ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS
Tuesday, Sept. 5: It was both riveting and frightening to watch the Weather Channel experts talking about Hurricane Irma. You could tell they were mesmerized by such a perfect and powerful weather formation but also concerned about the catastrophic devastation that would come with the perhaps unprecedented force with which this storm would slam into the Caribbean Islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and maybe later the U.S. mainland.
Here on St. Thomas in the USVI, we started preparing days out: Stocking up, boarding up and praying up. We knew it was going to be bad if Irma stayed her course.
After securing our businesses, schools, agencies as well as we could, most of us went home Tuesday evening to wherever we each were going to ride out the storm. On the drive home, I stopped on Skyline Drive for a look and a photo. One half of the sky was sunny and endless-summer blue and the other half was a gray and ominous — both heavenly and hellish at the same time — foreshadowing what was to come.
I had just moved from Red Hook on the East End of the island to a little yellow concrete cottage in a Caret Bay compound on the Northside of St. Thomas days before. I had spent the past week unpacking and decorating and almost had it presentable. Now I was preparing to hunker down in my downstairs concrete closet with an inflatable mattress, stocked cooler, food, electronics, battery-powered lighting and my little Yorkie, Savannah.
Patio furniture was inside both my downstairs bedroom and upstairs living area. All my clothes were out of the closet and piled on wicker chairs in front of the French doors through which I could see the plywood that had been bolted over them. My porch plants lined my stairwell, creating a little indoor jungle. The cottage was cozy but cave-like since all the windows had been shuttered.
Hurricanes are a waiting game. For days you know something is coming and time seems to crawl as you wait. I had kept myself preoccupied and bolstered over the long Labor Day weekend doing storm prep and by staying connected with friends all over the world on Facebook. I even requested they send me their favorite song titles so I could make a Hurricane Irma playlist for when I was later hunkered in my bunker.
Life is a daily celebration and since I didn’t know what the next day would bring, on Tuesday night I grilled a steak and opened one of the best bottles of wine I have ever owned, a gift from my dear brother. I was saving it for a notable occasion. I couldn’t think of anything more notable than surviving — or not — a Cat 5 hurricane on a small island. So I took an hour or so to simply be and to savor my indulgences and the quiet and try to get a good night’s rest. I could sense my world was about to change.
Wednesday, Sept. 6: As the sun came up the trees were all swaying and the proliferous bamboo in the neighborhood was clicking and clacking. I received a text early Wednesday morning from my new landlord to join him and his family and friends up the hill in his five-bedroom villa to ride out the coming hurricane that was still on course right toward us. I loaded a cooler, a couple changes of clothes, my computers and my pup into my Jeep Wrangler and headed up the hill.
There were 10 people and four dogs. We spent the morning outside in the concrete carport on the southwest side of the house.
The house blocked the winds coming out of the north and the east that were growing in intensity. We laughed. We talked. We huddled around an iPad with a weather app’s radar graphics tracking Irma closer and closer.
My hosts served up spaghetti, hospitality and support for the new gal who just moved to their hillside neighborhood. The scene could have been a Labor Day cookout gathering but for our preoccupation with the animated landscape and gusting winds that grew stronger and stronger and stronger.
With an SUV and my Jeep parked in half of the carport, some perched in the back of the SUV and I sat in my Jeep charging my cellphone. Windows were down. The radio was on as we listened to updates from the governor and local emergency officials.
As the morning and Irma marched on, many of us stayed outside even as the winds grew to tropical force with powerful gusts taking down two of three Australian pines that had stood century along the drive way for a long time. We remarked about how dry this storm seemed so far because it was mostly wind and no rain — in the beginning.
The tracking radar indicated that the eye of the storm would pass just a little north of St. Thomas so we looked to get the south wall of the hurricane eye.
We did. The rain started and winds really started gusting and we retreated inside to the safety of the boarded up concrete home that was our fortress for the day, built by Terry Jackson, as were most of the cottages and homes in the compound on our hill.
The next 2 1/2 hours were unlike anything I have seen and heard. The winds roared like freight trains. The water poured. First just on the metal roof. Then it started coming in windows, under doors and then through the roof itself. There were incredibly loud bangs and bams as trees and who knows what else crashed across the roof.
We were certain the metal roofing had peeled off, allowing the water to now stream from above. We put buckets and bowls around to catch as much water as possible and we spread beach towels all over the floors and started sopping up water.
It was a beach towel brigade. We sopped and mopped and then passed the towels to pairs waiting in the shower to wring them and toss them back out for more sopping. We did this for hours. We’d each stop to go to the front door of the house to peer out of the only unblocked window. I had to stand on top of a dog food can in order to see out and take photos and video. What we witnessed was horizontal rain, howling — or more like growling — winds and bowing trees and flying debris. It went on and on and on. There were “oohs” and “wows” and “oh my Gods” and more free flowing as we watched the wrath we could see through a square foot portal.
The roof would rumble and you just knew everyone in the room was praying for that roof to stay on. Thank God it did.
Those hours went by fast because we were so busy trying to keep the house from flooding.
Then by late afternoon the worst was over. There was still rain. There was still wind. But we knew we had survived. The house we were in had survived. But we didn’t know who else and what else had.
Probably before it was safe to do so, some of the guys donned foul weather gear and headed out to check on neighbors and all our homes on the hill. One young man had to dodge a flying piece of metal roof that came whirring toward him.
They came back with welcomed news — all of our homes were still standing. The roofs were on. And a family with kids in a nearby house were all safe. We still didn’t know much, but what we knew was better than expected. And in our hearts we knew that would not be the case for many on our island.
Around dusk, the wind and rain subsided. So we ventured out to survey our neighborhood.
It was a landscape of sheer devastation. While the Terry-built concrete cottages remained, the rainforest that once surrounded them did not. Broken and downed bamboo created a gnarled thicket down the roadway. Trees were down. Tin roof pieces and gutters littered the area.
I entered my cottage with hope and trepidation. Upstairs was fine; just littered with leaves and water that had blown through cracks and crevices. I walked downstairs expecting the same until I took the last step into ankle deep water. It was flooded — as was the closet I had planned to hide out in during the storm. Turns out being at the big house filled with neighbors instead of alone in a waterlogged, under-the-stairs closet was a much better choice!
Then I opened and stepped out the side laundry room door. I could not believe my eyes. My once limited view was wide open 180 degrees. The trees at back edge of my yard were stripped bare. The two grand palms trees at the corner of my porch — gone! As the winds swirled back out of the west, they knocked the giant palms straight down between the house below and the one next to mine.
I stopped to check on my neighbor, Patrick, who’d stayed hunkered down at home because he had a house full of dogs and cats. I was so relieved that all were fine.
As darkness came, true darkness since there was not a light to be seen except the beams of flashlights, some of us returned to our basecamp and some returned to their homes.
It was an early night for us all. After days of urgent preparation, anxious waiting and a day that was both “exciting and terrifying,” we were all alive and well. And sleep has never been so welcomed.
Former Times Publisher Charlotte D. Atkins is now publisher of Morris Caribbean Publications in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.