Maine native Bobbi Walton, who now lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was bracing Tuesday for the arrival of Category 5 hurricane Irma.
Walton is from Houlton, but graduated from Brewer High School in 1987, and moved to St. Thomas nearly five years ago. She spent the day finishing preparations, which included stocking up on supplies, making an emergency plan with her co-workers and stockpiling water.
“Down here, you can’t stock your fridge because if the power goes out, here there is no snowbank,” she said. “You stock up on Carnation milk, you stock up on water: Water to drink and gallons of water to cook with. Hopefully, you have a gas stove.”
Walton worked at Eastern Maine Medical Center for 19 years as a surgical technician and also served in the Maine Air Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor for 13 years.
She now lives on the north side of St. Thomas in a cement block home, and spent part of Tuesday getting every bucket she could find and filling it with water from her cistern, a basement tank that collects rainwater, which she will use for everything except drinking, if needed.
“All of that is pretty much done,” she said Tuesday afternoon, just as the waters around the islands started to show whitecaps, the first sign that a storm is coming.
Unlike Hurricane Harvey, which caused massive flooding in Texas, islanders are more concerned about the winds and landslides.
“It’s very, very hilly,” Walton said of the tourist destination where she lives, and works as a waitress. “The land can only take so much water.”
The last Category 5 storm to hit the Virgin Islands was Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, which knocked out power to parts of the island for nearly a year, Walton said.
A co-worker and her son who live in a wooden house are also staying with Walton during the storm, but “her grandparents refuse to leave,” Walton said. “That is another problem. If they get hit, they’re stuck.”
“What they recommend [for people who have a roof collapse or otherwise lose their shelter] is wrap yourself in garbage bags, and hide under your car,” she said.
Irma — with winds in excess of 185 miles per hour — became the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin, outside of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The wind speeds are well above the 157 mph threshold for a Category 5 hurricane, according to the NHC, which also announced Tuesday that Tropical Storm Jose is following closely behind Irma.
Irma, on Tuesday, was churning away about 225 miles east of the Virgin Islands and nearby Puerto Rico.
“They’re telling us the eye of the storm should hit around 2 p.m. [Wednesday] and the eye is going to be 40 to 45 miles north of us,” Walton said. “We aren’t going to have a direct hit, but things could change.”
Forecast projections show Irma travelling west through the Caribbean and then turning north. Meteorologists are predicting the storm will not lose power until it hits the U.S. mainland, expected this weekend.
“The sea water is very, very hot … and the clearer the skies are the better the environment for the storm to get worse,” said Walton.
So the fact that she could see Puerto Rico, located about 111 miles away, on Tuesday was not a good sign.
“That is a bad omen,” Walton said.
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