I saw it coming. Yet only now do I realize how much I did not see it coming. What I utterly failed to anticipate was how terrifying, disorienting, and surreal it would be to stand for seemingly endless hours in the arena, pitted against a Category 5 Hurricane. Even now, 3 weeks later, I remain stunned
I consider myself an intrepid traveler. I have set foot on all seven continents and traversed more than 85 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe, seen grandeur and squalor, and have always found a thrill in adventure. While I have no illusion that I had, to use the hackneyed phrase, "seen it all" in my 55 years, I thought that most anything I had not experienced would be just a variation of something I had seen. My left-brain told me that a Cat 5 Hurricane might be an intense, perhaps life-threatening experience; my right-brain imagined it might be another interesting page in my life's travelogue. My right-brain was about to have its synapses jolted.
A group of friends and I planned a getaway to St. John in the Virgin Islands for the first week of September. The trip was a year in the making and I had done most of the logistical preparation. Our first days on the island were rewarded with with glorious hikes, interesting tours, white sand beaches, great food, tropical drinks and blissfully sun-splashed days. On Monday, September 4th, we learned two things: we were 48 hours from being squarely in Hurricane Irma's path, and we had no way to escape St. John island. St. John, at 20 mi², is the smallest of the US Virgin Islands, has 4,000 residents, and no airport. The only public means to access the island is by ferry. However, by that day the ferries were of no real benefit as they could only provide service to some other island within the projected path of Irma. While nearby St. Thomas had an airport, there were no seats available on any flight until Thursday, well after the hurricane was scheduled to pass.
We convinced ourselves that staying in our rented villa – made of concrete and housing a generator – was the most reasonable option. The storm was still two days away; the skies were clear and the weather perfect, so we spent Monday hiking in the National Forest that composes most of the island's interior. On the peaceful Reef Bay trail through dense forest, we saw remains of sugar mills and pre-Columbian petroglyphs to eventually emerge upon a glorious beach with the warm, blue, and as yet still tranquil water of the Caribbean Sea. The National Park Service describes it as "The Hike Through Paradise", and we agreed that was hard to argue. Later that night, we posted pictures on social media and blogged with bravado, "No Hurricane Yet!”.
On Tuesday, we purchased water, wine, and food in amounts we thought more than adequate. We checked the generator and otherwise pretended that we knew how to prepare for such an event. Our villa's owner called to suggest that during the storm we stay on the lowest level of the complex because it would likely provide the most protection. The weather remained beautiful and stood in stark contradiction to what all media told us was the potential catastrophe now less than a day away.
I spent early Wednesday morning much like many other days I had enjoyed in the Caribbean. With a mug of gourmet coffee in hand at 7:30, I sat overlooking beautiful Cruz Bay. Anchored sailboats dotting blue water and tropical temperatures provide me a sense of tranquillity. That feeling faded as I realized that a few hours beyond the stunning horizon loomed a monster. As the clouds increased, the wind picked up, and light rain started to fall, I had no idea how the day would play out.
By 8:30 our quartet decided to move our chosen shelter. Not really knowing what to expect, and not wanting to be melodramatic, our mood was light – or at least we feigned it so. We had water, food, TV, and varied electronic devices to distract us; this was going to be an adventure! We called friends, posted videos to Facebook of palm trees blowing in the increasingly strong wind, and assured everyone that we were quite prepared to "ride out" the storm with our Pinot and blue cheese.
The electricity failed around 10:00 but this caused no alarm and I put on my rain gear, walked upstairs, and fired up the generator. We were able to monitor three weather stations, which told us that the worst of the storm would hit just before noon and last for a few hours. We convinced ourselves that by 7 pm, we would be back upstairs in the main part of the villa, preparing dinner, drinking heartily, and toasting the accomplishment our successful saga.
We did survive, but there was no cheery dinner. How can I describe the experience of being smack in the middle of one of the largest and most ferocious hurricanes in history? I cannot. In part because words seem inadequate, and in part because reliving those hours remains unbelievably painful. But permit me to try.
By noon, the winds were blowing at a constant 90 mph, with gusts to over 150. It bears repeating: Over one hundred and fifty mile-per-hour winds!!! Imagine the deep, low, primal howl of a wolf. Now imagine sitting at the center of a thousand such wolves howling in unison, not stopping, not stopping, not stopping for more than four hours. That is what Cat 5 winds sound like: deafening, consuming, relentless, and, above all, terrifying. We focused for a time on watching films. The Grapes of Wrath seemed a good choice as the characters in that movie had suffered far more than we imagined ourselves doing so. But fascination and curiosity led us to ignore the film and instead to stare out the window. If you've lived where it snows, you are familiar with blizzard "whiteout" conditions: when the wind drives the snow with such force you can't see your hand in front of your face. During a hurricane, you experience something similar as giant drops of rain form walls of water. Instead of falling vertically, the rain is moving horizontally at such speed you believe that if you stuck your arm out, your hand would be ripped from your wrist.
The magnitude of our physical peril was soon evidenced by the rain that began to drive through even the tiniest crack or gap into the room. The water accumulated so quickly that towels were soaked within seconds. In disbelief, I realized that not only water but also vegetation was forcing its way through the cracks. Sustained 150 mph winds spare little. The wind had stripped the trees and bushes of their greenery and was cramming it into our room. Water began to leak from the light fixtures in the ceiling, followed by the ceiling's collapse, dumping debris and more water upon us.
By early afternoon, we heard unknown things slamming into the upper floors. The sounds of brick, concrete, metal, and glass crashing against the exterior concrete walls joined the howling wind to create an unholy cacophony. At one point came a deafening explosion; I later learned that the air pressure had dropped so dramatically it caused a nearby wooden villa literally to explode outward. With another peek out the window, I saw a large piece of metal roof flying toward our window. It crashed into the wall above only barely sparing us. Later, a large piece of metal (we learned a solar panel) burst through the wall just below our window, protruded into our room snapping the marble floor trim. Just as suddenly, it flew back out, destroying a nearby metal gate and fence.
We witnessed the hurricane-glass windows now bend impossibly with each wind gust. Genuinely fearing imminent physical danger, we retreated to the interior bathroom. Perhaps it was the magnitude of what relentless150 mph wind-driven rain does to everything in its path, or the horror of wondering whether my close friends and I would all live through the day but something caused me to have a temporary break with reality. At some point, I apparently left the bathroom and returned to the room with the windows. I think I needed to visualize what was happening as imagining it became unbearable. My friends say they frantically urged me to return to the relative safety of the bathroom. I have no memory of that event but apparently did return to the relative safety of the bathroom at some point.
Shortly after 4:00 the driving rain slowed and the winds began to calm. I remember leaving the bunker-bathroom and seeing our rooms in complete shambles. To my amazement the hurricane glass windows were intact. However, water continued to pour from the ceiling and all our things were missing or scattered. For some primal or irrational reason, I felt it important to find food. I discovered a box of cookies that had somehow remained dry, grabbed it, and ventured outside.
I have never been in a combat zone, but I believe what I saw must resemble one. There was no path that was not blocked by all manner of debris. The contents of nearby homes were scattered across the hill. You don't expect to find decanters, blinds, clothing, toys, cooking utensils, bottles of sunscreen, and all manner of human miscellany blocking your stairs, but it was. Part of our roof had been ripped off, several windows crushed in. The road was littered with uprooted trees, branches, downed telephone poles and intact roofs of nearby villas. It took me a while to grasp that I was staring at someone's former ceiling as it looked skyward while the exterior portion of the roof lay on the pavement.
As the sun began to set, we huddled together in shock; scarcely able to believe we survived. I don't recall eating dinner. At 8 pm, the generator died and we scrambled to find a dry place to sleep. The undersides of some mattresses were not soaked, and I curled into the driest portion of one and quickly lost consciousness. I awoke the next morning as the Caribbean sun started to shine through my window. It would be several more days, each punctuated with many new frightening moments, before we could secure passage off the island.
My deepest gratitude to my friend Chris Carpenter who served as my editor and without whose help I would not have been able to write this account.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Floods/storms
Location: St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands