On September 6th, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Territory island, St. Thomas, as a Category 5 hurricane. My fiance, Gabriel Rocheleau, and I were in the middle of that storm with our dog, Petri, for more than seven hours straight. We lost everything.
We lived on the northern most peninsula of the island, called Peterborg. Our front door faced west, with very little cover from the brunt of the winds. Our landlord took until the night before the storm to finish putting back up wooden shutters he had taken down to paint, nailing plywood up on windows that wouldn't shut, and cleaning up a rat's nest of machetes, pitchforks, and other projectiles with a neighborhood effort. We thought about staying in our neighbor's cottage because we felt so unsafe in our apartment. Everyone told us it wasn't going to hit until it did.
We hid in what we now call "the safe room" for the entirety of the storm, coming out only to check on the winds and our neighbors when we dared. We experienced moderate flooding in all rooms from leaky doors and the pool above us immediately. The wind picked up, and an hour later, water started seeping through the four-inch front door. Gabriel heard a creak and ordered us back in the safe room. Moments later, the front door lock broke and slammed open, breaking open the safe room door in two and exposing us to the elements. Gabriel closed the door the best he could, barricading it with an Army tough box, and threw me and Petri behind two concrete support pillars with a futon mattress on top. We stayed there for five and a half hours, sweating in the stagnant heat and singing songs about going home. We literally thought we were going to die.
The storm finally died down and we surveyed the damage. The front door had blown in, blowing the gardens outside our door throughout the living room and kitchen. An inch to two inches of mud covered the entire floor, and everything in that room was encased in a sticky, gray goop. Massive flooding covered all the floors, including the master bedroom where a sliding glass window had blown in on top of the bed. All of our clothing and sheets were drenched. All electronics, rugs, personal items, kitchen supplies, and dog things were ruined.
The next two days we went exploring the peninsula and trying to make a plan. Phone and Internet services were extremely limited by cell, so we had little to no information about the rest of the island. We lived off MREs Gabriel had packed. I put my foot in my mouth for laughing at him for bringing them to St. Thomas. We shared everything we could with neighbors, from shoes and socks, to toiletries, food, medicine, and precious car battery. Our neighbors fared worse than we did. Their entire cottage was essentially gone. The same one we almost spent the night in. Luckily they weren't in it, and had a separate place to stay. We had no generator (the landlord never hooked it up), and water doesn't pump from the cistern without power, so no water either. For two days, we lived in disgusting, hot squalor in our ruined apartment. Our landlord made it through relatively unscathed upstairs with only minor flooding. No one offered to help us, feed us, or house us. Gabriel and I spent two days trying to find a way off the point, but 25 tons of debris blocked us from the nearest road three miles away. Emergency services all but laughed at us when we called and could get through. Family and friends in the States tried their best, but had limited resources.
Finally, we had to move. A woman on the point who was allergic to bees got stung and needed immediate medical assistance. We tried calling the National Guard, Red Cross, Coast Guard, and 911 for an air evac, and got nowhere. They told us to hike out, three miles down the point, raising the patient's heart rate and potentially killing her after her epinephine shot wore off. No one on the point cared. Not even the registered nurse we were with. That is until some people stopped to check in on our landlord and saw we were leaving, asking if we needed a ride. They were able to park about two miles away and offered to get her into town with us in tow. Their names were Pieter Dykhorst and Joana Tasi.
We hiked out two miles from our house, burning badly in the summer sun because we were so desperate to leave. We climbed over entire houses, over rusted metal and twisted wood, beds, refrigerators, and doors. At one point we lost Pieter and Joana. We stopped to ask someone idling a car for help, and they refused to even drive us as far as they could. It was every man for himself. We thankfully caught back up with the group and rode out under downed trees, power lines, and power line poles to the destroyed hospital. The bee sting woman got help, and we were ready to go to a shelter, not even knowing where it was. Pieter and Joana refused. We were to stay at their apartment with them. Complete strangers took us simply because we had no where else to go.
We stayed with Pieter and Joana for three nights. Their community took us in, taking turns feeding each other, sharing gasoline and information. We gave them our last $18 in cash until we were able to drive back to the house and ransack our pantry for dry goods. Joana squealed when she saw my new bag of onions. It felt so good to give back to our new community with food for a few weeks. We wouldn't have to eat MREs anymore.
Each day Gabriel and I called family and friends back home, government agencies, charter boats, charter planes, and connections we had made here to try and find a way off the island. We needed to get back home. The airport was destroyed. The marine ports were closed, unless you happened to be a Marriott guest with connections, and they refused to take anyone else out of "liability". There still was no power, and limited Internet/cell. Finally, we heard about a cruise ship coming in from Cancun to evacuate U.S. citizens. With two bags left to our names, we booked reservations and made plans to leave the island.
As I write this, we are on the Norwegian Cruise Lines Norwegian Sky headed back to Miami, and eventually to Jacksonville. We we stay with Gabriel's parents for at least a month before we decided what to do. Both of our jobs are ruined in St. Thomas, as no one cares about scuba diving and speech therapy right after a hurricane. As I mentioned, we lost all of our personal belongings we except what we can carry on our backs and a few things Pieter and Joana are holding for us. Our car is totaled. We will get some money from insurance, but we're looking at having to replace everything including our clothes, computers, furniture, work supplies, kitchen supplies, bedding, food, and dog stuff along with finding a new apartment in a the next few months. This is what this money will be used for - rebuilding our household from the bottom up. Anything, anything at all, would be greatly appreciated by our family as we get started back up and dry ourselves off.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone for their support. I especially want to thank Pieter Dykhorst, Joana Tasi, Sasha Broustovetskaia, Pam O'Dea, Kathy Wallace, Tomas Feher, Steve Duffin, Demetria Bell, Rob Bensinger, T.J. Rocheleau, Carol Blanchard, Patrick Rocheleau, Sam Artman, Teresa Artman, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and everyone else who contributed to getting us back home safely.
We survived a Category 5 hurricane under a mattress for more than five hours, lost everything, lived off the kindness of strangers, and need help getting back on our feet.
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