A British woman whose husband remains on one of the British Virgin Islands battered by Hurricane Irma and 185mph winds has spoken of how people are facing a near total communications black-out when trying to discover whether their families are safe.
Sarah Thompson says she lost touch with her husband, Christian, more than 24 hours ago as the eye of the storm passed over Tortola, the largest of the islands that make up the British overseas territory.
Sarah, a lawyer, told HuffPost UK she and others are relying on “snippets” of information about the state of the island and the safety of those who remained from Facebook and Twitter, and spoke of people who are “out of their minds” worry.
One video circulating on social media shows flattened buildings and piles of debris as homes, trees and cars were damaged by the monster storm, with lines of communications wiped-out save for the occasional social media posts and emails.
French, British and Dutch rescuers have all rushed to the heavily damaged string of Caribbean islands that has left at least 13 people dead and thousands homeless as it spins toward Florida.
Sarah, who was on America’s west coast when the category five storm broke over the island, said a swiftly formed Facebook group, ‘BVI Abroad - Hurricane Irma’, is the principal forum for sharing the scraps of information people have.
On it, residents have been posting desperate appeals for the whereabouts of loved ones and pointing out videos of the catastrophe.
Sarah has received a message from the wife of one of her colleagues on the island saying Christian and their dogs are safe but “but there was no information about the state of the house, the state of the island, whether they had got shelter, water or anything”.
“Twitter was the only place where any coherent information seemed to be coming through that wasn’t focussed on Florida and Puerto Rico, which was ignoring the existence of BVI,” she said, adding TV news was “rapidly abandoned”.
Sarah, who has been in touch with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office informing them of those who are missing, says her frustration stems as much from the fact another massive storm, dubbed Hurricane Jose, could potentially follow Irma’s path. That would be potentially even more devastating given the destruction that has just been wrought on Tortola and its 23,000-population.
The UK Government has today responded by sending HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s flagship, to lead a group of helicopters, marines and engineers offering relief to the region, where it’s estimated around 50,000 British citizens live.
Sarah, who moved to the islands from London six months ago, said the situation is “heartbreakingly far from over”, and the “high anxiety” comes from a mistaken sense among some observers that the storm has “gone now”.
She has particular concern over finding people in the high and remote parts of the island beyond the main Road Town, and is desperate for details of an evacuation strategy if that is necessary.
She said: “Initially when things went quiet there was the feeling of panic. Now there is a pragmatism, solidarity and camaraderie.
“The problem is the absence of information and a place to go and what the options are. People are out of their minds with worry about their loved ones.
“There are rescuers supposed to be on their way, and we’d like to know what’s the time line, what’s the plan, when will it happen?”
Warships and military planes were dispatched with food, water and troops after the storm smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world’s most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations.
Hundreds of miles to the west, Florida braced for the onslaught, with forecasters warning Irma could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, punish the entire length of the state’s Atlantic coast and move into Georgia and South Carolina.