Irma & Maria
Slide back and forth to see the view from our home before & after Irma
On the 6th of September, 2017 the worst hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic - Hurricane Irma - took the roof off of our home while I held on to my 3-month-old sons and sang, Jesus Loves Me. There couldn't have been one person on the island not praying that their lives would be spared during this storm. Irma broke catastrophic wind & gust records and took entire lives and turned them upside down. Two weeks later, a second category 5 hurricane devastated St. Croix and flooded most of St. Thomas.
It has been the most devastating, catastrophic sequence of events. Despite our worst fears coming true, we're extremely blessed and lived to tell the tale...
Preparing for IRMA...
A few days before Irma hit, my best friend who's pregnant told me she was going to go to the states with her parents to ride out the storm and come back when it was over. It seemed kind of silly to run from a little tropical storm, but it totally made sense to me, I chose to have my twins in the states as well. I'm so glad she left because the storm upgraded to a 1 very quickly. Everyone was in the store trying to buy water, provisions, batteries, radios, buckets, etc. With even a little rain storm, the power goes out in St. Thomas, so a category 1 would definitely knock out WAPA (Water and Power Authority) for at least a week. Well, then it was a 2. Quickly that became a 3. When it became a 4 I just couldn't help but laugh, it was just so unbelievable. Once it was a 5 I started to panic and my mind was preoccupied with what lengths we would have to go to protect our boys. I was in shock.
We had been staying with my boys' great-grandparents since we came back from Vegas. Early in the morning, we had hot chocolate and sat around and relaxed. Light rain and some wind had begun, but nothing worth mentioning. My boys' dad was on the roof bolting it down in certain places he thought might be most susceptible to wind because a huge fear was the roof coming off. The boys were taking a nap in their bouncers like a normal morning. At about 10am, the wind really picked up. The power was already out and even phone service was gone. And this was just from light wind. I went to the back of the house to our bedroom and stayed there for the rest of the day with the boys. I only saw outside when our bedroom door was opened and I only knew what was going on when someone came to the bedroom and updated me. The boys enjoyed sleeping on my chest because my heart was racing the entire day.
The damage began to intensify...
First, a plywood board that was covering a window in the front of the house flew off. Then the window went. It was the front bedroom, where my boys' great-grandmother had most of her precious belongings. A lot of things were damaged and everyone moved the mattress to the living room to try and keep it dry.
Then, the entire wall in the front room flew out (pictured below). There were so many family photos on the walls, and a lot of other belongings.
My boys' uncle came in at one point with the look of the utmost fear in his eyes and said to me, "Why didn't they warn us?!" I said, "They did! They said category 5!" He said, "But they didn't tell us our lives would be at risk." He's a big guy, he doesn't seem like much could shake him and he's not very talkative, but when he said that, I felt it all the way down my spine. We were in serious danger and there was nowhere to hide.
All of a sudden, things seemed ok.
The wind was still howling, but maybe this was when the eye was closest to us My boys' dad grabbed a little bag of cookies for me and one for himself and threw them on the bed. He was standing in our bedroom doorway and I watched him for a moment with admiration and awe in the midst of everything that was going on around us. A moment that I will truly never forget. It was like I could feel my entire soul tell me, hey everything's gonna be ok! I just watched him and for a split moment, I smiled. I felt relaxed and it was as if I knew we were going to make it through this horrible day. Then he grabbed another bag of cookies screamed to his grandfather over the wind, "Daddy, you want cookies?" And that's when the roof went. It wasn't a swift fly, it was like undoing snap buttons. "Bop. Bop. Bop." But much, much louder. Over the wind and the rain, all of a sudden there was the sound of the roof coming off in pieces and flying away as light began peaking through. I just watched him duck and look up as he covered his head. He screamed for his grandmother to come to our room. She must've been in the living room and ran to her room, but I sat at the edge of the bed for what felt like an eternity, absolutely terrified and waiting for her to come inside.
Getting ready to evacuate...
My boys' dad ran in with a carryon suitcase and told me to pack. I had just finished feeding the babies and I had one strapped to my chest in a carrier and the other in my arm. I handed the loose baby to him, grabbed my travel case full of panties and said, "OK!" He said, "You're gonna need more than that." I couldn't think of anything else that was important – my sons and my underwear. I had a diaper bag ready to go with extra clothes for them in ziplock bags and everything they would need. He reminded me of things I might want – my camera, my iPad, my phone, my documents, chargers, clothes, and Polaroid photos of the babies. I grabbed all of those things, but truly speaking, nothing mattered except for my boys. I did not care about one material thing, I just wanted our family to live to see tomorrow.
Water started to fill up in the bathroom first because there was a window in there. Our bedroom window had been covered with a large AC unit so not much water came in through there, though some did. Our room didn't flood horribly, only an inch or two that was easily soaked up in towels, but some things got wet and some clothes were ruined from the water because everything molded so quickly after the storm.
There was an old doorway that had been covered up and sealed shut between our bedroom and his grandparents' closet and we used a battery–operated drill to open the doorway so we could all be together in the back of the house, which seemed to be the safest place. Whenever he opened our bedroom door (to the living room) I could see more light than the last time. I knew the roof was flying off in chunks, I could hear it all. When it was no longer safe for anyone to go outside of the rooms where we were hiding, we all just sat back and did our own thing. I stared at the roof waiting to see a piece of light and evacuate. Our plan was to run to the car with the babies in carriers on our chest so that our hands would be free. I would carry the diaper bag and he would take the suitcase.
Waiting for it all to be OVER...
I kept checking the clock and asking, "What time did they say it'd be over?" in hopes it would be over soon, but nobody really knew.
I just stared at the roof waiting to see light – expecting to see light. I didn't know when, but I really thought I'd see light peer in as the roof came off. It never did. God protected our family in the back of the house where we sat together and prayed and held one another closely.
When the wind & rain settled down, it was probably around 8pm and I asked for the flashlight so that I could go see what outside looked like. He wouldn't give it to me, he said it was so bad out there that we needed to wait until daylight to see because without sufficient light, it just wasn't safe to step foot in the aftermath.
As soon as I saw sunlight around 6am, I jumped out of bed and grabbed my camera. I knew I would want to catch the aftermath before everyone began to clean up. What I saw I can't put into words. It was as if a close friend had died and life would never be the same.
Since Irma, a lot has changed...
Two weeks later, a second category 5 storm passed 50 miles south of St. Thomas and flooded the island overnight. That sucked. I really don't even know how else to put it. We got a small generator and things were looking up, but after Maria things got even worse and we decided that it would be best if the boys and I left island to stay with my family in Canada. After we left, the island ran out of diesel for generators – including the AT&T generator, which obviously supplies the majority of the island with communication. A lot of people also contacted me about there being a shortage of baby formula and I helped get them in contact with other people who had some to pass on, but there wasn't much.
My Facebook timeline is still full of posts of people looking for apartments, asking for help, relocating to the mainland, selling all of their life's possessions, and looking for work. Right now, there's a huge shortage of homes and employment that will severely affect us long–term. Tourism is the island's bread and butter and without infrastructure, cruises won't visit & hotels won't open for at least a year. When people have no home, no job, no money, and no possessions they feel they have no purpose or they try to take from those who do. It's a scary thought, but that's the island's reality right now.
I'm optimistic that things will get even better than they were before...
People have a reason to notice the Virgin Islands. They know about the Virgin Islands and where we are located. In the VI, there's no access to individual healthcare and because of the Jones Act, ships have to stop in the mainland USA before they can come to us. This increases shipping costs and therefore the general cost of goods and services. Because of these storms, I'm hopeful that these things will change and life will improve for Virgin Islanders.
On the other hand, a lot of people will never be the same. I didn't realize the post-traumatic stress I had until I felt a gust of wind on my back through the window as Maria began outside. I had Stefon in my arms and I got up to run because from my experience with the first storm, my reaction to wind was fear and flight! Even today when I go for a walk in the morning with the boys in the stroller, wind freaks me out! It's a weird feeling I can't seem to shake.
Posting the devastation...
I've debated back–and–forth whether or not to post photos from the storm along with this post. These are peoples homes, it's not just devastation and it's not just something we can look at and turn a blind eye or make a profit off of. It's real. I told a friend that I chose not to post the photos to my Facebook profile because I didn't want to be insensitive to the situation, but she urged me to share my photos & my story. CNN and the leading news channels are not covering the devastation in the Virgin Islands or the rest of the Caribbean other than Trump's visit (and then he said he spoke to the President of the Virgin Islands....). They're so focused on Florida, the Keys, Houston, and Puerto Rico that we're too small to be noticed and we're being forgotten. It is my obligation to my home to raise awareness and share my story so that people can understand what happened to us and continue to help us & pray for us.
Thank you for your support and kindness toward the US Virgin Islands as we rebuild. To help in our recovery and donate to the relief efforts, please click here.