Wolfgang, my husband, and I were sitting in the Atlanta airport on Sept. 1 waiting for our flight to St. Maarten with boarding passes in hand. I decided– last minute–to go to weather.com to check on that tropical storm that was brewing in the Atlantic Ocean. We had left our home in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Thursday in order to arrive on Friday. We were beyond excited: A three-week vacation snorkeling in those turquoise waters was going to be paradise. We were in tropical heaven thinking about it until I pulled up that website. “Honey, look the tropical storm is now a hurricane and it is headed right for the islands! Look! Look!” I said. I had the most terrible feeling in my gut… all the bells and whistles were going off, ‘oh no don’t get on that plane!’
Wolfgang responded that the flight is totally booked and there is a long stand-by list of people waiting to get on. Do we really want to bail now—now that we are getting ready to board? We had minutes to make a decision and decided to board. Could all these people be wrong? Rationality settled in and the bells and whistles in my gut were put aside. We can deal with this when we get there.
Next we are sitting in our gorgeous timeshare room on the 7th floor at the Simpson Bay resort– located on the Dutch side of the island–when an email popped up from our timeshare exchange group. They wrote if we wanted to cancel our trip to the Caribbean due to the pending weather we could. This was Friday afternoon and official check-in was tomorrow. How could they be sending this option to us so late??
I quickly e-mailed my nephew Justin, a certified meteorologist, asking him for his advice on the likelihood that Irma would hit us. Should we get off the island pronto? We heard back from Justin who said it would likely skirt us, making a northeast turn. However, he said we’ll get category 4 or 5 winds and he personally would not take the risk.
From this point forward the rest of our time on the island was spent trying to find a flight off the island. Everything was booked and overbooked. Everyone was trying to avoid this monster storm, regardless if it was only going to ‘skirt’ us. We wanted out! But there was no getting off the island. Not enough flights and too many people wanting out. We told our families the news, we would have to ride out this storm, please pray for us.
Up to Tuesday all of our time was spent preparing for Irma. We knew we would loose power and water. We had enough food and bottled water for 3 weeks. We went to multiple grocery stores to stock up even more. We noticed on the French side they were boarding up absolutely everything: They were not taking any chances. They suffered the brunt of the last hurricane, Luis, a category 4, which struck in 1995. Nine had been killed and it devastated the island’s economy. Irma looked a lot like Luis they thought… Even more eerie, Irma was due to hit St. Martin/Maarten on the same day–Sept 6–when Luis had hit. The irony of it was surreal!
The last item we wanted– and searched endlessly for– was duct tape for our windows. Wow, we had a lot of glass in our room, extensive sliding glass doors in both the living room and bedroom. If they were to break, at least the tape would prevent shattering shards (we thought).
It was odd to us that none of the locals we spoke to wanted to discuss the hurricane… they would say, “no, no– no hurricane,” and put their finger to their lips saying ssshhh. It was bad luck for them to speak about it, to give it a place in reality… if they did it might become a reality. “I think we will get lucky but I will prepare anyway,” was a common response.
On Tuesday we received the latest Irma report from Justin. It helped to know what kind of wind speeds we’d have to endure at what times of the evening. It was clear to him (after reviewing all the models) that the worst would hit between 3-4:30 AM Wednesday morning (BTW, he nailed everything). We would brace ourselves for this. After living in Houston I had experienced a few hurricanes already and knew the bathroom was safest. No windows. We moved two outside lounge chairs into the bathroom to use when the time came.
We went to bed Tuesday evening around 10 pm thinking we could get a few hours sleep before the worst of Irma. There were no shudders on any windows so we had moved furniture in front of our sliding glass doors and pulled the curtains tightly shut. In the living room we pulled out the murphy beds and pushed the mattresses against the windows and piled more furniture against them.
We had met with our suitemate, Nina, earlier from the adjoining room. We unlocked our adjoining door and made a pact to weather the storm together. Whoever’s room survived the best, we would move there during the storm if needed. I advised Nina to stay in her bathroom through the worst of it. We taped her sliding glass doors and moved furniture in front of them as well. The three of us were prepared as best we could be. It helped to know that our resort was considered a shelter for the island, it was a cement building with 8 floors. Locals had flocked here and checked into our resort before the storm.
About midnight I moved from our bedroom into the bathroom. The wind had become really loud and kept flinging the huge potted palm tree that was next door on the balcony against our bedroom wall. Wow, was it loud! Wolfgang moved into the bathroom a little later, he made some coffee and grabbed his book. The rest of our story becomes terrifying… absolutely terrifying.
Water first started coming into our living room, a lot of water, then our bedroom and bathroom. Wolfgang started using our beach towels to try to soak it up… when POP part of the sliding glass door blew out in the living room. This set up a horrific domino effect: The pressure instantaneously caused the front door frame to break and then worse… the bathroom door to break open. We were using all our might to close that outer bathroom door, which was impossible until Wolfgang jammed the lawn chair under the door and into the wall. But it still wouldn’t stay shut! I moved into the toilet room, which had a separate door. Wolfgang stayed in the outer bathroom holding the door shut with all his strength. He could not completely shut this door for the rest of the storm.
It is now around 4 AM and I’m sitting in the bathtub with a big pillow in front of me— the ceiling tiles were flying everywhere. The whole room is shaking, especially the ceiling, is shaking madly. It felt like an earthquake. Would this cement building really stand up through this? Would that ceiling come down? The toilet door was now jiggling open! Luckily we had filled all of our garbage cans with pool water before the storm and put them in the bathroom so we could flush our toilet when we lost power. I used all my strength to shove those garbage cans in front of that door to help keep it shut.
Meanwhile Wolfgang is still in the outer part of bathroom holding the door shut. Irma is SO LOUD, beyond loud—she sounds like a vicious fire-breathing dragon, relentlessly (for three hours) furling bands of 185 mph tornado winds at us. Yes I could feel those awful bands, they had a crazy rhythm to them. I kept yelling as loud as I could to Wolfgang—are you OK? My yells were no match to Irma. I could not even hear them myself, let alone Wolfgang! Mysteriously I felt a calm sitting there, my body was not shaking and it should have been! The grace of God was with me. I prayed now hard, really hard, please… allow the eye to come so this tornado dragon can let up just enough to escape somewhere else. It’s hard to say how long that took, but it did. The winds calmed just enough that I could crack my door to see that Wolfgang was fine and still holding the door shut with his muscles and the lawn chair.
Thankfully, the eye of the storm had finally arrived (and no there was not complete calm, it was still plenty windy). Nina came running from her room into ours. She had heard really loud noises from our room and was so relieved we were OK. We all had water in all of our rooms. However, her doors and windows were still in tact. We made plans to ride out the second half of Irma in her bathroom. With pillows, blankets, chairs in place, we heard a loud knock at the door— Joseph from the resort was yelling—“mandatory evacuation, mandatory evacuation!” We followed him to the third floor marketing room – “the safest room in the building,” he said.
As we evacuated we saw four older and frail looking women crawling down the hillside–fleeing from the other buildings across from us: One had a cane, one had a dog carrier. They looked pitifully vulnerable… how would they make it down that steep hillside with all that debris? They had no choice. All of the roofs of their buildings had been blown off. Miraculously they did make it! There was probably one-two hundred of us huddled together in that marketing room…relieved to be alive so far. Many of us joined hands and prayed, “Lord you got us through the first half of this storm, please bring us through the second half.” Joseph had risked his own life during the eye interlude and evacuated all of us. Thank God for Joseph, truly our angel!
We huddled in that room, our sanctuary, and waited for the second half of the storm to pass. We could see huge chunks of cars and other debris flying by us through the glass doors. We could hear the wind as Irma picked up again, but I felt so much safer being on the third floor! Our room was on the 7th floor and located at the end of the villas building. We could feel the entire building shake at this level… by both the sustained winds and 200 + mph gusts!
Gratefully the second half of Irma was not as long in duration as the first half. However, for most, it was even more damaging. When we were finally released from the third floor, we returned to our rooms. Our front door was blown wide open, frame broken, and another glass door from the stairwell was sitting at our doorstep. Our Murphy bed mattresses were blown onto our balcony and there was debris and glass everywhere. I picked up a seven of diamonds playing card that had blown in from the resort casino. I took this as a good sign, seven is my lucky number. We crawled onto our wet bed and slept for several hours, unable to keep our eyes open due to sheer exhaustion.
When we awoke we promptly began cleaning up: Wolfgang handled all the large glass pieces with my diving gloves, Nina and I swept and swept the water and debris out. The largest debris went on top of all the glass pieces outside —at the end of the building away from our rooms.
We persevered to get the clean up done as soon as possible because we had already heard another hurricane was coming—Jose. Now I must say this was very disheartening—really, another hurricane is coming, you’ve got to be kidding!? We had barely survived Irma, many guests had stuffed 30 people into their shower stalls, our rooms and buildings were destroyed and we felt exhausted and helpless. I could not even make up a story like this!
All communication was down, because the airport was significantly damaged, and most of the cars in the resort were strewn and destroyed… big pile-ups everywhere. Roofs and windows and doors were blown out in many buildings. The resort looked nuclear. The trees looked like match sticks. No water and no power. We thought, even if the airport got fixed in time to evacuate us for the next hurricane, how would they remove all the upside down cars and debris to clear the roads in order to drive to the airport? It looked worse than any movie I had ever seen. And the looting had already begun—yes, this was Irma-geddon.
As we began preparing for the next hurricane, Jose, we knew it was going to be really tough. There was not enough personnel at the resort to clean up all the debris. The limited personnel left had other priorities (pursuing ways to get us food, water and out). It became clear that nothing would be cleaned up or moved out… that regardless if the winds of Jose were less, we were severely compromised and vulnerable. This is the time period when pure chaos broke out at our resort and the whole island.
(Please note I said “Irene” instead of Irma in one video and Hurricane “Joseph” instead of Jose, due to being dumbfounded by what I saw!)
Looters were walking around with flat screen TV’s and the high-end jewelry stores in downtown Philipsburg had all been robbed. The jail on the Dutch side had been demolished so criminals were free and robbing forcefully. The Dutch military finally arrived with machine guns on Friday, Sept. 8 to help restore order.
We felt relieved when the military arrived two days later, but it was too few and too late for many. Our resort had responded compassionately and taken in locals before and after the storm. Unfortunately, they made a big mistake: They did not segregate the “guests” into one area of the resort apart from locals. Most of the locals were legitimate evacuees and brought their entire families and babies because their homes were destroyed. But unfortunately some bad ones (looters!) got in too. For example, a neighbor in the villa building returned to his room to find that his room safe had been drilled open and his $2400 was stolen.
It was terrifying to know that bad guys were now living among us at the resort—and there was no way of weeding them out. They were holding guests up at knifepoint for money. Wolfgang, my awesome man, dragged a huge pole into our room and was prepared to use it as a weapon if he had to. Our doors were broken and there was no other way to secure our room. One of the three of us always stayed in our room at all times to keep vigil. There were meetings to go to in the lobby and garbage cans of water to haul up seven flights of stairs– in order to flush our toilets–we became a determined survival team.
The resort did their best to give us updates at these meetings, however they were chaotic and we could not hear most of what was being said, most of the time. There were hundreds of people crammed in the lobby and there were no megaphones. The resort also tried to pass out free meals but we always seemed to miss out on these… the food was gone by the time we arrived. We observed aggressive outsiders wanting more than their share and the distributing food volunteers felt too vulnerable not to give them what they wanted.
Our evacuation from the resort to the airport was random and mysterious. We were told planes were coming Saturday morning but with little explanation about who or where they were coming from, or where they’d take us? How would we be selected for evacuation? By building or floors? Or alphabetical name order? Communication was ambiguous, we were only told that American planes were coming and that children and people with medical issues would be given priority.
Fortunately, Nina was one of the first to make it out. She had a medical condition and left the room about 4:30 AM on Saturday morning. At 6 AM Wolfgang went to the lobby to check in and discovered there were shuttles taking Americans to the airport. Our names were listed for the sixth shuttle. No one had alerted us or knocked on our door, consequently we had about 5 minutes to get back to the lobby with one small carry on allowed only.
When we finally arrived to the airport we gasped because of the long winding lines. The Dutch military were running the show in an orderly and professional manner, calling out certain names to come forward. We still had no idea what was going on until we saw the U.S. Air force cargo planes arrive—OH MY GOD, FOR US! We were eventually going to be evacuated by one of those planes! We learned the Dutch and French had evacuated first in their own planes and that Americans were given the next priority. It was good to see how well the Dutch and American military groups worked together. We were told the plan was for all Americans to be evacuated from the island, what a huge relief!
We were fortunate to be in one of the first groupings of approximately 1000 Americans to get out. (There were 6100 Americans stranded on St Maarten/Martin.) We thank God for our military! The cargo plane (from Kentucky) that lifted us out was the smoothest flight I have ever experienced. It felt like a dream that we all were sitting in jump seats and being swooped to safety by the highly capable U.S. Air force!
We were evacuated to Puerto Rico, arriving about 12:30 PM on Saturday. There were no flights available that day or for 5 more days to bring us back home. The airport was heavily backlogged with customers due to its forced closure during Irma. Additionally, most evacuees from the islands were evacuated here, along with others from Florida. We were then bused to different hotels where everyone stayed until they could find available flights out. We were so grateful to be on American soil again that the wait didn’t matter—we were with caring and helpful Puerto Rican people. The tourism department even gave us an armed escort to our hotel!
We returned home to beautiful New Mexico on Wednesday afternoon, September 13. A stunning rainbow welcomed us as we drove up our mountain. A rainbow of hope, we had finally made it home! Irma was an experience that will forever be engraved on our souls.
What were the key things I learned? First, my faith is stronger than ever. There is no doubt in my mind that our Creator God protected us through this storm. I understood there would be mass destruction and only prayed that lives would be spared. Lives were graciously spared. If you witnessed the nuclear destruction–you would be in awe over this fact too. It is simply a miracle that we are here relaying our story.
Second, none of the Leeward Islands could have been truly prepared for Irma. She was not so much a hurricane as she was a gigantic tornado cycloning over us for six solid hours. She hit everyone, rich or poor, French, Dutch, and American or otherwise, there was no one who escaped her wrath. We need to learn to listen to our instincts, our guts, when they “go off” on us. Our guts are our oldest brain and know how to help us survive.
Fortunately for most tourists, we returned back to intact homes. The people of St. Maarten/Martin did not. They risked their lives to help us through this disaster and have destroyed homes, businesses and are without jobs to earn a living for their families. We will help in every way we can: One way is the Simpson Bay employee fund where 100% of funds are donated to rebuilding their homes (starting with the worst hit), a crowdfunding site will donate 100% to St. Maarten Red Cross: https://www.gofundme.com/sint-maarten-disaster-relief-rebuild-fund. Another active group is: Samaritans Purse.
Third, the ocean is angry, and I do mean really angry with us. We experienced this firsthand. Our oceans are living organisms—as was Irma—and they are not done. They are fighting back! We have not been the good stewards of our planet Earth that we were intended to be. When will we learn to accept that all living organisms are connected on our planet?
The butterfly effect is a concept that states “small causes can have larger effects”. The concept originated in weather prediction, but now is widely used in Physics. Can something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing really cause a typhoon halfway around the world? We saw this concept play out with Irma: We knew our destiny on the island and the path of Irma was determined by the Bermuda high, which acts like a traffic cop for the North Atlantic Ocean. Would it shrink or grow? In Irma’s case it grew and that meant no skirting around the high with a Northern turn. Tiny wobbles of the high made a huge difference throughout her path. In Jose’s case it shrunk –due to cold air in Greenland—and ultimately turned north avoiding the islands. Everything, every wobble, is connected on our planet.
We can become better people and better stewards. I do not believe it is too late to start now. Small shifts in our thinking and how we spend our energy, can lead to massive alterations in our end results. Please, can we start together now?
Last, Wolfgang and I are eternally grateful for all of our family and friends prayers and huge support during this tragedy. We could feel them and they saved us, we love you all!
UPDATE TO POST: Undamaged rooms at Simpson Bay are being rented to electricity plant and construction workers and 150 military personnel. They still do not have water or electricity on the island due to additional damage by Hurricane Maria’s flooding. All rooms in resort were filled with water once again. Rooms are in urgent need for recovery work, so a dedicated small group of managers is staying behind to clean and make rooms available.