A report by Abby Ohlheiser for the Washington Post.
The last message Michelle Pickering heard from her mother on Tortola terrified her: “The porch roof fly off,” she said in a text. It was 12:58 p.m. on Wednesday, and the worst of Irma was about to hit the island where she grew up.
Pickering couldn’t sleep that night. In the morning, there was still nothing from her mother or her stepfather. “I tried calling my mom’s number about 20 times,” she said by phone on Friday from Georgia, where she now lives. “It’s nothing, just ringing and ringing and ringing.” Until Irma, Pickering spoke with her mother every day.
“I’m just devastated,” she said. “I’m terrified. What a way to end a text.”
Slowly, Pickering heard from one sibling on the island, and then another. Each said the island was destroyed, and it would be impossible for them to get to her mother’s house, which was on top of a hill in Cane Garden Bay, a different part of the island. So Pickering turned to Facebook to see if someone, anyone, had seen her mother.
“I’m looking for Ishmael Harrigan and wife in Cane Garden Bay on the hill. Please, please . . . help me. I’m worried!” she wrote. She was crying as she wrote it, but it felt good, in a way, to try to do something.
Her message was posted to a quickly-growing Facebook group, “BVI Abroad — Hurricane Irma,” where family members and friends with relatives in the British Virgin Islands were trying the best they could to get and share information. In the days after Irma hit, some heard short messages from their loved ones on Tortola. But for many, there has been only an eerie silence.
In 2017, we often take our ability to communicate instantly with one another for granted. Facebook allows us to peer through the baby pictures of near strangers from college with whom we are somehow still “friends.” Its Live Map is an effortless facilitator of global lurking: Just pick a country, pull up a feed and get a real-time view into a stranger’s life. This connectivity helped to drive rescue efforts in Texas in the aftermath of Harvey. But when Irma hit the Caribbean, its physical damage to the islands came paired with a near-total destruction of access to the technology that makes this possible.
As reports of the devastation on islands such as Tortola, St. Thomas, Barbuda and St. Martin trickled out, those abroad began to scour the Internet for clues of their loved ones — or for people who might be able to help them get some news.
Rob Browne was supposed to leave St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, on Thursday. He lives near Boston; the trip to St. Thomas was a short family vacation. When Irma hit, he was as lucky as someone could get trapped on a tropical island during a catastrophic storm. The house he’d rented was made of sturdy poured concrete, on top of a hill. And when the storm passed, he realized he was even luckier: His phone was getting access to data, enough to update his family and friends with a brief Facebook Live video. The connection was spotty, but it worked just well enough.
It also gave him bragging rights. He and his wife work for competing telecommunications companies. It was his company — AT&T — that still had a signal there.
Browne didn’t know it at the time, but he was one of the only people able to broadcast live from St. Thomas in the first hours after Irma did its worst. It didn’t take long for those abroad, looking for information on loved ones who were on the island, to find his stream.
“What side of the island are you on Rob? I’m looking for my Mom and stepdad on the South side near Bolongo Bay,” one comment on his Live video read.
Another: “Rob — are you near the Beachcomber Hotel near airport? Looking for friends husband who manages the hotel.”
And another: “Rob what side are you Im looking for my nephews they are in the south side in the Antilles School zone in Hawk hill rd please if you know somethig for that area i will reaally appreciate.”
Others sent him private messages, dozens of them, asking for help tracking down silent friends and relatives. He did what he could to help. “We had one guy down the street, his family was reaching out because he’s on dialysis,” Browne said in a phone interview on Friday (the man was okay). Some people just needed someone to talk to, so he did that, too, as he and his teenage son began clearing the road outside their home of debris.
Browne is a stranger to the island, but his spotty access to the Internet has helped him become a vital conduit for those looking for information on nearby families. When he gets a request, Browne pulls up the Waze app and looks to see how far the address in question is from his own. If he can get there, he tries. But the roads are blocked anywhere past a quarter mile from the house.
He can’t do much to help with many of the requests — people looking for news from the south side of the island, or even from one of the damaged houses across the water that he can see from the balcony of his rental. Just as those abroad are cut off from the island, the people on St. Thomas are similarly cut off from one another.
“I had a false sense of security,” Browne said. “We have phones, social media. When a storm like this hits, we’re back to very basic, neighbor-to-neighbor passing along information. It’s the old telephone game,” he said. There’s little concrete information in those passed-along messages. Many are rumors. He tries to be careful with what he tells the thousands who now watch his regular Live videos — he wouldn’t want to spread a message that was wrong.
Facebook has a feature — Safety Check — designed for situations like Irma, allowing people in the immediate area of a disaster to “check in” as safe. But Irma turned the islands back to a different era of communication: one before cellphones, when if the landlines were down you were out of luck.
So the administrators of “BVI Abroad — Hurricane Irma” created their own. On the islands hit by Irma, sometimes it was a stranger with a lucky connection who would know first whether a loved one was okay. The BVI Safety Check database has thousands of entries, some marked safe, some still looking for information.
One of the administrators of the Facebook group is Jenny Ruffell Smith, who grew up in the British Virgin Islands but now lives in Australia. Her mother, niece and older brother live on the islands. In the lead-up to Irma, they were in constant communication about the logistics of preparing for the storm. After Irma hit, Smith heard nothing for 24 hours.
“You want to be positive and hope for the best, but at the same time you’re also thinking the worst and feeling absolutely helpless half a world away from everything you know and love,” Smith said in an interview over Facebook Messenger. “I have never wanted to speak to my Mum as much as I do now.”
The first messages came from her brother and niece, through a group family chat on WhatsApp:
“Hi all only have WiFi for a second,” her niece wrote. “We had a major hit. Island looks destroyed from here. But mum Zach and I are safe.”
Her brother wrote: “Alive just. Total devastation. Lost everything.”
Later, she heard about her mother from a stranger who went door-to-door in her neighborhood checking on each house. The stranger found Smith on Facebook, and sent her a message, letting her know her mother was okay. Many hours later, her mother was able to send a text herself.
Others, like Pickering, are closely monitoring every feed from their home islands for information. Pickering figured out that people on Tortola were making their way to the two spots on the island that had WiFi to connect with the outside world. There’s a spot in Road Town, and another outside of a telecommunications building. She views messages coming in from these places, hoping to spot someone who might know her mom or live nearby.
“If you know that they live next to somebody that you know, you ask them, ‘hey is so and so okay?’,” she said.
On Sunday, a day after Tortola’s near miss with Hurricane Jose, Pickering had still heard nothing from her mother or stepfather. “They probably are not aware of the wifi spots on the island,” she said in a Facebook message. “That’s what I choose to think. Hopefully that’s the reason.”