over, windows smashed in.”
Jasper added: “You think that your house is damaged and then you look outside and you look at your neighbours and you realise their roof is in your backyard.
“I barely saw people with roofs when we were driving to the airport. And some people’s houses were torn directly in half.”
Leo said he did not want to leave Tortola but their parents insisted so they could continue their studies.
“It was getting unsafe as well,” he added. The family was evacuated to Puerto Rico four days later, although Mr Forte stayed behind.
They left before Hurricane Maria hit the American territory and came to Bermuda because Mr Forte is a lawyer with law firm Conyers Dill and Pearman in the BVI.
Mr Forte joined them in Bermuda and the siblings started at Warwick Academy, which offered similar programmes to back at home, two days after arriving.
Nina, who was nervous about how they would be received, said: “It’s been great because Warwick Academy has been so welcoming. Everyone was really nice and the teachers were understanding.”
The family, who are among several from hurricane-devastated Caribbean islands that have been welcomed to Bermuda by the Government, are staying in Southampton.
Nina said: “It’s not a culture shock but coming from another island, I expected the same culture that we have in Tortola but it’s very nice.
“It’s very proper, the roads are clean and it’s taken care of. There are a lot of people and they’re really nice and understanding.”
They would like Leo to be able to finish his final school year but plan to return home when Tortola is back up and running.
Leo said: “It’s going to take a while, though. They’re predicting, I think its March, for power returning to the island because every single line and the tower is down.”
The siblings have been unable to contact their friends.
Leo said: “It’s hard to think like that, but you don’t know who’s alive really because it was such a bad hurricane. It’s scary to not know what’s going on.”
He added that a lot of people need help and urged people to contribute via the BVI Relief fund.
Nina explained that their old school, Cedar International, has been accepting students regardless of whether they were pupils at the school so they can continue learning.
She said: “It’s really nice that our school gets to do that and it would be really great if people could donate to that school so they can continue to provide education for children.”
Warwick Academy principal David Horan commended them for settling in and getting back into a routine. He said they had done “remarkably well”.
Mr Horan added that it has been a “humbling experience” for other students, who hosted their grub day in aid of hurricane relief on Friday before the family arrived.
He said: “For our students it was interesting from a global citizenship perspective, this idea that there’s is a real island, this is real damage, they’re real people and we can really help.”