The calm after the storm

Edmonds Elementary welcomes fifth-grader Matthew Riegels, forced to evacuate his home with his mother after Hurricane Irma
By Brian Soergel | Oct 11, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Edmonds Elementary School teacher Jennifer Anderson, left, with Matthew Riegels and his mother, Lisa.

Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 monster that swept through the Caribbean before pummeling Florida last month, upended the lives of Lisa and Colin Riegels and their son Matthew, who rode out the storm from their home in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands.

But Lisa and 10-year-old Matthew have found some solace in Edmonds after evacuating with Colin’s urging. He’s a managing partner with Harneys, a leading international offshore law firm with offices worldwide, who stayed behind to focus his energy on restoring services to residents.

Several days after the storm, when they finally managed to reach family in Edmonds, the Riegels learned that Lisa’s mother, longtime Edmonds resident Bodil Irene Arsvold, had been diagnosed with cancer and taken to Swedish Edmonds hospital.

Lisa and Matthew were going to travel to England, their second home and where Matthew’s 16-year-old brother attends boarding school, but Bodil’s diagnosis changed plans.

Through a huge evacuation effort by her husband’s firm, mother and son were airlifted to Puerto Rico and then on to Seattle and, eventually, Edmonds.

Now Lisa – who grew up in Ballard with her family and attended Nathan Hale High School – had to bring some sense of normalcy to her son’s life. So she contacted Edmonds Elementary principal Brett Hagen and asked if she could get Matthew registered, even though school had already begun.

No problem.

“We were excited to welcome Matt to the school community,” Hagen said.

“The school has been amazing,” Lisa said. “Within days, they had Matthew registered and ready for school. They even helped me organize the one vaccine he was missing. It’s so good to get him back to a normal routine after all he has been through with Irma, and now his grandmother.”

Matthew’s fifth-grade teacher is Jennifer Anderson. “Our students and the community are very welcoming, so it was a fairly easy transition,” she said. “Matthew only missed a couple of days. He’s doing well in school, and the kids like him.”

Matthew likes it in Edmonds, too.

“I fit in good,” he said. “I like math, I like science and I like music.” But he’s still a kid. What he’s really looking forward to is Halloween in downtown Edmonds, which he’s experienced before. “Even the dogs have costumes on. It’s great.”

The school’s welcoming was a relief for Lisa. It’s been a difficult year for the Arsvold family, which just lost their dad, 94-year-old Torstein, in May.

“But for every gray cloud there is a silver lining, and in our case the hurricane evacuation has meant that Lisa is here to help care for our mom,” said Al Tomson, Lisa’s brother and general manager of the Edmonds company Morgan Mechanical. With two more brothers, John and Ray Arsvold, in Edmonds and Brier, and sister Tovi in Burlington, plus numerous nieces and nephews, the family is close and supportive.

Hurricane Irma

On Sept. 6, the largest-ever recorded hurricane tore through the Caribbean, its eye directly impacting the small British territory of Tortola. Just about every building was damaged, many were destroyed and more than a few obliterated.

“On the once lush landscape, not a single leaf remains and every tree is broken,” Lisa said. “Where there was once green, there is now brown – and debris. Debris everywhere. Building material, telephone poles, cables, boats, cars, personal belongings – entire lives were scattered and ruined.”

The Riegels were fortunate that their house was damaged, but is recoverable.

“I’m proud to say it is currently housing several who have lost everything,” Lisa said. “During the storm, it held and kept us safe. We did not have the harrowing experience that so many have described – surviving in bathrooms, closets, holding mattresses over their children, huddled in the last standing corner of a building getting smacked by wind and pelting rain. In our case, we had the fear of those things happening , but I cannot pretend to know the horror firsthand.”

The Riegels’ house sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet.

“It’s great to avoid flooding, but not so great for exposure to wind,” Lisa said. “And in the case of Irma, it was the wind that was so ferocious. Our house is a bit old-fashioned, a solid concrete mass, and thank goodness for that. And thank goodness we were spared any of the mini-tornados that spun around in the storm and destroyed properties just a stone’s throw away.”

The Riegels’ plan was to start the storm hunkered upstairs in the main portion of the house, where they could manage leaks, mop up floors and keep an eye on things.

“We were fortunate the storm was expected storm during daylight,” Lisa said. “I can’t imagine how much scarier it would have been in the dark. If things got dangerous, we planned to retreat to the basement, where we had stashed passports, tools, food and emergency supplies.

“We also tied a safety line all around the house from the basement sliding glass door to the carport, thinking that our final retreat was the car.”

Days before Irma hit, the Riegels had stocked up on supplies – food, water, fuel, batteries. They stashed all outside items and lashed and secured those they couldn’t move.

“My husband even disconnected our outdoor utility sink, which at the time I thought was silly, but just as well he did,” Lisa said. “It was ripped off the wall and lost to the wind – and that was from under the house in a protected area only open on one side. The storage cabinet next to it, filled with all the loose items we had collected up and tied down, was also scooped up, smashed against a fence post and all contents thrown out.”

On Sept. 6, the Riegels awoke to clouds and dry conditions – the proverbial calm before the storm.

“We’d been through hurricanes before, but really didn’t know what to expect with this one,” Lisa said. “And as it turns out, a Category 5 is nothing like a Category 4. It’s nothing like anything you’ve ever seen before. Sort of like how a 7.0 earthquake is magnitudes greater than a 6.0.”

By 8 a.m., winds intensified. Rain seeped into the house. Lisa and Colin paced, crossed their fingers and watched as trees whipped back and forth outside. Then branches snapped off. By 11 a.m., their young mahogany trees were pulled out by their roots and half a mango tree disappeared. By noon, they watched as winds tore a streetlight from a pole right outside their driveway.

“At this point there was a significant increase in wind, and we heard loud popping,” Lisa said. “I thought it was the screws coming out of the galvanized roofing, that we were going to lose our roof.

“We moved downstairs. It turns out it was the gutters blowing off, but at the time it felt a lot scarier than that. I dumped as much of our remaining food and water as I could into containers and took them downstairs.

“As all hell broke loose, we starting cutting boards to fit the downstairs doorway, thinking that if the roof goes, the stairwell will fill with water. So we boarded the door and placed sandbags in front of it.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but that intensity was the eye wall passing right over us.”

By 1 p.m., all was silent, still as early morning and just as misty.

“As the mist lifted, what we saw was incomprehensible,” Lisa said. “First we saw broken trees. Then neighbors as they came out and called out to each other, checking on damage and safety, making sure no one needed rescuing, reminding each other this wasn’t the end, but only the first half with the more destructive half to come.

“We had about 30 minutes to reassess, make repairs and get back indoors. The wind picked up very quickly.

“I now understand why they say never to stray far in the eye. There is no time to prepare for the other side – you are in the maelstrom immediately. This time from the south, and even more ferocious. We watched the remnants of the pergola blown in the opposite direction, steel brackets and all. I don’t remember much of this part of the storm – I think my mind has blocked it out.”

During the eye, the Riegels discovered that all the side windows on both cars had blown in – so much for their final retreat plan.

“We also discovered that we had lost the roof of our front porch, and it had fallen against the house,” Riegels said. “Fortunately, those windows had been boarded so the glass didn’t break. But the posts had been pulled so violently, that the concrete columns holding them shattered and the footings partially pulled out of the ground. In the second half of the storm, that same structure was then lifted and thrown over the house, landing next to our carport, hitting the roof of the main house twice as it cartwheeled.”

Today, some ask why the Riegels didn’t evacuate before Irma hit.

“We knew it was out there, but you never really know the track until it’s too late,” Lisa said. “No more boats, no more planes, no other way out. But to be honest, we never considered leaving. Most hurricanes turn north before they reach the Virgin Islands, or pass south of us. We build for storms, with impact-resistant glass, concrete structures, standby generators. We aren’t stupid. We thought we were prepared. We have always been fortunate to be just outside the normal path. But not this time.

“We just didn’t expect what we got. No one could have. No one has ever seen anything like this. And we certainly did not expect to be in the eye of the biggest hurricane ever.”

In the end, Irma killed six people in Tortola. Lisa said she is sure the island will rebuild, even though it may be months before electricity is fully restored.

“The community spirit is amazing,” she said. “It kills me not to be part of it, in the thick of it, doing what I can. But I know my place is here in Edmonds with my mom and my family right now, and maintaining a safe and normal life for my son. So many people in the British Virgin Islands and around the world are putting together all sorts of relief and support.

“The BVI is a special place with special people. When you’ve lived there, a little bit of it stays with you always, no matter where you go in this great big world. And now, with this disaster, those ties are pulling, pulling together and making things happen.

“It’s uplifting to see what’s going on. I don’t know how we will recover, but I know we will. It is a Herculean task just to get rid of the debris, let alone find the resources to rebuild. But piece by piece, inch by inch, setback after setback, we will move forward.”


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