AS Hurricane Irma carved a path of devastation through the Caribbean, one Brisbane priest was keeping a close vigil.
Newly-appointed St Stephen’s Cathedral dean Fr Peter Brannelly, spent more than a decade – from 1995 until 2006- as pastor of the islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda and the people of the British Virgin Islands.
As Irma swept across the region, Fr Brannelly offered a prayer during Mass in Mary MacKillop Chapel, and soon after he was scanning the internet for news updates, particularly of the capital Road Town, and St William’s Church, which was built during his time there.
“If I hadn’t lived there myself it would be just another storm half way around the world,” he said.
“Having lived there and knowing a little of what they are going through.
“Hurricane Irma is real for me.
“It can be literally weeks before power gets back, telephone gets back.
“Schools will be closed down. Islands depend on fresh fruit coming in–.
“It depends on what facilities have been knocked about.”
Aerial video footage has shown widespread destruction on the east side of the island of Tortola – flattened buildings and piles of debris can be seen in every direction.
Nothing was spared on the island – with homes, trees and cars all damaged by the category 5 mega storm.
At least 20 people are believed to have been killed in the region as the storm ravaged the Caribbean, with a further three people dead on the British island of Antigua, Barbuda and the Dutch side of St Martin, four dead in the US Virgin Islands and nine on the French side of St Martin and St Barts.
Officials say they expect the death toll on the island to rise once they are able to begin recovery operations.
In Anguilla, officials reported extensive damage to the airport, hospitals, shelters and schools and said 90 percent of roads were impassable.
On Barbuda, nearly every building was damaged when the hurricane’s core crossed almost directly over the island.
About 60 per cent of its 1400 residents were left homeless.
Fr Brannelly described his former mission Diocese of St John-Basseterre (Antigua) as a close-knit Catholic community of about 3000 parishioners within the general British Virgin Island population of about 20,000.
“Everyone knows each other. And because we know that there’s no one else to come to help us, it’s up to ourselves as soon as a hurricane passes,” he said.
“They’ll all be out as soon as possible clearing up the roads and just trying to get life back to normal again.”
In 1995, within the first few weeks of arriving in the Virgin Islands, Fr Brannelly experienced two hurricanes and a bout of dengue fever.
“I haven’t been more terrified in my life,” he said of his first storm experience, Hurricane Marilyn.
“I lived in a small room above the church and with every gust (of wind) I thought the roof is going to go.
“In the end I went into the bathroom and just stayed there for three to four hours for the worst of it to pass.”
Global chaos claims thousands of untold lives
NATURAL disasters have shattered lives across the globe, with 40 million people in southern Asia devastated by floods, thousands homeless after Hurricane Irma smashed the US and Caribbean, and a massive earthquake rattled Mexico.
Entire villages across Bangladesh, India and Nepal remain submerged under water since the floods began last month.
Across Asia, 1.5 million homes were destroyed or damaged, along with thousands of schools, hospitals, roads and bridges.
More than 1300 people were killed in the floods. Aid agencies said up to 40 per cent of the dead were children.
In the US and the Caribbean, hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in churches and schools as they watch powerful winds tear down their homes.
History’s most powerful Atlantic storm tore nearly everything in its path except faith in humanity, as thousands continued to respond to the desperate pleas for help.
Response teams from Church agencies and charities have provided emergency relief, food, shelter, hygiene and livelihood support to those most hit by the disaster.
Those who could not physically donate their services to assisting residents destroyed by the disastrous storms turned to a greater source – prayer.
Pope Francis prayed for victims of Hurricane Irma and also interceded for the 96 people killed in the earthquake in Mexico.