Ottawa Jewish community members Lyon and Cybele Hamburg were on vacation in the Turks and Caicos Islands when Hurricane Irma struck on September 7. Lyon Hamburg tells us what happened.
We had no idea how historic and memorable the week would become when my wife Cybele and I planned a late summer holiday in Turks and Caicos.
We arrived in Turks a few days before the hurricane and there was no significant information available about any weather events other than rain. When the weather reports became serious and WestJet sent out an email about opportunities to leave, we were, like so many other tourists, too late to get tickets to leave.
The day before the hurricane, Club Med revealed its military-grade plan for managing the safety of the resort’s guests. The windows were all boarded up, and pool furniture, sporting equipment and small boats were stored in safe locations. Guests were placed in rooms on the second and third floors of the hotel to avoid the dangers of a storm surge and flooding that could occur.
Fortunately, the direction of the flow of wind and waves on the leeward side of the island, where we were located, significantly reduced the risk of a catastrophe from storm surge, which causes the majority of fatalities in hurricanes. We were given plenty of food and water for the 24 hours we would be in lockdown, beginning Thursday, September 7 at about 2 pm.
The rain and wind were powerful and built quickly over the next few hours but we had electricity throughout the entire hurricane. By 9 pm, the wind and rain was so intense that it became unsafe to stay in the main part of our hotel room. Water was leaking in the room and the sound and vibrations from debris hitting the walls of the building was quite frightening. It sounded and felt like we were in a war zone and the pounding on the concrete walls reminded me of the vibrations one feels near a construction site when the ground is being dynamited to blast through rock.
We decided to set up the bathroom for a safe evening before a broken window and darkness might find us scrambling in fear. The bathroom was better protected and we had many towels protecting us from water leakage on the floor. Fortunately, we had sporadic cell phone service so I sparingly used my battery power to text updates to my mother in Montreal to assure her of our safety.
The pinnacle of the hurricane was from 10:30 pm until 2:30 am. Then the noise level dropped and we slept until 5 am. It was then we heard others leaving their rooms and we went outside to see the destruction caused by Irma, a Category 5 hurricane.
The human response to the event was encouraging. The resort guests and staff immediately set up a relief area to give food, clothing and money to the local staff of the hotel. Many lost their homes and everything they had. I was deeply saddened when the towel lady I saw daily told me she lost her house and had nothing. We gave her money and clothes but it was obvious her suffering – like so many other residents of the island – was far from over.
While the majority of staff and guests acted with responsibility and compassion, I was quite discouraged by the lady in the room next to us. She berated and complained to the staff that for the 36 hours of the hurricane, we had only two options for sandwiches for meals and no wine was available. I was concerned how offensive this would be to any local staff that would hear her. Outside the resort, it was a very grave situation with no drinkable water or electricity available.
By dinnertime on Friday, most things had returned to normal at the resort although there was no air conditioning as power was being conserved. The dancing and partying on Saturday night was fantastic as a mood of survival prevailed.
Nevertheless, I was concerned that word of our excellent conditions would be a source of resentment among local island gangs who might come and start looting as their desperation ensued. Fortunately, this did not happen.
By Monday, September 11 we were advised to be prepared for departure. At noon time when we were told that a 6 pm rescue flight was arranged by WestJet.
The feeling of elation when we finally landed in Toronto was overwhelming. Despite the few hours of fear I experienced at the peak of the hurricane, we are so grateful for the perspective the experience gave us of how fortunate we are to be alive and living in Canada.