Dauria Wattley, a 12-year-old British Virgin Islands evacuee staying in Frank Sound and attending Triple C school in George Town, knows well the effects of a hurricane after seeing her hometown in British Virgin Islands battered first by Hurricane Irma and then by Hurricane Maria.
She lived through the September storms with her mother, uncle and sister in a three-story apartment complex in Virgin Gorda.
“Once you hear a hurricane is coming, be ready, get prepared; don’t wait until the last minute to board up and say you’re going to shop. Prepare for days, don’t take it lightly, it can be devastating,” Dauria advises.
She arrived in Cayman in late September and is staying with her cousin Conway King and his wife Joylyn in Frank Sound. The Kings say Dauria is settling in well and is adjusting to her new school.
Many students on Virgin Gorda were not only left without a home but without a place to attend school.
Recalling the events in her hometown and her move to Grand Cayman, she is both excited and grateful.
‘The whole island was flattened’
“People did not start to take the hurricane seriously until late night,” Dauria said. “Where we lived, the landlord boarded up our windows in the night, and before early morning people were still boarding up when the hurricane slammed the island around 8 or 9 o’clock.”
She said she managed to sleep through most of Hurricane Irma, but went outside as the eye of the storm passed over the island. She could see downed light poles, uprooted trees, electrical wires crisscrossing the road and debris scattered everywhere. Then the hurricane was back.
When the storm finally passed, Dauria’s neighbor’s house was gone. She said she stood on the hill and saw the whole island was swept bare, no trees could be seen, roofs were gone, car windows were smashed, and stoves, refrigerators and boats littered the place.
“The whole island was flattened,” she said. “We went to visit my cousin who lived above us and we had to crawl and climb over light poles, electrical wires, trees and other debris.”
She said a house at the bottom of her road was destroyed, all that was left standing was a fridge and stove in the middle of the yard. “I don’t know what happened to the people who lived there,” she said.
“I wanted to cry when I saw my grandmother’s house. The roof was off the kitchen and bedroom and a lot of stuff on the porch was gone … a fridge was standing in the front yard.”
She saw people walking with babies in arms heading to the shelters.
“There was no [electricity] and it was dark … people were crying. The next morning, I awoke early to see if it really was that bad. It was shocking,” Dauria said.
However, she admits that her experience riding out the storm was not as bad as for many others, who lost their homes and their belongings.
But the storm did have one upside, she said – bringing the community together.
“People who never talk to each other were talking to one another walking on the road,” she said.
According to Mr. King, who is also from the BVI, Virgin Gorda is a small community. Only about 5,000 people lived there before the storm, but many have evacuated and currently only 2,000 people remain, he said.
“Just picture Cayman Brac and it’s similar in size. The main port is the seaport so there are lots of boats on the water,” he said.
Recovery projects are under way across Virgin Gorda and other islands in BVI damaged in the storm. The community created a committee and with the help of some millionaires and billionaires who own property there, electricity has been fully restored, he said.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson visited Virgin Gorda shortly after the storm passed. During the storm, he had remained on nearby Necker Island, which was also badly damaged in the hurricane. His Virgin Unite foundation is coordinating raising money for longer-term reconstruction projects for BVI.
Two weeks after Hurricane Irma, the BVI was struck by a second category 5 storm, Maria, which brought with it more flooding and high winds, adding to the destruction Irma had already wrought.
Moving to Cayman
After the hurricanes, Dauria said, she wanted to leave BVI to go to her aunt’s home in Atlanta but that was not an option because she was not a U.S. citizen, her family suggested she go to Cayman instead.
But that would also have its challenges. There were no commercial flights coming out of Virgin Gorda following the storm. Mr. King contacted one of the firms bringing people to Cayman to work, and Dauria was able to get on a charter flight from the BVI.
She says Cayman reminds her of home. “Gorda is very flat and it feels just like Cayman, very quiet. Even the food is very similar but there is so many fast food restaurants on this island,” Dauria said.
According to Mr. King, the BVI government years ago made an agreement with local restaurants not to have international fast food chains.
“You won’t find Wendy’s, Burger King, Kentucky or Popeye’s on Virgin Gorda or any BVI island. Locals take advantage of that niche and put their own twist on fast food,” he said.
Dauria’s first day at Triple C School also felt like home, she said, ”just a different environment and much larger,” she said.
Dauria says it’s a good school and she likes her teachers. Her favorite subjects are mathematics and home economics.
Her school back home Bregado Flin Virgin Gorda, which has a primary and a secondary school, was badly damaged in the hurricanes and students were unable to immediately return to classes.
“We had just finished summer break in August to return to school in September when the hurricane came,” Dauria said.
She can stay in Cayman for 60 days, after which there is an evaluation process for extension, according to Mr. King.