Connie Barry grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. She loved to go sailing on some of the largest lakes in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. She loved it so much that when she and six of her sailing girlfriends were invited to go to the Caribbean to sail, they jumped at the chance. They were all twenty years old, and by the time they returned from sailing in the pristine waters that lapped against the powdery white sand beaches surrounded by the lush, green mountains, Connie was irrevocably hooked. By the time their vacation was over, they reluctantly left their host's fifty-foot boat as seasoned deck hands.
Connie loved everything about the Caribbean; the beautiful palm-shaded beaches, the luxury resorts and the up-scale restaurants that drew not only tourists from around the world, but famous Hollywood celebrities like Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks, and Alan Alda.
There was always an abundance of yachts filling the harbors in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, (BVI) that were located in the West Indies. Tortola is the capital island in a series of sixty islands, all breathtakingly beautiful.
The following year she returned and stayed for six months, wisely the six months her hometown was covered in snow and ice.
Eventually, she made a permanent move and married a native man. During the winter months the weather would be in the eighties with a constant trade wind blowing, but during the summer, the wind would die down and the heat would soar to ninety-five degrees. But she loved it and stayed for forty years.
She and her husband had a daughter and Connie went from working on the boats to a job as a waitress in a swanky five-star restaurant and then to the town's hospital as the dietitian.
Her daughter had two children and now it looked like she had settled in for good.
Connie's mother would come to visit almost every year, making thirty-six trips in all and sometimes staying for as much as six months. Her mother made friends of her own there and grew to love the island too.
Connie, now divorced, lived in a rental house in the hillside and experienced many violent storms and hurricanes like Hugo and Marilyn, but nothing could compare to Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, which were a one-two punch just a week apart.
The weather report warned the residents that this would be a huge storm and to take shelter. The Doppler radar pictures on the television indicated a vast wheel of swirling winds moving slowly and heading directly toward them.
Connie, her daughter, and two grandchildren had doubts about their own house, so they took shelter at Connie's friends. Their house was made of cement, even the roof. Even so, they went through the usual precautions: duck taping the window panes and the sashes, pulling down the metal shutters and jamming wood splints around the doors to keep them in place by preventing the wind from shaking them open. They took the screens off the porch and made sure they had food to eat and water to drink.
It was Tuesday, September fifth and Connie had airline reservations to fly to Minneapolis three days later on Friday for her annual buying trip.
“Everything on the island was expensive because everything had to be shipped in. It was not unusual to buy orange juice for eight dollars a gallon or eggs at an inflated price, so I would fly back to the Cities to do my clothes and necessaries shopping. I only took a few clothes in my suitcase on these buying trips so I could come home with a suitcase full of needed items.
By early morning they could tell the storm would be a bad one, but they had no idea how bad. The first wave came at eleven thirty in the morning. It blew off a small door into the house and there was a scramble to find something to block the already violent storm from coming in. A bedroom and a bathroom door were removed as well as three cabinet doors. They were all quickly nailed across the gap. The wind had blown in so hard through the little door that the Monopoly game the kids were playing was blown everywhere.
The wind hit at two hundred and eighty-five miles an hour making it the most powerful Atlantic storm of the century, a category five, “but felt like a seven.”
Connie had brought her little radio with and they listened to it as long as they could. The phone went out along with the electricity.
By two in the afternoon there was a fifteen-minute respite as the eye passed overhead. After the period of complete calm and quiet, the wind began again and the crashing and banging outside was heard for several more hours.
When it was finally over around five, it was getting dark and because the house faced the water, they didn't see the total devastation until the next morning when they stepped outside and were heading for town.
“It was like a war zone. Everything was gone. Even a piece of the cement roof overhead broke off and embedded itself into a door. The roads were so full of debris we could not get out. The trees had been stripped bare, not a leaf in sight.”
The following day it was reported that eighty percent of the island was destroyed and forty thousand people were now homeless.
The town was annihilated except for the hospital, so the medical center became the hub of the recovery in more ways than medical. All that was left of this beautiful paradise were piles of rubble everywhere, multiple ships, boats, and yachts were piled up on shore like so many toy boats, and Hurricane Maria was only three days away, also heading right toward the island.
Because the late summer months and continuing into the fall is hurricane season, the shutters that are attached to the houses are never removed until Thanksgiving. The houses become dark and airless. The friends with whom they were staying had a generator and when it was turned on for a few hours each day, phones could be charged, fans run and laundry is done. They relied on FaceBook for communication and as soon as Connie could, she FaceBook messaged her family, now living in Hertel, about their condition.
Her flight was canceled for Friday because of the destruction and debris on the St. Thomas runway and it was a month to the day before she could finally leave.
Her own little rental home lost its roof and everything inside was soaking wet. They salvaged what they could and lived like refugees meanwhile at their friends.
Hurricane Maria came and went and did minimal damage to the few things lift standing. The island was destroyed and there would be no tourists coming for a long, long time, bringing their much-needed dollars with them.
Today, much of the island still does not have electricity and it will be years before Tortola will return to its splendor. This beautiful place once boasted of being the sailing capital of the world, but no more.
Connie changed her ticket to include her daughter and grandchildren and when they arrived at the airport in Minneapolis, quite a few friends and family met them, welcoming them all to Minnesota, home of the Vikings, the Mall of American and long, cold winters. Remember this was just the middle of September when they arrived.
Friends even gave her a car, just gave it to her so she would have transportation; she had little else.
Now the family all lives in Hertel, Connie works in Economart's deli, and the kids, ages eight and nine, love it here in Wisconsin. They love the Spooner School system which is a very large step-up from the school they attended back home on the island.
“I was worried that because they are mixed race children they would not be accepted in this almost all white community, but they've already made lots of friends since last October and the kids have no interest in going back.
Snow is their favorite thing now.
The hurricane season is set to start in only five more months and Connie's got to go back briefly to close up accounts and other things but has no plans to stay; so those glorious days “living the dream” will have to be just a lovely memory that she will cherish the rest of her life.
Thanks a lot, Irma.