Well…..it is midnight, Thursday, September 7, 2017. I guess that makes it the day after Irma landed here on the Island of St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have weathered the category V hurricane named “Irma”. My advice to adventure seekers: Don’t try this at home. No matter what your fantasies about riding out a big weather event, I can tell you that it ain’t no fun.
A bit of history. After many years of vacationing in St. John, in 1998, we invested in a home here on the south shore of the Island overlooking Fish Bay and named her Sundancer. She became our winter home and a vacation rental destination for hundreds of strangers and friends with whom we shared our home over the ensuing near 20 years.
In addition to spending part of the winter here on St. John, over the past few years, we have spent increasing time here in the fall, when, due to the threat of possible storms our home is rarely rented and the Island is quiet and peaceful with empty beaches and few tourists. While, on several occasions, we have been tested with hurricanes of less ferocity, we have felt they were nothing that we could not handle and have continued our early fall tradition.
But then comes Irma. This storm, as do all Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, originate off of the west coast of Africa as a “tropical depression” or low pressure weather system and gradually gains strength as the warmth of the summer ocean feeds the storm and pushes the system westward. Many veer off to the North Atlantic and pose no danger or threat except to the maritime trade that plies those waters. But not this one. This one came due west into the chain of Islands that is populated by St. John and others known as the Leeward Islands. This year, we came into harm’s way as the storm intensified.
Sundancer now has a significant shutter system that allows us to close up most of the extensive glass in our home during a storm. The theory is that if one protects the glass during a storm, it helps avoid projectiles or flying “missals” from crashing through and thus allowing the hurricane winds and rain from penetrating the interior of your home. Plus, the protocol is to either bring all potential flying objects indoors or securely tie them down for the same reason. In the case of Irma, with all of this accomplished, we set out to “ride out” the storm. However, weather reports continued to warn of increasing intensity of this particular storm. This one would not be like the ones we had ridden out in the past with wind speeds of up to 110 miles per hour. This one was now advertised as the most ferocious Atlantic storm in recorded history with sustained wind speeds clocked at 185 miles per hour, well above the Category V threshold of 157 miles per hour which was the reported speed of Marilyn back in 1995.
The on Island property managers of Sundancer and longtime friends Dave and Robin Conro who own Cimmaron Management were in touch and offered to let us share one of the homes they manage which is a substantial concrete home. (While Sundancer is strong and secure, it is made of wood and not nearly as secure as a concrete home during a storm.) We took their offer under advisement until our grown children (especially Rob) strongly protested that we take them up on their offer for our own safety and their peace of mind, which we did. (Happily.) So, with the storm slated to arrive on Wednesday morning, late evening on Tuesday, we took up residence in a beautiful six bedroom rental home known as “Friendship Villa” located on Great Cruz Bay, the shared home of the Weston Resort. Given the glass in the home is all impervious to penetration, there is not shutter system and thus, we had unobstructed views as the storm approached. We were joined by Dave and Robin on Wednesday morning to await the action while following the storm on weather TV and internet applications. Having thought we would be away from Sundancer for one or two overnights, we simply packed a few food items, toiletries, a change of clothing, a bit of booze and that’s it. We never even thought of the possibility that that little trip would be our last departure from Sundancer.
As is the custom, the power is purposely shut down as a storm approaches to prevent live wires from falling and presenting hazards given that all of the utilities are still above ground throughout most of the Islands. We were disappointed to discover that the rather significant electric generator at Friendship Villa turned itself on as programmed to happen when power went out but the automatic “transfer switch” meant to move the electrical systems in the house from the utility to the generator was malfunctioning and we, like most of the Island, would be without power. While the cellular towers still worked for a time, they too would soon fail and thus, no more information coming in or out. This situation would remain until after our departure. Our families and friends could only guess our whereabouts and safety. This coming after multiple texts back and forth discussing the storm and our condition.
Great Cruz Bay is a popular bay and a safe harbor for many watercraft both private and commercial, but mostly sail boats ranging to about 50/75 feet anchored or moored here. On Wednesday morning we counted about 25 vessels in the bay. At last light Wednesday evening as the storm passed and we could again see the bay, three were still floating with the majority either laying on their sides along the shore or could be seen as ghostly forms laying in a shadowy grave at the bottom of the bay.
As midday Wednesday arrived, so did Irma’s intensity. Initially, winds seemed to come from the north as would be expected from the leading edge of tropical storm with its counterclockwise rotation. However, for reasons still bewildering to me, shortly into the “blow” winds shifted to come from the south and east and quickly grew in intensity.
I am not quite sure how to describe the growing ferocity of this storm. During the morning hours, we were able to open the southeasterly windows of the villa affording us fresh air and a view of the approaching storm. As the storm approached, we battened down the windows and with the rain and winds, the bay disappeared from view and we were wrapped in a white daytime “blackout” with only the sounds of the howling wind and horizontal rain to give us hints of what was taking place outside. Most of us took to our beds to try to nap and put the situation out of our minds. As with all weather…..there ain’t nothin you can do but ride it out.
One of the most disconcerting experiences was that when the peak of the storm arrived, it seemed to last forever. It was relentless. There was no napping during the peak. We all simply gathered to watch and listen to the havoc that was obviously surrounding us. Noises were incessant. Items small and large ricocheted off of the house. Water began to invade under the doors and around with window. Towels were spread to contain the growing invasion of water until we realized there was no containment. We just began to slosh around the house as driving rain continued to invade like small streams and waterfalls from all directions. At one point, I ventured to the upper level of the home to investigate sounds emanating from there. While nosing around I was totally startled by what sounded like a rifle shot from above me. Eventually, we realized that it came from a piece of corrugated roofing that struck one of the stationary windows and shattered it. While the glass shattered, as per design, the interior plastic in the hurricane rated glass held so there was no penetration of the house. While we originally though that piece of corrugated was from the roof of our Villa, we eventually determined that it (and numerous other pieces of corrugated on and around our house) has come from unfortunate houses somewhere upwind as they were all a different color than the roofing on Friendship Villa. Our roof had held.
As I write this in the early morning hours of Thursday, I can still hear one of the sheets of metal rattling around on the roof of this house where it settled from the sky.
So here we stand. Winds and rain have abated substantially, but not totally, but Irma has moved on to where, we do not know because we are totally without communications. We wish those “upstream” the best and hope Irma’s visit here took a bit of the steam out of her. We hope and pray that our fellow St. John residents and travelers have suffered no more than property damage and perhaps a strong soaking, but considering the ferocity of those winds, we suspect worse.
The big unknown for us is Sundancer. How did she fare? We cannot tell until sometime later today when we can travel to see for ourselves. An understandable government curfew remains in effect until 6:00 pm tonight. Assuming it expires then as planned, we will venture out and inspect. We just don’t know. Carol Ann and I are both trying to condition ourselves to accept whatever the consequences we encounter. For me, I take some time to envision the worst possible so I won’t be shocked, while at the same time, hoping for the best. Sundancer is a part of our lives and the lives of each member of our family and wide assortment of friends and guests who share her with us. We know everyone’s energy is with us.
Hey, we are safe! We are alive! What more could we really ask?
It is now later Thursday morning. Off and on rains continue with winds. I take a walk up and around the streets and all are impassable by car. The nearest to us is blocked by a boat followed by an overturned box trailer followed by the complete upside down floor of a street side home that was destroyed and slid directly into the middle of the street. It will be a project tearing it apart to make the road passable.
Returning to the “safe” house, Robin and Dave wanted to make their way to their office downtown where they had a second car. Thus, they walked. I could stand the suspense no longer and opted to walk to Fish Bay where Sundancer is located. I would guess about 4 miles but plenty of ups and downs. Debris, brush, house parts and utility wires and poles litter the landscape and block the roads. I would sometimes have to weave my way through a labyrinth of poles, cables and wires and scramble through tree limbs to continue. Others were on a similar pilgrimage in both directions. Some to escape where they had spent a perilous night and others, like me anxious to see what had happened to their properties in their absence. Many young people emerged from rather substantial rental villas. They, like us had taken refuge in unoccupied solid homes to escape the dangers of staying in flimsy older, wood framed homes. I am assuming that like us, they had permission, but who knows and more so, who cares. They were safe. One couple in Kline Bay shared how they had saved a woman below them whose roof was torn off by the storm and they ventured out to take her in.
Crews of volunteers were cutting up trees and moving debris to help clear the roads. Many were understandably concerned about the possibility of having to evacuate residents in the event of a medical emergency. The whole thing gives me renewed confidence in the human spirit. You go Boys and Girls.
One of the more strange phenomenons is the foliage on the Island. We had heard that back in ’95 during Marilyn virtually all of the leaves were blown off all of the trees and bushes. While we had ridden out a number of lower intensity storms over the years, none had produced that result. Irma has. As we walk along well traveled roads we suddenly discover houses and vistas that we had never seen before as they were covered by foliage.
So now, it is mid morning Thursday and I am on my way to Sundancer. The roads are blocked but cars are running in both directions to and from the blockages. I come to one blockage with a downed utility pole wires and the volunteers are trying to cut the pole with a hatchet, taking turns. It seemed futile to me, but they were determined. I will have to go back and see if there is a hatched scared pole indicating their success or failure. I am betting they have succeeded.
On the other side of that blockage, I catch a ride in the back of a pickup that is returning to their place in Fish Bay having failed to make their way out. I am told that one of our residents purposely parked a back hoe in our subsection with the intent of using it to clear the way after the storm. He rose at 2:00 am this morning and accomplished just that so there is now a clear path, albeit wobbly through the 2 miles or so of our main path to and from our homes. However, until the big blockages are removed further west no one can get to/from town except by foot or partial rides as I have.
At my request, the pickup slows at the bend of the road at Dittlif Point where I can view the hillside holding Sundancer. I get my first hint of pending doom when I realize I cannot make out the all too familiar profile of Sundancer nor our good friend’s colorful little property uphill from us. Finally the pickup drops me at the end intersection of Marina Drive (our thoroughfare) and Cocoloba Trail (the road to Sundancer.) I begin to walk and a torrential rain squall drenches me as I pick my way through numerous downed trees, brush and rushing streams. I make to the home of good friends John and Kim Nogieria who live at the bottom of our road. Their compact concrete house has fared quite well and they welcome me, but subtly express thoughts that I am “not going to be happy with what I find when I reach Sundancer”. John has already walked up the hill and seen. They supply me with some water and after a few moments I continue my journey over the last several hundred yards up our road. I pass the home of long time neighbor Beverly and that wood framed home looks somewhat intact and I continue up. My first indication of impending doom is one of our living room sofa cushions tangled up in brush in the gutter. As I round the final curve, disaster awaits. The utility pole at the top of our driveway is leaning at a 45 degree angle into the hill across the road and our 8 foot hot tub Hot Tub is on its side tangled in wires with its’ plastic flexible supply lines flapping in the wind and rain. This is not going to be good.
I weave my way past that barrier and reality sets in. Sundancer is gone. I mean, really gone. Our former beloved home is now a huge pile of debris cast helter skelter along the landscape and well into the jungle north and east of the foundation. For those who don’t know, Sundancer was a “kit house” built in 1985. The foundation is (was) a two story 16’ by 16’ poured concrete square. The top floor served as the basement of the house and the box below was the cistern which was the reservoir for the supply of water that was collected from roofs. On top of the basement walls was a rather ingenious system of 7” by 24” trusses which were weaved together to support the home above. The trusses covered the foundation and then cantelevered another 10 feet beyond the foundation on all four sides to make up the floor space above. This, system, then created the 16 feet by 16 feet center of the house, plus four 10 feet by 16 feet rooms housing two of the bedrooms, plus the living room and the dining room/kitchen. Above that was another level which was 16’ x 16’ loft bedroom.
I share this minutia simply to describe the most prevalent view that I now have of our former home. During the storm, apparently the home came unglued from the top down. After the roof was ripped up and off, the upper walls and contents took flight and the only thing left were the trusses and interconnected floor structure. The relentless wind made its final assault and literally flipped this 36’ by 36’ truss system up and over so that it landed floor side down on top of all of the debris it had already created and strewed next to the basement walls. It is like looking at a giant piece of furniture laying with its jagged legs facing up and staring at you. With that view and realization, reality sets in that your home is no more and that version of it, never will be again. In addition to the view of this huge covering piece, what I see is the cavity of the concrete basement walls with a few cabinets still clinging to the walls. I briefly envisioned the possibility of Carol Ann and I huddling in that space for the last vestiges of safety had we chosen to ride the storm out at Sundancer. Surely, we, like the truss system would have been sucked out and now be part of the debris laying in the bush somewhere. Not a pretty thought.
The decking closest to the driveway surrounding the pool seems “intact”, but that is the solitary, recognizable feature. Everything else in beneath the truss flooring structure or scattered through the “bush” or up on the road near the hot tub. Some deep breaths and some photo shots are all that can be done with this visit. My feeble mind at this point can only take in what I see and try to pull into perspective our new reality. Our patterned live’s of the past 20 years has now changed.
I promised our good friends and neighbors Joan and All, that I would check on their home known as Fish Bone. I walked the 100 yards up the hill to be greeted by a huge section of their home lying in the middle of the street at the bottom of their driveway. A quick, solitary glance up their drive confirmed what I suspected. Fish Bone was now a pile of trash like Sundancer. I could not linger there nor could I continue past their home due to the debris in the road. I walked back down the hill past Sundancer for the final view. At the end of our driveway I again notice of our frying pans lying in the street. I carefully picked them up and assembled them in a neat pile according to size and walked away. Don’t ask me why. A bit further down, I find a pair of my long white trousers lying in the dirt. I pick up the soaking wet garment briefly intending to carry it back with me to salvage “something”. After a few steps I throw them into the bush in an act of futility. I don’t know whether to scream or cry, so I stoically make my way back to our safe house to share the news with Carol Ann. She had asked me to bring back some of her favorite pretzels and some clean underwear. Not fun.
I am finishing this note very early morning on Friday. We are totally without communications. No TV, no internet, no telephone service. On my journey, someone told me that on the building above the pizza shop across from destroyed school, there was occasionally cell service. They also told us one of the small groceries had opened. We needed some supplies so I ventured out to pick some things up and possibly get word to our family who were undoubtedly concerned about our welfare. When I got to the pizza shop which is below a three story office complex, there were dozens of others assembled for the same reason and some were actually talking on their phones. The rumor must be true. I went to the top level and got one bar on my AT&T iPhone. I dialed my son, but the call kept failing. It would ring once and drop. Frustrating. I asked a nearby young man if he had a signal and he said he had two bars and had made some calls. I asked if I could make a call on his phone and he quickly dialed for me (on his cheap little flip phone no less!) My son had been getting my dropped calls, and he quickly answered. Told him we were sae, but that Sundancer was gone. I could only talk for a moment as I was on a borrowed phone. I had a very, very tough time getting through the most important words of gratitude to him. By forcing us to leave Sundancer, he had saved our lives. I asked him to pass on our situation to those I had been group texting before we went dark and then called Sherri to relieve her anxiety. She was obviously emotionally stressed and anxious to hear from us. She too was tearfully pained to hear our beloved Sundancer was gone.
As noted, our hosts and good friends Dave and Robin are with us and Dave walked to their home today too and it too was totally destroyed. So we had a few drinks (maybe too many) to commiserate on our losses. If we can somehow communicate, we will now figure out how to get off the Island and while we have no idea where Irma went from here, maybe, we will meet her again back in Florida. Who knows?
Epilogue: During the day in the roads and streets the most frequent words I heard were “Wow” as we looked at the pervasive destruction around us and more often I said and heard the most important words: “Hey, we are alive!”
Post Epilogue: Is there such a thing as a “post epilogue”? I have no idea, but here it is as the beat goes on. On Friday, the roads had somewhat cleared and I drove Carol Ann as far as we could drive towards Sundancer so she could see for herself. It was a replay of yesterday and felt like a wake. Looking at the body of a loved one. Very, very hard.
In a brief call, we ask Sherri to figure out how to get us home as we had zero communications. Now throughout the day, there are hundreds of people hanging around the Pizza shop trying to get brief, frustrating messages home. We have no information. Radio stations tried in the car tell us nothing. Most is of news of St. Croix which is our sister island 35 miles to the south and hardly affected and of no use to us. Later, Sherri tells us the airport is closed and the soonest we might get home is Tuesday.
We opt to help Dave and Robin get Friendship Villa cleaned up and livable as this will be their home for some time in the future given theirs is gone. We try to get the water out, dry things off and stock up on some supplies.
It is Saturday morning and I head out to get some water and make futile attempts to communicate. No success. I encounter a very nice man who had been doing some work for me at Sundancer and he expresses deep sadness that Sundancer is gone. He and I had been planning some significant work this winter. I tell him all I want now is to get home. He tells me that they have started some evacuation ferries to St. Croix and San Juan from the National Park Dock in Cruz Bay. I immediately walk over there and join the queue. Bottom line is somehow, ferries have been scheduled to evacuate those of us who need it. Priority is families with young children, non-emergency medical needs and all others. I hang around until I can get Carol Ann and I on the list for the San Juan ferry. Once done, I dash to the house to collect Carol Ann and our meager belongings. Finally, about 2:00 pm, we board a small 40 passenger ferry and depart. As we are passing St. Thomas, I get a few bars of cell service and appeal to Sherri and my partner Fabrizio to try and get us home from San Juan. We learn that due to the continued path of Irma, Florida airports are closed, so after a bunch of back and forth, we opt to fly to Newark near where Rob lives tomorrow (Sunday). Sherri books us on a United flight and Fabrizio secures us hotel space at a Marriot near to the hotel. We arrive in eastern Puerto Rico and surprisingly there is a series of shuttle buses waiting to take us wherever we want. The drive to the airport and hotel is well over an hour. We get to the Marriott and indulge in a long awaited shower and head down for drink and dinner……Civilization!
Now, here is the interesting thing. None of this cost us a nickel. We have no idea who was paying, but there was no charge for the ferry nor the transfers. At the Marriott, I get a call from the front desk manager asking if we were evacuated and learn that Marriott was waving the room charge for us. My goodness. So much kindness. We learned that several large hotels including the Weston on St. John and the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef on St. Thomas has not been able to get its guest out before the storm and they too were shuttled to Puerto Rico and were also trying to get out. It turns out that the United Newark flight we are on was duplicated with a second plane on the same route and schedule to accommodate the large number of evacuees. More kindness. One of the United staff at the airport asked if we were evacuees and wanted to make sure we were takin care of kindly. Very impressive.
So off to Newark to await the fate of our Florida house. I feel like we are victims of “double jeopardy”. Time will tell.