After Irma, boy from Tortola comes to Parker Academy

  • Rochelle Lawrence talks about life on Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, after Hurricane Irma on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, during a visit to the Gaffney family in Amherst. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Rey Lawrence, 11, and his mother, Rochelle Lawrence, talk on Saturday about how Rey will stay in New Hampshire and attend school while his family rebuilds back in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, after destruction caused by Hurricane Irma. Elizabeth Frantz photos / Monitor staff

  • Rochelle Lawrence shows her son Rey, 11, and Sean Gaffney videos of Hurricane Irma damage from the Lawrence's hometown on Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, during a stay at the Gaffney's home in Amherst on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Rey will stay with the Gaffneys and attend Parker Academy in Concord while his family rebuilds back home. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Rey Lawrence sits for a photo in his room at the Gaffrey family home in Amherst.

  • Rey Lawrence expresses how he feels about attending school at Parker Academy in Concord while his family rebuilds back home in Tortola after Hurricane Irma. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, October 07, 2017

While it received little coverage in the American media, the British Virgin Islands, and in particular, Tortola, the region’s largest island, were one of the places hardest-hit by Hurricane Irma.

But at home in Amherst, Missy Gaffney worried desperately as one of the strongest Atlantic storms in recorded history barreled through the island. She was thinking about Sylvia Forbes, the friend she’d met at the Nanny Cay marina on Tortola when she was just 14 – more than 30 years ago – and Forbes’s daughter, Rochelle Lawrence, and 11-year-old grandson, Rey.

“We were frantically trying to get in touch with them to make sure they were okay. And you really didn’t hear much on the news about Tortola, so we really had no idea,” she said.

Eventually, Lawrence got in touch through the messaging app WhatsApp. Everyone was alright, she said, and their house had escaped largely unscathed – in steep contrast to the world around them.

“There is no Road Town,” she wrote, referring to the nearby city and the territory’s capital.

That’s when Gaffney made an offer: why not come and stay in New Hampshire?

Lawrence declined, deciding her place was on the island, helping to rebuild. But Rey, she said – he’d like to stay for awhile.

Many schools on Tortola have been completely destroyed, and those that remain standing are often being used as shelters, Lawrence said, sitting at the Gaffney’s kitchen table on Saturday. And while the government on the islands have started pitching tents to offer some schooling to elementary-age students, it’s unclear when anything resembling a normal education will be back online.

Gaffney said she reached out to the local school district in Amherst but was told Rey couldn’t attend because the Gaffneys weren’t his legal guardians, unless they went to court or paid tuition. But Parker Academy, a private school in Concord where Gaffney’s daughter, Hannah, is enrolled, offered to take Rey free of cost.

Gaffney’s mother put a call out on social media, and a friend offered to pay for Lawrence’s trip off the island. Twenty-one days after Irma, Lawrence landed in Boston.

Lawrence lives near Road Town in a house built into a hillside overlooking Sea Cow Bay and the Nanny Cay marina.

The hill protected Lawrence’s home, which only suffered some water damage. But the perch also provided her panoramic views of an apocalyptic landscape when the storm finally passed.

Lawrence recalled seeing houses stripped of their roofs – or wiped from their foundations – boats flung onto land, and cars flipped upside down. She could once see the house she grew up in from her home on the hill. It’s gone.

“We were just so scared. It’s like you woke up one day and a missile just dropped on your island and everything is gone. There’s no telephone, no running water, nothing,” she said.

With so much destroyed, what’s left is disorienting. Lawrence recalled staring at scattered debris at the bottom of the hill, knowing something was gone, but being completely unable to recall what it was. It was a while before she remembered the Catholic church she had passed every day.

“For goodness’s sake,” she thought at the time.

Irma’s eye slammed into Tortola when the record-breaking storm was at its strongest, packing 185 mph winds. The premier of the British Virgin Islands said last week that nearly a quarter of the territory’s population had been displaced by the hurricane, according to news reports.

A month out from the storm, life on the island is in limbo. Lawrence said there are long lines for everything – food, fuel and cash – and while many essential government workers are back at their posts, most businesses remain shuttered. Like many on Tortola, she has neither electricity nor running water, and she doesn’t expect power back until at least March. And there’s a curfew in place at night.

“I think the biggest thing that I hold onto to keep me mentally going is that maybe my house was in the 5 percent that was spared so that I could help other people,” she said.

All told, Lawrence said she’s doing alright. But she has her moments. While in New Hampshire, which she’ll leave on Tuesday, she’s been reveling in small comforts – lingering, for example, in air-conditioned grocery store aisles.

“There’s water that comes from a shower now? There’s flushable toilets? These are the little things I appreciate,” she said.

Rey has been at Parker Academy since Monday, and loves it. Both he and his mother touted the individual attention the small school is able to give him.

Lawrence said she’ll keep Rey in New Hampshire until the school system on the island is back up and running. Her son, on the other hand, has other plans.

“I’m staying for college. I’m not going to leave here. The only time I’ll leave is for my vacation,” he said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)