Ivybridge man survives Hurricane Irma

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

A man who survived Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands is asking for volunteers and donations to help the island rebuild.

Leo Whitting hurricane-proofed his house on Carrot Bay and was waiting to ride out the storm when he heard that the storm surge was up to 16 feet in St Barts, meaning his house would be underwater, so he left to go to a friend’s house on higher ground.

“The house was made of solid concrete but there were no shutters so the windows blew out. The first half of the storm wasn’t too bad because we were protected from the north winds. We went outside as the eye came over and it didn’t look too bad.

“But during the second half, when the winds were coming from the other way, we were bracing ourselves inside the house because there were no windows. Debris was being thrown around, doors were ripped in half or off their hinges, the refrigerator – a big one, was dancing around and you couldn’t hear anything.

“All I can describe it as would be having your head out of a car window while travelling at 100mph.”

By the time it was over it was sunset and Leo and his friend went outside. He described the scene that awaited him.

“There was nothing left. All the trees above six foot were broken off, you couldn’t drive anywhere so we walked to my house, which was still pretty whole but the road is gone so it’s now right on the beach, and I’m not sure how good the foundations are.

“When you were walking around, everything looked so different we kept getting lost. All the landmarks were gone. It was devastating.” Leo joined up with Graham Hurrell and other friends and they got the water out of his house because it was flooded. “I picked up some things, baby photos and stuff, and left.” Leo said.
Leo’s girlfriend Claudia Knight and two-year-old daughter Dottie were already in the UK as Claudia had just accepted a job at a school here, so they left ten days before the hurricane hit.

“I’m so, so glad they weren’t there, it doesn’t bear thinking about” Leo said. He finally managed to get in contact with friends and family at home when he saw a man talking on the phone at the top of a hill. “There was an American man talking on the phone. I went up and asked him if he had signal, he said yes so I asked if I could please use his phone. He handed it over and I managed to talk with Claudia for a few seconds before it cut out, but at least they knew I was alive.”

He managed to get on a charter plane with Salcombe man Simon Roberts, his wife Nada and their children plus two other men
they didn’t know, and arrived back in the UK on Thursday 14
September. Talking about the way forward, Leo and Simon Roberts, with others, have started a campaign to help rebuild the British Virgin Islands, calling themselves the ‘BVI Stormtroopers’.

Leo continued: “Yes some of the ‘world elite’ are in the BVI, put they’re a very small part. Most people live hand to mouth and they’re in dire straits. They need help, fundraising and volunteers. The aftermath is just as bad as the storm.”

As Hurricane Maria nears the BVI, Leo said lots of his “hurricane bros” are still on the island, “Graham lost his passport, we’re really worried. The island is already crippled, I really hope it misses. Some of the big hurricane shelters are OK, but there aren’t many safe places left.”

Leo said that the island was caught unawares by the strength of Hurricane Irma, “Nobody realised it was going to be that bad. Richard Branson said it was more like a Category 7.” Hurricane categories only go up to Category 5, but that encompasses anything with wind speeds above 157mph. Irma reached more than 185mph.

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