In 2016 Brian Cole moved to Saint Maarten looking for a fresh start. What he got instead was a new appreciation for life.
He had accepted a position as a teacher and assistant manager at a private music school in the Dutch territory, and the prospects of a new beginning with new challenges were appealing.
So Staff Sargeant Cole, a reserve in the Barbados Defence Force (BDF), packed his bags and headed for the island which is shared with French St Martin. There, in addition to teaching and helping to run the institution, he was also involved in curriculum development for both the school and the country’s Ministry of Education.
He was looking forward to the second year after a brief vacation at home this summer, but it was not to be. Disaster struck in the form of Category 5 Hurricane Irma on September 6.
In an interview with Barbados TODAY, Cole said he had prepared for the storm, but he could not have imagined what was to come.
“At about 15 minutes before the eye came, the entire house, [started to go] ‘crack, crack, crack’. The concrete and wood, the metal buckled, and the entire top of the apartment pushed off the ground floor. At that point I said, ‘boy Brian you done’, because the house is there coming at me, everything.
“Then it just stopped. What happened is there was a minibus parked below the apartment . . . and piece of the frame hit that and pretty much held the weight of everything. And so, I ended up in a nice little cavern and I said ‘Lord have mercy. Thank you’.
“I just stayed there. It didn’t make any sense trying to get out; the hurricane was still picking up and it was still pulling at things. Everybody downstairs was outside frantic but I told them I good, I staying here till it calm down.
“It calmed down and then I grabbed what bags I could reach and I climbed out and went downstairs. The other guy in the other apartment, he survived and he made his way down as well, and we spent the rest of the hurricane downstairs,” he recounted.
“You can plan, you can prepare, but there are things about these natural disasters that are unexplainable. I was showing my daughter; she gave me a mug for my birthday only in July. That mug survived and every other plate and cup that was with that mug was broken to pieces.”
The destruction left behind by Irma was widespread, and there were tales of desperation and heartbreak across the island.
“I know a family that hunkered down in their bathroom and everything around the bathroom blown away. So when they came out during the eye . . . I got pictures of people standing on their rubble, just staring, ain’t know what to do. Those were the hard times down there,” he said.
Despite the destruction, the Barbadian recounted some positives.
He has kept in touch with his landlord and former neighbours, explaining that the storm had brought them closer.
“Everybody just put together all their supplies and it wasn’t ‘those are my supplies’, it became our supplies. And so, we lived like a family for the week or so I was there after the hurricane. “Everybody cut down on the amount of meals. We only had about two meals a day. We were fortunate that we had a lot of rainwater caught in the big 400-gallon drums, the neighbours came over and got some water as well.”
Cole spent another week on the island before he was evacuated by the Regional Security System (RSS) along with two Barbadian women.
“We were met at the airport by Barbados Defence Force (BDF) personnel, most of whom I knew. The two young ladies they wouldn’t have known them. But just being met by someone saying, ‘don’t worry about your bags, we are here to greet you, meet you, welcome you home’. If you need to get home we’ll help you. Something like that meant so much to each of us,” he said.
Cole has been a reserve for the past 24 years, and since his return home has been assigned to the Reception Staging, Outward Movement and Integration (RSOI) team. He also credits for BDF for helping him get back on his feet after the hurricane.
Cole admitted he did not plan to return home just yet, and had expected to spend five to ten years in Saint Maarten. However, the soldier and teacher has since immersed himself in his new duties.
“One of the roles has been as liaison officer with the British and Canadian soldiers, essentially providing any logistical support they need while they’re here. We’ve also been going to the airport meeting any evacuees, and pretty much doing the same thing that was done for me.
“It’s like me giving back in a way. It was done for me and now I get the opportunity to do it for others. And who better to meet you at the airport than someone who has recently experienced some of what you have been through?”
Cole is also a member of the BDF’s musical band, and serves as second-in-to the director of music.
Given his hurricane experience, Cole impressed upon Barbadians the need to take disaster preparedness more seriously, even though the island has largely been spared over the years.
“The last major hurricane was Janet. We do have a recollection somewhat of an experience, but not a major experience. And I think because of that we take disaster preparedness for granted,” he noted.
Hurricane Irma has also changed his perspective on life.
“I try to treat people with a lot more kindness. I’ve never been the person to really stress about things, but there’s a peace and contentment in my life that I didn’t have prior to the hurricane.”
He told Barbados TODAY that speaking about his experience as “therapeutic”, and he was just happy to be alive.
“I don’t dwell on what I don’t have. I only got two pairs of shoes, alright. They got some people out there that ain’t got none. I good. I good.”