Photo: Mohammid Walbrook
Photo: Mohammid Walbrook

Surviving Irma

What it was like weathering Hurricane Irma’s 185 mph winds on Barbuda, from photographer Mohammid Walbrook

Barbuda, the northern most island in the Lesser Antilles, is small (just 62 square miles), remote, tough to get to, and has only 1600 full-time inhabitants.

And it was demolished by Hurricane Irma.

When the strongest storm in Atlantic history rocked Barbuda, I saw gut-wrenching post-Irma FB updates from a local photographer, Mohammid Walbrook, who had stayed home and weathered it while his house was literally ripped apart all around him.

At the time of this story, every single resident has been evacuated. For the first time in 300 years, the island of Barbuda is empty.

So, what does it feel like to survive a Category 5 hurricane? I called Mohammid to get a first-hand account of his experience staying through the storm:

"I chose to stay on the island because I wanted to be there for my friends and family. My family couldn’t all leave before the storm. Plus, I wanted to document it afterward, since I'm a photographer. A lot of people ask why anyone would stay on Barbuda though a Category 5 storm, but what other choice did we have? It's not like we could just drive away.

Photo: Mohammid Walbrook

"I've been through five storms before, but nothing like this one. We were prepared as best as we could for it. We stayed in my cousin’s house. He doesn't live on the island, but he has a house there. The wind started picking up around six in the evening. Around 12, it got really, really bad. That's about when the winds started hitting 150-160 mph. Somewhere after midnight, pieces of our roof started going. The galvanized metal started flying and it sounded like gunshots. The entire roof over the kitchen came off first. We just heard a big bang and the whole place went white. Just before that happened, I could feel the pressure starting to build, and I could see the rafters expand and contract several times. So the kitchen went first, then the bedroom we were in, and then we all ran—myself, my mother, my father, and two of my nephews—and we huddled in the corner of the living room. Almost as soon as we got there, we heard another huge bang, the living room roof went, stuff was flying all over, and we went to the last place in the house with anything overhead—the bathroom. Once inside, I had to stop the door from blowing in. I leaned all of my weight into it for two hours, knowing if the door blew in, the roof would go, too. But it didn't, luckily, and then the eye came, and everything went silent. When the eye passed through, the winds stopped completely. There was no rain, nothing.

"Luckily, the hospital was only a quarter of a mile away, and they had a shelter set up in there. It fared better than everywhere else because it was purely concrete. There was another shelter nearby, but it was damaged—all of the windows blew out—so when the eye came through, everyone was trying to get to the shelter at the hospital. Somehow, my car wasn't destroyed so I started doing trips from the hospital to the village and picking up anyone who needed shelter, until the winds started picking up again, which happened after about 45 minutes. When the winds came back, they lasted until about six in the morning. So for about four more hours, we were all crammed into the hospital’s X-Ray unit, a small area, and we just tried to fit in as best as possible.

Photo: Mohammid Walbrook

"When the storm passed and we came back outside, it was shocking to see the amount of damage. There were cars that ended up a quarter of a mile from where they were parked. 95% of roofs were gone, and there was wood and metal everywhere. It was hardly recognizable.

"It took about a day and half to evacuate everyone from the island. Some people went on boats, and the Venezuelan government sent a military aircraft over to help, which took 130 people per trip back over to Antigua. Some people are staying in shelters on Antigua, others with relatives. At the moment, Barbuda is completely empty, and it will be for another couple of weeks. Soon they'll start letting a few people back over to check on their properties, but it'll be awhile before it's rebuilt and everyone gets to go back home. It's tough right now. We're a small island—only 1600 people—and we need all of the help we can get."

Photo: Mohammid Walbrook

If you'd like to help the people of Barbuda please click here, where 100% of funds collected will go towards helping Barbuda's displaced residents.