Instead of writing a long drawn out introduction, I'm just going to leave this here. Raw. Unedited. Untouched... since October.
"It began just like any other vacation. We planned it only a couple of months ahead of time. We didn't want to wait until February to use our new bathroom. We were going to St Thomas to our little slice of paradise, our second home, in October until I said "Oh! Let's go for my birthday!" The flights and prices were in our favor. Just like that, I was celebrating my 33rd birthday in my favorite place, the United States Virgin Islands. Little did we know our lives would change.
Wait a minute, this story starts in 2013 with our first trip to the USVI where we fell in love with the beauty and culture of the islands. St Thomas and St John immediately held a large part of our hearts. We visited again in 2014 and chose to spend our honeymoon on St John in 2016. We immersed ourselves in the real life of the islands and not the tourist attractions. We went where the locals went and said "I could live here." It truly felt like home. This thought became a little more when we decided we would buy our first piece of property in the USVI and own a vacation home. After thinking long and hard we decided we were moving. We found Starfish Hideaway in October 2016; it was perfect. We bought it without seeing it in person, but we knew it was right. We closed on November 30th and saw our home for the first time on December 2nd. We were correct, it was perfect. We set a tentative plan to move in July 2017. The day we booked our vacation was the day we decided to delay our move one year. Shortly after that day, the move was pushed off indefinitely due to some personal reasons.
Fast forward approximately 6 weeks after booking the trip to when we invited my friend Ari, the day Woody met her. Long story short:
Woody - "Think Ari would want to come to St Thomas with us?"
Me - "Ari, want to come to St Thomas the first week of September?"
Ari - "Yeah!"
Me - "Cool, let me know."
Ari - "This is me letting you know!"
Not even 24 hours later, she booked her flight. Coincidentally on the same flight and in the same row we were booked.
Woody wanted to celebrate my birthday a little bigger and booked us an overnight on Virgin Gorda for Wednesday-Thursday. We learned about the Love City Triathlon on St John the day after we arrived, signed up. Booked SUP yoga for Monday. Hiking on St John Tuesday. We were going to have the best time! And then 5 days before we were leaving, out of nowhere, a hurricane was going to hit in the Caribbean. It was too early to tell what was going to happen, but we followed it closely. It was still too soon to tell what the newly named Irma was going to do, so we decided to carry on as planned.
Saturday we were greeted by the familiar clear blue waters, bright green mountains, humidity that hugs you, and rum shots. We grabbed a cab with 8 strangers who were about to experience the beauty that is the USVI for the first time. On the way to the first hotel drop off another car swiped the side view mirror delaying us slightly. It didn't matter. We arrived at our condo, packed a bag, then headed to St John for the pre race meeting. The ferry ride was calming as always as we admired the vast oceans and islands. Upon arriving at the dock we were again greeted by rum shots, headed to Beach Bar for a drink/snack, checked into our hotel, attended the meeting, ate dinner at The Tap Room, and then ran up the hill that is North Shore Road to watch sunset. It's one of our favorite activities on St John, so Ari needed go experience it. The sun was slightly obstructed by the thick, fluffy clouds, but the vivid colors that shone around them were breathtaking as always. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing, enjoying the view of St Thomas from the bar of Ocean 362 at Gallow's Point, and getting ready for our Aquathlon (swim/run) in the morning.
Sunday morning we were awakened at 5am by the sounds of our alarms, ready for the day. I was scared of the ocean swim, but ready to take it on. I practiced the half mile swim and 4 mile run at the gym; I was ready. There was a small storm coming that day, so we were prepared for a wet race. It rained a little in the morning while we hung out in the lobby with fellow racers before boarding an open air taxi that would take us to Maho Bay. On the way to the beach we drove past many deer and donkeys on the road; another favorite part of St John. The bay was as serene as I remembered it from February, the sun glistening off of the water. I felt pretty confident about the race with a little anxiety in the back of my mind. We set up our transition area, checked in, got our race markings, and chatted with more racers. The race director, Matt, went over the the swim with me again since I was nervous and warned me that it was a little rougher than normal. The triathletes started at 7:08am and we started our swim 30 minutes later. The swim didn't go as well for me as I had hoped, unfortunately. About one third of the way through the first lap my anxiety got the best of me. Luckily, Surfer Gary and a wonderful woman paddled to me in their kayak while I calmed my breath. I knew I wouldn't safely make another lap, so I called the swim after 1 lap. Woody swam backwards a bit to make sure I was okay before helping me in until I could stand. I felt defeated, angry, disappointed, and proud that I didn't force myself to finish. Matt said that we could still go out for the run which made me feel better because I knew I could crush that 4 miles. Woody and I started running together until the first hill where we walked for a bit. Once I was ready, I started running and finished the run strong. Woody finished strong as well and Ari crushed her race wearing "58", the year both of her late parents were born. We relaxed at Maho until our open air taxi arrived to take us back to Cruz Bay. After lunch at Beach Bar we hiked over to Caneel Bay for snorkeling with a quick stop at Honeymoon Beach. As we entered the path at Honeymoon a "herd" of donkeys came running from the parallel path. We were so excited as we've been waiting years to encounter these beautiful creatures in nature. Snorkeling at Caneel included seeing tons of colorful coral and fish and stingrays. After a couple of protein bars in the ocean we decided it was time to head back to Cruz Bay Landing for dinner and then head back to St Thomas and Starfish Hideaway after picking up a few things at Moe's Fresh Market.
It was also on Sunday that Irma's path became a little more clear and I sent our good friend Pat a message that said "On a scale of 1-10, who's place is safer in a hurricane? Yours or ours?" He quickly responded, without hesitation "Hmmmm I'm gonna say ours since yours was annihilated last time. Want our keys?" They're apartment is on the first floor of a very sturdy building that is built into the side of a south facing mountain. Ours is directly on the the north facing shoreline of a peninsula on the second floor of a wooden structure. It was a no brainer, we were staying at their place. Rumor was that the ports/ferries would be shutting down Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, so we decided to head over Monday afternoon. Over the next few days, Pat was great with communicating things he heard from island friends as well as giving us other tips about how to prepare as we had no idea what we were doing really. Woody continued to closely monitor Irma's path and size as at one point she was on Latitude 18... which also happens to be the name of the bar less than half of a mile of our house, located on Latitude 18.
Monday morning I received an early text message that our SUP yoga was cancelled because the instructor needed to secure her boards and was going to refund our money. I started to get more nervous. We decided to catch a late afternoon ferry so we could enjoy our Labor Day with coffee and breakfast on the deck followed by swimming, photo shoots, lunch, and a workout at the Ritz Beach. It was a great day! We returned to Starfish Hideaway to clear the porch, tape the sliding glass doors, close the storm shutters, and pack a bag for a few days. I don't think we really knew what was about to happen. We planned to still do our hike on St John since we were sleeping over, beach days, and get in a couple of workouts since Pat has a bunch of equipment. We had so many plans for "normal life during the hurricane". We packed a small bag since we thought we would return to St Thomas Friday morning.
We ran into a few St John friends after arriving back before going to Dolphin Mart up the hill for some provisions. This grocery trip was a little different than normal; we couldn't buy fresh foods. We thought we would buy frozen chicken forgetting that supplies on an island are different. We mulled over what to get and settled with water, broccoli, hummus, cereal, almond milk, bananas, deli meat, pickles, popcorn, canned tuna, and Pop Tarts. We prepped the apartment a little bit before having a delicious dinner and drinks at Morgan's Mango. This is when it really hit us all... The bartender, Mack, told us that the owner was afraid there wasn't going to be a restaurant after the storm. He had seen what happened during Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn. We made sure to enjoy what could have been our last warm meal for a while and enjoy the company around us. After dinner, Ari and I needed to get out some energy so we stopped to play at the park before heading back to the apartment where we set up a small circuit of jump rope, push ups, tricep dips, bent over rows, bicep curls, and physio ball crunches. An evening of laughing and sweating was exactly what we needed. I can't speak for Ari, but I know it calmed my nerves.
Tuesday morning after breakfast we prepped a little more of the apartment before taking a mental health break to hike to Solomon Beach. This was especially important knowing that we would be stuck in the house for at least the next 24-36 hours. It was even better than we could have imagined. As we emerged from the wooded trail the most stunning beach view was before our eyes. The white sand, multi colored blue water, clear skies, and seemingly planted palm trees blew us away. The placement of the palm trees lead to another photo shoot which lead to more laughs. The water temperature was the perfect temperature despite the atypical roughness and alternating warmth and coolness. Ari found a coconut that we included in the photos. Woody picked us little, yellow flowers. We sunbathed and continued to take photos. With the impending storm growing stronger, more powerful I couldn't help but become more anxious inside. I knew that a piece of my heart was about to be destroyed along with homes and lives of people I knew, or didn't, but cared about all the same. While all of these thoughts ran through my head I was incredibly happy to see Ari enjoying herself in such a carefree manner. I knew Woody was also getting anxious because he waded in the ocean quietly for quite some time. It's hard to describe the feelings and thoughts going through my head that day - this is about as close as I can get. Knowing that something so terrible was about to happen, however, there is nothing you can do to stop it makes you feel helpless.
We packed up our beach party so that we could finish preparing the apartment, grab a few more supplies, and make sure we got some lunch/dinner. Unfortunately, by the time we got back to Cruz Bay landing they were closing. We were lucky enough to get some cold brew coffee though. After a quick trip to the store for water we ended up at The Tap Room again being helped by Casey. Since it was lunch time we ended up getting some food to go as well so that we could have dinner not from a can or box. The entire Cruz Bay area was in a flurry, rightfully so. Back to the apartment for some final touches we went. There was a rumor that cell service was going to be shut down at 5pm Tuesday night, so we all let everyone know our location and what was going on. Luckily, this rumor ended up not being true and we were able to communicate with friends/family for the entire evening. The sliding glass doors were all taped, the curtain rods were taped to the ceilings/walls, the curtains taped to the walls to protect the screens from flying out, the couch was pushed against the sliding glass doors and curtains to try protect the glass from flying across the room, used towels were made easily accessible in case water came in, we stocked up on water, we stocked up on water for "showers" and toilet flushing because once the power is out there is no more running water. We decided that the safest place if things got bad going to be the closet next to the front door. All three of us could fit in it and it had a door to protect us from projectiles. We also planned that at a certain point when it seemed possible for a window to break we all needed to have sneakers on.
I think what I forgot to mention earlier is that Wednesday, September 6th was my 33rd birthday which during the preparations, the hurricane, and the aftermath I also forgot. This was also the day that Irma was scheduled to hit. I wasn't about to let her completely ruin my birthday though! Tuesday night Ari and I had an 80's dance party in the living room and I made myself chocolate oatmeal protein pancakes for breakfast on Wednesday morning. The amount of laughter that ensued that night is unbelievable.
Irma was scheduled to hit St John some time early Wednesday morning, so we thought it would be best to pull the futon mattress into the bedroom for Ari to sleep on while Woody and I took the bed. I set an alarm for 7am to make sure at least one of us got up before things got to bad. It was windy, rainy, and not too bad. But, at approximately 7:30am there was a big gust of wind and with that we lost power and consequently water and internet.. Ari slept in while Woody and I prepared some coffee and lemon water. It was getting stuffy in the house quickly with no AC, so he and I went outside for a few minutes to enjoy the breeze and light rain. I cheers-ed Irma with my lemon water and said "Please be nice" ... and then remembered it was also my birthday. I made my birthday pancake concoction layering my chocolate protein pancakes with Justin's vanilla almond butter and topping it with bananas. Woody made me a birthday mimosa in a party martini glass. We took pictures to document the day. Even though we weren't going to Virgin Gorda I was still going to get some "me" celebrating. Once Ari woke up, we all enjoyed the pancakes. Despite the inflicted curfew, Woody and I ventured out to the store that said he would be open to find some batteries since we realized we had forgotten to get them. The store wasn't open and we got caught by a woman in a fire truck.... oops. We took a hurricane selfie and headed back into the house. I think this was when I accidentally walked in Liz's apartment on the floor above us and scared the crap out of both of us. Thankfully, she did have some batteries! She also gave us some candles to get by.
Slowly and steadily the winds were picking up. We watched the trees protecting us from the brunt of the winds for a while. By 11am it was no longer just gusts, they were sustained strong winds with gusts. Ari and I again needed to get out some energy and picked up some weights. Full body circuit for her and silly me says "I'm going to do 1000 kettle bell swings today". I guess I still thought I was going to be able to hang out in the living room. Workouts started at exactly 12pm and lasted roughly 1 hour. As I did my kettlebell swings and bent over rows, Woody and I monitored the strength of the winds. I could sense his concern and at about 12:45 he told me to put on my shoes and fifteen minutes later he said it was time to get in the closet. Things were escalating quickly.
In the time between putting on my shoes and getting in the closet, we began seeing water coming into the living room, so I shoved a towel under the couch to the bottom of the sliders. Next, it was coming into the bedroom - towels there too. Then, it was coming in through the front door. Water was coming down the walls in the bathroom. We were chasing the water with towels, but it was coming in quicker than we could stop it. And at this point secured the futon mattress in the doorway of the bedroom to block us from glass should the sliders in the bedroom explode.
That morning we had thrown the couch cushions on the floor so we weren't sitting on tile. We grabbed some food and supplies for the closet and Ari was the first to hop in. Before I headed in, I made a stop in the kitchen. I knew I was going to be there for a while, so I needed a drink. Woody came out to the kitchen as I was grabbing the vodka and said "What are you doing? What could possibly be more important right now?!" I replied "Than what?!" "Getting in the closet!" "Vodka, I need vodka before I get in that closet!!" In full disclosure, I also grabbed my leftover salad from the day before. In hindsight, I don't regret this. I didn't feel unsafe at that point or at least at in the moment it didn't feel unsafe. I also needed something to calm my nerves; vodka and OJ it was. Booze in one hand, food in the other, I sat my butt next to Ari in the closet and prepared for what would be the longest and fastest 6 or 7 hours of my life.
The timeline of what happened over the course of that time is a blur, however, I know that between 1:30 and 2pm we became exposed to the elements. Ari and I sat huddled in a ball while Woody stoody guard holding the closet door, watching the storm intensify. I sipped my vodka/OJ listening to the banging and winds get louder. Water continued to flow into the closet. Woody continued to watch the events unfolding, describing things to us and reporting at one point that he couldn’t see more than 1ft outside of the sliding glass doors. As he stared out the window he described it bending in a way he had never seen glass bend before until the wind blew so hard, for so long that it bend the window until it couldn’t withstand the pressure. Right before his eyes, the sliding glass door exploded into the living room pushing the couch about a foot from the wall. A noise so loud you felt it. For the first time, Ari and I screamed, began crying, and held each other tight. At this point, Woody silently and quickly got into the closet, closing the door, stating “That was the slider, we’re in here now.”
I remembered reading that WAPA (Water and Power Authority) said the storm would be at its worst 2-3pm. I kept looking at my watch waiting for 2pm to come. I don’t know why I wanted it to be 2pm, but I guess I thought that maybe we would get an hour of terror and be done. I incessantly looked at my watch and just as predicted, right around 2pm it got really bad. The thrashing of the trees and the howling of the winds. Sounds from movies. Nothing you ever think you will hear in real life. That broken sliding glass door exposed our shelter to all of the rains and winds that Irma was dishing out. We heard boxes being thrown around along with trees snapping and banging. I continued checking the time even though it made no difference at all. 3pm came and went, but Irma was unrelenting. I remember saying it sounded like it was raining inside, so we carefully peeked out where we could see the bedroom. Sure enough, it was raining in the bedroom. At the time we didn’t know what happened, but the 2nd floor apartment must have flood so much that it leaked into our ceiling. Eventually, after it was darker in the house, that piece of ceiling collapsed onto the floor.
In the midst of the whipping winds, we heard a woman scream. It seemed she was screaming for help. It is an awful feeling knowing someone could be in severe danger, but you can’t help them. We cried for her.
We continued to stay in the closet trying to distract ourselves as much as we could. Telling jokes that had accumulated in the days before. Woody continued to peek out of the closet and monitor the elements that were now inside the house. As the winds came into the house, it was harder for him to hold the door safely. Luckily, there was a shop vac in the closet, so he carefully put it in the top center of the door and pulled it shut with that.
As we sat in the closet, the water that was entering through the front door started pooling under us in the closet until it was about 1.5-2 inches deep. Before too long we were soaked from the waist down. We heard more “raining” in the house, only to find out that it was another hole in the ceiling, but this time the living room. We later heard that piece of ceiling collapse as well. With the water bubbling in other parts of the ceiling, the light bulb in front of the closet began filling with water. Woody prepared us for this in case it came crashing down. We continued to sit as the hurricane did it’s damage.
For hours Irma ripped and screamed and banged as we sat closed off from her misery.
As the storm intensity escalated and the pressure grew, our ears began to pop as if were ascending or descending in a plane. It kept getting worse and it felt like there was no end in sight.
Despite checking my watch incessantly, I can’t remember how many hours we sat there before the storm began to calm a bit. This scared us more. Knowing that the eye of the storm is pretty calm, we assumed that it was over us. We left the closet to quickly run to the bathroom without shutting the door not knowing how long it would be safe for. In this couple of minutes, we scanned the rooms to see that the damage was mighty. As we stood in the living room for a moment, a bird flew in. He stopped on the couch, looked around the room, and then flew away. We all have someone from our lives who has passed and knew that this bird was them checking in on us.
We went back in the closet with provisions for making us all a bloody mary. After some time, Woody needed to sit because the stress of standing for hours became too much. Again, we rigged up the cord of the shop vac by tying it to the water bag that was against the front door and pulling it against the door to keep it shut.
I think we maybe had about 30-40 minutes of “calm” before Irma’s wrath reared its ugly head again, this time even worse than before. The sounds coming from outside got the scariest and loudest they had been all day. The winds mimicked the “helicopter” noise you hear when you have only one window down driving along the highway but the volume of that wind is turned up to 70. The banging as metal was thrown around, the howling, the winds screaming, the tree on the window still rustling and scraping… sounds that I wish I had more words to describe, but can never be unheard. At this point we felt the walls moving. I had never felt more scared in my life. I thought to myself “This is it. This is where it ends.” I sat in that closet for who knows how long, eyes closed, crying, praying to a God I wasn’t even sure I believed in and asking him to let us live. When I couldn’t listen anymore, I grabbed my headphones and put on Matisyahu. I needed to drown out what was happening around me and listening to him takes me to my happy place. I listened to Jimmy Buffett because it was calming. I played solitaire for HOURS. Again, despite checking my watch, I still have no idea how much time actually went by. I remember thinking that if I just knew what time it was, I could get through it.
We spent our time standing and sitting periodically. One time when Woody moved, I realized that the wall behind him was caving in. We now had to worry that the walls and ceiling around us were going to cave. We repeatedly took a flashlight to the ceiling of the closet checking that the few moisture bubbles that had formed did not get bigger. We monitored those outside of the closet as well.
I continued to pray. Things were deteriorating quickly and we didn’t know how long we would be stuck in that closet.
The winds gradually began calming and oddly the water bubbles in the ceiling began receding. We thought “Could Irma be letting up?!”
After 7pm, things seemed that they had calmed for a decent amount of time and we emerged from the closet. We slowly stepped out into what had become a war zone. The once clean and tidy apartment was now covered in water, debri, and glass. It was dark and only illuminated by our headlamps. We slowly surveyed to find inches of water pooled in the kitchen. A tree branch wedged against the bathroom window. The silence, deafening.
We moved the futon mattress that was in the bedroom door to the open sliding window, pushed the couch against it, and wedged two brooms between to hold it up. We were lucky that the bed was not wet giving us a place to sleep after covering it with towels and a sheet. Ari went to sleep almost immediately which I was thankful for. Woody set up a camping chair in a central location so that he could keep an eye on us as well as the open door. He decompressed and drank because he didn’t need to be on alert any more. I changed out of my soaking wet clothes into the one pair of dry shorts I had and laid in bed, continuing to play solitaire, listen to Matisyahu, and cried off and on. My mind and body weren’t sure what had just happened, but I knew I lived through it. I kept hearing that woman’s voice screaming and the winds and the banging. Woody brought me ice and water and a wet towel. I tried to relax the best I could in the hot, humid room not fully knowing what had happened outside.
With three of us snuggled in a bed, you can imagine that you don’t get very good sleep not to mention trying to forget what we lived through. I awoke the next morning hoping that the events from the day before were just a terrible nightmare. I looked out the window and was wrong. I stood on the balcony surveying the devastation that was now St John. The beautiful green scenery now looked like New England in November. The lush green mountainsides were replaced with brown. The view of the bay that was once blocked by flowing palm trees was now perfectly visible. The boats that were missing from the bay were not sadly strewn about the land. The paradise that I that I had fallen in love with was now a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Despite the curfew, Woody went out to investigate. He ran into our friend TJ who was also out. They didn’t make it very far before a police officer threatened to arrest them for violating curfew. Upon his return to the apartment, we sipped the bit coffee that was left before going out to explore as well, but not as far. We wandered down the path to the boat dock which was previously lined by trees blocking the view of the bay as well… again, you could see right to the bay revealing boats washed up on land. Ari and Woody ended up getting slight roaming cell service there, just enough to let family members know we were alive. We continued exploring the area around us at the Virgin Islands Park and Dock. Again, I have no words to describe the things that my eyes saw. Boats flipped, palm trees ripped from the ground, signs blown many feet from where they should be, a dinner cruise boat on the dock with the dock lodged into the front, steel barriers and pieces of roof bent and hanging from power lines, roofs missing, buildings leveled, power lines strewn across the road. After taking a few pictures, we went back to the apartment to clean and regroup before walking down to Cruz Bay. Woody had heard that there were boats inside of Wharfside (the big group of restaurants/stores in Cruz Bay) and with nothing else do be doing we let our curiosity get the best of us.
After having a small breakfast of cereal and almond milk, we spent the morning moving furniture, sweeping glass, removing water from floors, rearranging belongs, removing debris, compiling towels, and trying to give our friends home as much of a normal look as we could. It was not perfect, but it was livable for now. Once we felt that we did as much as we could we started our trip to Cruz Bay.
As we walked we encountered many people who were also violating curfew, but no police officers to arrest anyone. We saw people clearly in shock, people crying, hugging, and everyone saying to others “I’m glad you’re safe.” It didn’t matter who you were, everyone was glad you were safe. We felt the same way. The more we walked, the more devastation we encountered. Cruz Bay was a mess and as Woody heard, there were boats basically in Wharfside. Four large sailboats, two or three smaller boats, and parts of boats. On the other side of the ferry dock, two smaller boats were not only washed onto shore they were partly buried in the sand.
We began walking around to find TJ starting to clear away debris from Cruz Bay Landing. We chatted with him for a moment to find out he brought his personal generator to the restaurant to keep it going as to not waste the food. He was clearing a path and the restaurant, so that he could open the next morning to feed the island. During the ninety minutes we were with TJ and Willis cleaning, many others came by to say hello and help clear the way. Despite the devastation that was on the island the community was still strong. During this time we heard that the bar 420 to Center (a Boston bar) was giving out free booze and made that our next stop after I jumped in the ocean.
We walked in to find many other locals and some tourists all enjoying the generously poured liquor and beers. The (definitely drunk) and heavy handed bartender informed us that he was indeed not a bartender, but a chef. The bartenders rotated, but the vibe was the same. Everyone checked in to see how their home or shelter stood up to the storm and made sure you were safe. Everyone was immediately a friend. We met people from right around the corner from us as well as people who lived very far. We met people who had been on island for years and some for just a few days. We stayed at the bar for hours drinking away our sorrows and shock. After 3 or 4 vodka drinks we headed back to the apartment thinking we would be sharing wings with TJ. We got back only to learn that he had eaten with the neighbor, but also that Sun Dog Cafe had Wifi. Before heading there Ari and I changed into Jackie’s clothes and Pat’s shoes because we had nothing clean or dry. When we left for St John on Monday we truly thought we’d return a few days later. Turns out that Sun Dog not only had Wifi, but they were also giving out free booze. You can see how this island copes… I mean, what else can you do in this situation.
If you know me, I’m not a huge drinker. This is what I needed though. The bartender told us they were doing shots and beer, so “Stoli O!” it was. I then informed Pat that we were safe as well as a couple of other folks, made a friend at the bar, grabbed a drink to go, and headed back to the apartment to have snacks for dinner. I wish I could remember what it was we ate, but I’ll be honest with you, I was too drunk to remember. I do remember it was dark and I couldn’t sleep in the capris. I searched the drawers of the dresser next to the bed to find shorts to sleep in. It was hot and the mosquitos had already began making their home in the apartment.
A good night sleep was not on the agenda for Thursday night either. I woke up to realize that Woody was not next to me in the bed and I panicked. I ran into the living room to find him safely on the couch. I got up multiple times that night and went out onto the deck. I knew that 420 was going to be turned into a Red Cross headquarters and from where I was could hear the sounds of the generator. I stood on the porch seeing the light from 420 and not much else. The sounds of helicopters flying by. As I stood there, sweating, feeling sick from a belly full of vodka in nothing but too big shorts and a sports bra it hit me. This was what it was like to be in a war zone. This is what it feels like to have nothing and nowhere to go. This is what it feels like to be in a third world country. There were people with no homes and no food. There were sick people who may not make it.
I woke up many times that night and did the same thing. Even though you’re living the nightmare, you still can’t believe it’s real. You never think that you’ll be in a dwelling, exposed to the elements, unable to flush a toilet or take a shower. You never think you’ll need to ration drinking water and food. You never think you won’t be able to freely use your phone because you need to preserve the battery because it could be days before you can use it. You never think to yourself “I need to be at X place at X time to make sure I get a hot meal today.” And that’s what life was. I stood on that balcony thinking and began to cry. To my surprise, I felt a pair of arms wrap around me. It was Ari, she wasn’t sleeping well either and joined me on the deck. We eventually laid back down and tried to get some rest.
Friday morning, after “taking a shower” Woody woke me to let me know he was heading down to Cruz Bay Landing to help TJ make breakfast. I got up shortly after and wandered the house picking up miscellaneous clothing items that needed to be hung out to dry. I couldn’t find my wallet, but remembered giving it to Woody the day before when we were cleaning up at the restaurant. Eventually, Ari woke up and we headed down to get breakfast. Woody was walking back to get us as we headed down. He explained to us what was going on, how many people had already been fed, and that he got fired from toast duty because he wasn’t fast enough. Having never worked in the restaurant industry he did the best he could. We arrived to find a very long line of many grateful people. Despite my sunglasses and hat, the bright sun pierced my hungover eyes. We stood there patiently waiting for what could have been our only hot meal of the day, but enjoyed it along with the company of the community, warm cup of coffee, and a toilet we could flush.
We went back to the apartment to gather our charging devices and my phone. Woody didn’t have it. I searched the entire apartment, closet, and bags panicking because it was nowhere to be found. Eventually accepting that I must have left it at the bar the night before. I cried again - it contained my credit cards, ID, money, cell phone… EVERYTHING. And just when I was about to sob, Woody pulled my wallet out of a hidden spot in the closet. My super drunk self was either mischievous or was putting it in a very safe place. Needless to say, I decided getting that drunk again wasn’t a good idea.
We headed back to Cruz Bay Landing for a little over an hour. At breakfast we learned that there was a meeting at noon at The Tap Room at Mongoose Junction. A structure that some how withstood the storm. This meeting was meant to be a staff meeting that quickly grew to a town meeting. It was nice to hear updates and learn about the little bit that was going on. It was sad to hear that despite whatever efforts were being sent, St John was last on the list. The clean up was being done by St John Rescue as well as the people who live there. Sure, there were helicopters that were flying above, but not much help was being given. The hospital had been evacuated, but otherwise we were stuck. The woman told us the airport was gone. The ferries wouldn’t be opening and even if they could, there was another storm coming that weekend, so there was no point in untying the boats. A lot of information was given, but the part that struck me was when she said we were all screwed. We were stuck on that tiny island of St John with no way to get out in the foreseeable future unless you had a medical emergency. That’s when I got really scared.
We didn’t know how long we were going to be in this situation. We didn’t know when we were getting home. In desperate situations like this, people can be violent. And as selfish as I know this sounds because there were people who had no home, I wanted to be home. I wanted to check on my home on St Thomas. The island was destroyed and there was another storm coming not even a day later. I was stuck and suffocating quickly. I removed myself from the group and walked down the hall. Woody told me later he didn’t run after me because he knew I needed a minute, but as I stood there trying not to collapse, my new friend Willis came by and asked if I was okay. I said no, so he asked what was wrong. I know this sounds silly, but at that point you never know. I said “I’m scared.” He went on to comfort me and tell me how resilient the island is. He told me that the impending storm wouldn’t be as bad as the one that I had already lived through. He talked to me and made me laugh. It was just what I needed.
After the meeting, we grabbed a backpack before taking a walk around the roads. We wanted to explore and hopefully find water since we knew we weren’t going anywhere any time soon. We went through Cruz Bay and as we approached the small store at Gallow’s Point we were surprised to find that it was open. We each grabbed a gallon of water and also a few cans of tuna. Woody and I had never gone beyond Gallow’s Point, so we continued our walk to the lookout right after the resort. I’m not sure if it was always a lookout, but it was now. We were quickly greeted by a telephone or electrical pole blocking our path on the road and a few others who did not live on island. After chatting with them for a few, making sure they were okay, and learning their story, we decided it was best to not continue on the road, but instead to turn around and head back. We stopped at the beach in front of the restaurants in Wharfside for a “shower” and relaxing. A kid we met the day before and his father ended up joining us as well. We spent a bit of time there and even though it was only 2 days after the hurricane, it felt like it had been a week.
A little before 3pm we decided it was time to go back to the apartment… I can’t remember why since there was nothing to do, but before we left I checked my phone to see if I had service. This few minute delay was the difference between the improbable events that ensued and us truly being stuck on St John.
As we exited the beach onto the street, our new friend Dan was running up the street in the opposite direction. He jokingly asked if we knew of anyone trying to get off of the island and then informed us that there was a private boat coming to the VI Park Dock at 4pm to take people to Puerto Rico and it was $40 per person. “First come, first served be there early and have your paperwork.” We thanked and hugged him and said “see you again soon!” as he ran up to a resort to tell others. It was a few minutes after 3pm. We high tailed it back to the apartment, tidied up the best we could, grabbed our belongings, brought as much inside as possible, and Woody secured the piece of plywood we found outside to the wall in front of the slider before we ran down to the dock. We arrived at 3:30pm to find only a few other people waiting.
We stood quietly unsure if we were in the right spot until others also began arriving. We overheard someone say it was for women and children only and a response of “What is this the Titanic?!” We refused to move even though 4pm came and went. We stood waiting for a boat we weren’t sure was even going to arrive, but the the idea of that boat taking us away from disaster we were in was greater than anything else. It was confirmed that the boat was taking pregnant women and children first. We weren’t moving.
4:30pm, still no boat. One of the restaurants was going to be serving dinner that night, Woody mentioned not wanting to miss that if the boat wasn’t coming. I refused to leave and said we could eat tuna if we had to. People came and went; at times it was hard to tell who was waiting for the boat and who was just company.
Eventually, at around 5:00pm the boat arrived! It only held 40 passengers. They sorted us out and took the pregnant women, women with children, and their immediate families. One of the people organizing asked if there was anyway anyone could wait until the next morning when the next boat came as there were only 26 seats left. A woman came to him and said “Let’s count how many people are here before we make them upset!”
There were 26 people in line. We were all getting on that boat.
We boarded the boat in good faith that it was taking us to Puerto Rico, but truthfully, we had no idea where it was taking us. We knew it couldn’t be worse than where we were. I got cell phone service as we passed by St Thomas. Turning my phone on to see 33 text messages, numerous voicemails, and 113 Facebook notifications. I responded to the texts that were most important and let folks know I was indeed alive. The wonders of technology… the social media alerts were people wishing me a happy birthday, making sure we were okay, and my brother in law and best friend updating the world about us.
They provided us with coke and ginger snaps as the boat crossed the ocean and the sun set behind us. The captain let us know that upon arrival to Fajardo they had arranged for a charter bus to take us to San Juan. We immediately booked a hotel. They told us they were in touch with customs ahead of time and passed a notepad around to collect our information.
Approximately 2 hours after leaving St John, we arrived in Fajardo, exited the boat in groups of 10 only to wait in line. It was dark and after a dog sniffed our bags we had a customs check at a picnic table via flashlight and laptop before boarding the bus. Straight to the back we went, Ari in the seat in front of me. Woody made friends with a couple near us. Our bartender and his family in the seats next to Woody. He didn’t realize it when they were talking and “Mack” told him they lost everything.
After the bus was loaded, we began our trek to San Juan. I sat staring out the window of a bus I, again, wasn’t sure was taking me where they said they would, but didn’t care. The bus was quiet. I stared out the window at the almost pitch black world as it zoomed past me with random pops of bright gas stations. I was tired, smelly, and still in shock. I had no idea if our home on St Thomas made it. I didn’t know how our friends on St Thomas fared. I didn’t know when I would get back to my bed. But, what I did know is that I was going to have A bed that night without the biting of mosquitoes. I was going to be able to take a shower.
We arrived at the hotel a little before 11:00pm to find that the lobby of our hotel turns into a nightclub on Friday nights.
The words I am using to describe what I saw and what I felt do not do it justice. It’s truly indescribable."