Anytime a natural disaster hits, it leaves so much more than physical destruction in its devastating path. It leaves people behind with absolute heartbreak from the loss of their homes, most prized possessions and even their loved ones.
However, when Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean, it left one community completely helpless and its trapped residents and tourists with a reign of absolute terror…
Hurricane Irma was the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The extremely powerful and catastrophic Cape Verde-type hurricane was the most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the United States since Katrina in 2005.
Irma developed from a tropical wave near the Cape Verde Islands on August 30, 2017 and within 24 hours became a Category 2 storm. Within a few days Irma was a Category 5, reaching its peak on September 6, with winds of 185 mph and high pressure…
Irma was the second major hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic season, developing just hours after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas, the U.S. and South America. The record-breaking storm caused much damage to islands in the Caribbean and Florida…
And it caused especially catastrophic damage to Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla, the Virgin Islands and wiping out Barbuda. By September 15, the nightmarish hurricane was responsible for at least 82 recorded deaths in the Caribbean and the United States, but for some unfortunate areas, the nightmare was only just beginning…
Just the Beginning
However, as residents of the Florida Keys and other damaged areas began to pick up the pieces that the storm destroyed, the people on some islands were still fearing for their lives in a much more terrifying way. And the worst part of all is that no one on the outside could know what was happening.
Welcome to Tortola
Of the more than 50 small isles that make up the British Virgin Islands, the largest is the island of Tortola, at just 21.5 square miles. It is also the most populated of all the British Virgin Islands with nearly 24,000 residents, many who live in the many city of Road Town…
The horseshoe-shaped harbor of Road Town is also the capital of the British Virgin Islands, making it home to many of its major business and putting it at the center of BVI’s tourism circuit. Europeans started settling in Road Town all the way back in 1612, making it also extremely rich in culture and history.
One of the oldest and most popular attractions in Road Town and all of Tortola is Her Majesty’s Prison in Balsam Ghut. Built by British settlers in 1775, HM Prison is one of the oldest-running prisons in the entire world until the decision came to turn it into a BVI museum in late 2016…
HM Prison is the most maximum security prison of all the British Virgin Islands and without anywhere for local authorities to house the museum plans would be put on hold and the current inmates would stay put. At least until Hurricane Irma hit the tiny island.
Terror on Tortola
The small and helpless British Virgin Islands were some of the hardest-hit during the devastating Hurricane Irma and with it came the destruction of most of Tortola. Thousands of people were trapped on tiny Tortola with nowhere to go but they would soon realize the terror was just beginning…
Hurricane Irma destroyed countless homes, churches, businesses, and schools on Tortola, sparing very little in its path. The monstrous hurricane also tore into the historic HM prison’s limestone walls, creating a nightmare for prison guards and a window for the dangerous convicts inside.
In the wake of the hurricane, the prison was left partially crumbled, giving the inmates a way to escape onto the tiny island. It was dangerous on the flooded streets, in the treacherous storm, but many prisoners decided it was worth risking their lives in Hurricane Irma than to stay locked up for life…
The prison guards were overwhelmed by the hundreds of convicts attempting their escape onto the streets and tried to create a barricade, holding them back for as long as they could. Unfortunately, even with guns and ammunition, they were completely overpowered and the guards eventually had to give in.
Paul Exner, a BVI resident and the president of the expedition firm Modern Geographic Sailing, said that the inmates were held back by armed guards for as long as possible but were eventually ‘let go’. More than 120 criminals quickly poured out onto the streets of Balsam Ghut, into the capital city of Road Town where so many were taking refuge…
Over half of Her Majesty’s dangerous prisoners escaped and according to foreign minister Sir Alan Duncan, they pose a “serious threat of the complete breakdown of law and order” on the British Virgin Islands. Many armed forces were rushed to Tortola to aid as residents feared for their lives.
Law and Order
Sir Alan also said marines from RFA Mounts Bay were used to “protect the Governor and everything else about law and order” after the hurricane hit. Police officers as far as the U.K. were also sent to their overseas territory to help aid in the BVI’s relief and keep residents safe…
With so many places to hide and so many dangerous escapees to track down, many who call Tortola and the BVI’s home feared this was the end of society as they knew it. One British ex-pat told The Telegraph, “The military is everywhere with machine guns. Everyone’s turned feral and no-one’s going out without being armed.”
“You can’t drive your car without a weapon, it’s turning really nasty,” she said. Other trapped British tourists said there were dangerous looters across the island’s many resorts as crime swept the small island. However, the military reacted swiftly to prevent lawlessness, looting and restore order in BVI…
A few days after the deadly storm hit BVI, Governor Augustus Jaspert said an operation to round up the escaped convicts on September 14 was successful. “An operation run by the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands Police officers, alongside the British Royal Marines and police, resulted in the capture of over 100 escaped criminals from the Balsam Ghut prison,” said the governor. At the time, he did not clarify how many were still on the run.
Time to Rebuild
“The government of the British Virgin Islands is extremely grateful to the police and military personnel for their tireless efforts, which have today resulted in a thorough and extremely successful operation,” Jaspert said. The governor added that the successful operation was a huge first step in the BVI’s government’s efforts to rebuild, but there is still a long way to go.