Vanessa King describes Hurricane Irma as the beast that swept in from the ocean and attacked her island home.
“The hurricane was a living thing, and the sound of the wind was like an animal howling at our door,” she said.
King and her family huddled in a bedroom as 185 mph gusts ripped off the roof of their condo in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands on the island of Tortola. Afterward, when they surveyed houses reduced to sticks and hillsides shorn of vegetation, “It looked like a giant had walked across the island and mashed everything,” she said.
The BVI was one of the hardest-hit Caribbean victims of Category 5 Irma. Four people died during the storm. Four and a half months later, major parts of the British Overseas Territory famed as a sailing and diving paradise and offshore tax haven still lack electricity. Displaced residents like King have been unable to move back into their homes. Businesses and hotels under repair can’t reopen. Marinas and beachside villages were destroyed. Lush natural areas were stripped bare.
To raise funds and awareness of BVI’s plight, a team of runners is competing in Sunday’s Fitbit Miami Marathon and Half Marathon under the name 54 Strong, signifying the 54 islands that make up the volcanic archipelago. Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada are the four largest islands. Some are tiny coral rock spits. Necker and Mosquito islands are owned by BVI’s most prominent resident, Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson, who hunkered down with his staff in his wine cellar during the storm. He has called upon the British government to bankroll a massive rebuilding plan.
The BVI running community wanted to help with recovery and decided to band together for Miami’s signature race rather than try to host a large event in Tortola, which took a direct hit from Irma and was swiped by Hurricane Maria two weeks later. Their uniforms bear the image of a tattered BVI flag.
“There’s a real small-town, close-knit spirit on the islands and people are keen to look out for one another,” said Martin Cooke, who organized the group with Melisa Johnson. “Such a dreadful run of luck since August, when flash floods swamped the capital. Many people have lost everything.”
Said Johnson, who has relocated to the Cayman Islands: “It was a traumatic, heartbreaking experience, but the sense of family has not been broken.”
Colm Rafferty, who plans to run his first full marathon in Miami, recalled scrambling around his rental house atop Windy Hill in Tortola during Irma, tying ropes to door handles and barricading windows with mattresses.
“At the peak of it, we felt like we were in the middle of a car wash, the trees were crashing down and avocados were flying like missiles,” he said. “The next day we cleared our way out with machetes and axes and walked down to Cane Garden Bay, where it looked like a bomb had exploded. The bars were down to their foundations, the church was gone, and 100 cars were piled on top of each other.”
Rafferty, who works for a trust company and has been traveling back and forth from Grand Cayman, said his exercise regimen was disrupted, but over the past seven weeks he has tried to be “quite disciplined” in preparing for Miami.
“I would have trained quite differently if not for Irma but this is really a prime opportunity to contribute toward getting the islands back to normality,” he said.
Jasmine Wong, who evacuated to Grand Cayman, said she misses training on BVI’s rugged hills — she’s previously competed in the annual 54-kilometer (33.5-mile) Tortola Torture run — and doing her favorite routes, such as Smugglers’ Cove and Prison Loop.
“It’s a bit boring here compared to the intensity back home,” said Wong, who will run the half marathon.
Tameka Davis, a commercial litigator for Conyers Dill and Pearman in BVI, said she wants to “use my legs to make a statement on the need to continue supporting these truly magical islands.”
“For 12 hours we were at Irma’s mercy and for 48 hours after impact it seemed no one cared,” said Davis, who took cover in a closet with her dog in her lap during the storm “in utter terror and unsure whether that day would be my last.” She will run the full marathon and be accompanied part of the way by twin sister Tanesha, a physician, who will run the half. They once ran the New York City Marathon together to raise money for Doctors Without Borders.
Davis said her running program has been chaotically challenging since Irma. When she had no power and no running water, exercise was low on the priority list.
“The absence of street lights and deteriorated road conditions meant that running felt like I was a participant in Grand Theft Auto without the Auto Theft but certainly Grand,” she joked. “There were unpredictable moments and near-death experiences. If Irma didn’t take me out, then there is a certain poetic quality about nearly being run over by a garbage truck while training to raise funds.
“Pure heart will get me across the finish line on Sunday.”
54 Strong member King decided to stay after Irma so she could assist the governor’s office in relief efforts.
“At first we felt cut off by the outside world and were desperate to know if friends on the other side of the island were alive or hurt,” she said. “Thousands of people just left. I wanted to help.”
She and her family lost their furniture, clothes, keepsakes. Her husband, Julian Johnson, lost seven of the 10 boats in his charter fleet. She was only able to save a few toys for Nate, 4. They relocated to Nanny Cay when their condo had to be gutted, and they can’t move back in until summer — at the start of the 2018 hurricane season.
Running, difficult as it was, became her therapy despite exhausting days of cleanup, a curfew, swarms of insects, and road obstacles such as potholes, debris, fallen trees and power poles.
King, an attorney, ran the BVI Half Marathon last month. The course was reduced to a series of loops, “but we wanted to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here!’ ” she said.
Only last week was King able to do a 10-mile run on the main road.
“Normally I’d be doing those long runs every week for months, so I may have to walk or crawl to the finish in Miami,” said King, who survived Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 in her native Jamaica, but described Irma as “Gilbert on steroids.”
King said she has cried many times since Sept. 6 — once when British soldiers arrived in rescue helicopters and gave her a thumbs-up, once when she went by boat to picturesque North Sound only to find it wrecked.
But the ravages to BVI’s beauty are only temporary.
“One morning while running on the side of the road that was not a mess and that had a view, I realized that the sunrise was still spectacular and the color of the sea still took my breath away,” King said. “The sun was my cheerleader as I stopped and said, ‘Yeah. We still have it.’ ”