Surviving a Category 5 Hurricane in St. Croix – Our Story of the Storm
After staring at the National Hurricane Center’s website for what seemed like a full 2 weeks, we once again went into prep-mode as Hurricane Maria inched closer to us. As Saturday September 16th rolled around, we followed our regular storm tracking routine and found the forecast to be a Cat 1 (that’s the “lingo” here in hurricane-land). We could handle that – no problem. However, by the afternoon the storm had gathered strength to be a Cat 3. Sunday morning brought more bad news – Hurricane Maria would be a Cat 4 that might strengthen to a Cat 5 by Tuesday when it would be making a straight line to St. Croix. It looked like we would be surviving a Category 5 hurricane in St. Croix.
On Sunday we had our regular church meetings. Plans to ensure safety and reporting after the storm were discussed. Meetings were shorter that day as we were encouraged to return home to prepare for the storm. As I drove home, I didn’t realize at that time that I may not see many of those people for quite some time – or perhaps ever again.
Monday was a fairly regular day. Stewart (who secured a job at the local private school as an executive assistant – more on that later) went to work. The boys (due to afore mentioned job) went to school (again, more on that later). I also went to the school to substitute. Due to Hurricane Irma I had been subbing and was asked again to sub now as there were teachers who would be leaving the island prior to Maria. I was substituting in an English class. As I asked the students about their thoughts about the hurricane many were concerned with how their lives would look after the storm. How would they survive without power? Would their friends be all right? Would they be able to graduate on time? My thoughts were “Do we have enough water to last several months?” “Will we have enough time to get our shutters up?” “What will happen if our roof goes?” Again, I have a very active imagination.
After we got home Monday, we had enough time to get the shutters up. I tried to sleep as I tried to calm my imagination. I seem to fear that the storm will suddenly show up sooner than expected. Every drop of rain or gust of wind makes my heart palpitate with the idea that “this could be it.” We took the following sunset pictures that night – the night before the storm. It was so beautiful.
Tuesday morning we again checked the forecast and the reports were that we should begin to start experiencing tropical force winds (upwards of 59mph) around 2pm and that the brunt (i.e. the dreaded EYE) of the storm should arrive around 10pm or midnight. The storm had also strengthened to indeed be a Cat 5. We had decided Tuesday morning to cover and pack things up in the event that we did in fact lose our roof. Therefore I spent the morning and early afternoon packing things up. We kept an eye on the storm and listened to and sang with every showtune we could think of that had Maria in it. Like “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” or “Maria…I Don’t Like a Storm named Maria!” or “They Call the Wind Maria!!!”
By 2pm the winds did start. We had heard that we may lose power by 5pm so we rushed our showers to make sure we each had one last chance with running water. Around 5pm we lost power and it was quite dark especially with our storm shutters up. We got our boys ready for bed after dinner. We wanted it to be as routine as usual (getting them to bed at their regular 7pm bedtime) helping to not feed any fear that they might have and hoping they might sleep through much of the storm. Stewart and I had already figured we would not really be sleeping that night. The boys went to sleep quickly. They were both sleeping in Gabe’s room as we had designated that as our “safe room.” It only has one window which is covered by our carport. The boys were in bed; we were armed with our flashlights and headlamps, and then began THE LONGEST night of our life.
THE LLLOOOONNNNGGGEEESSSTTT Night of Our Life
Armed with our flashlights and headlamps and our AWESOME hand-cranked LED Lantern, Stewart and I spent the next couple of hours (from about 7pm to 9:30) watching our ceilings. We knew we would lose cell service at some point so we maintained a vigilant hourly schedule of calling and texting our family to let them know we were still all right. Around 9:30 we lost our cell service. We had been mid-conversation with some of our family. We looked at each other and said “Whelp…I guess that’s it.” We shut down our phones knowing that we would need to conserve the batteries for when we might have power or service again. We then put everything electronic away in a plastic bin for safekeeping.
We walked around the house as if we were guards on patrol. We watched as water began to seep in under our three doors. We put towels down to try and stop the deluge. I would check on our boys. The wind howled. We could hear the massive gusts pushing against our concrete house. We put another towel down by our kitchen door only to have that one soaked through as soon as it was down.
We walked into Miles’ room and it sounded like someone sucking air through their teeth. At first we weren’t sure what it was. It was the ceiling “breathing” and lifting up and down with the wind. Fearing that the roof would lift off that room, we shut the door and continued on our “rounds” to inspect the rest of the house.
In our living room, the door there has a small window that is about 4 inches by 4 inches. We could just barely see outside through the window. In the darkness, we could see silhouettes of our neighbor’s palm trees being tossed by the wind. As we looked out the window, we noticed that in our wood paneling in the ceiling there was a corner of one of the panels that seemed to be lifting. There were also a couple of small leaves that had made their way onto the wall just below the panel.
At 12:30am the wind was ferocious. We could hear it whipping around the house.
Looking at each other, Stewart and I went and got our boys up. We told them we needed them to get dressed and that we were going to get our shoes on as we feared our roof was going to go. We wanted to be prepared if we needed to move to shelter somewhere else. Miles got up right away and moved into action. He turned to me and said “Mom, I’m shaking I’m so scared.” I said “Me too! We’re going to be ok.” I said it with as much honesty as I could muster but was not sure that I actually believed it at that moment. Then we turned to wake up Gabe. He batted us away. We had to sit him up and start moving him like a puppet. Finally he realized what we were saying and he started to get moving.
We squeezed into Gabe’s closet with his wooden bi-fold doors open. Gabe nestled on a pillow under the shelves on the right-hand side of the closet. Miles sat next to him. Then I was next to Miles. Stewart sat on the bed facing us. Then we began to sing. That is what I do when I am scared. We sang primary songs. We sang hymns. We talked about being scared. We talked. We did anything that would allow us to get our mind off the experience we were having.
The wind roared outside. It sounded like a freight train or a jet engine was right outside the window. It was also extremely hot. Despite the amount of wind that was raging outside, it was sweltering inside. As we sat there I was sweating from the heat. I was sweating from fear. I was sweating because that is what we do here in St. Croix. The wind would howl and gust and then just when it sounded like it may begin to settle, it would pick up again more fiercely.
The forecasts had predicted the storm would be over St. Croix from 10pm until about 6am. As we sat there in the heat and the din of the storm outside, all I could think was “UGH!!! 6 hours of this!!!???!!! I don’t think I can do this.” We got the boys comfortable – as best we could in a closet – and they fell asleep for a bit. We all slept for a bit on and off for the next few hours.
Around 2am I had to go the bathroom. Seriously? I have never been scared to use my own bathroom. At that moment, the terror was real. The water in the bowl was pulsing with the wind. I rushed – probably faster than I have ever gone before.
Shortly after I returned from my harried bathroom break, we started hearing a really loud pounding coming from outside our little safe room. We were sure “this was it.” The roof was going. Or one of the shutters had been blown off and the window was about to be compromised. Stewart – suffering from a bit of cabin fever – went to check it out. I was a ball of anxiety as he left the room. Again, my over-active imagination took over and I had visions of my husband trying to keep the roof on or a window closed or any other matter of heroic efforts. I waited patiently by the door watching for the flicker of his flashlight to come peeking through the cracks. As soon as I saw that flicker, I threw open the door and welcomed him back into the room. I was so relieved to see him I didn’t even really care what he had discovered. Nevertheless, he reported that all was well. The roof was still intact. The shutters were all on. It seemed that some debris was outside hitting against the shutter on our bedroom window. He also reported that our downspouts that fill our cistern must have been removed by the wind as our cistern was not filling anymore.
Over the next several hours we tried to sleep amid the jet engine, the debris pounding (that lasted until it too “moved on”), and the sound of the rattling that had begun on the roof. Our roof is corrugated metal and it sounded as if someone was running a stick along the length of the roof – very unsettling.
We moved positions throughout the night; on the bed, off the bed, in the closet, next to the closet, snuggling mom, lying on the pillow (or making a make-shift pillow out of my church bag). It was exhausting, miserable, uncomfortable, loud, scary, boring, cramped, confined, and hot!
Finally we could hear the wind actually begin to slow down. Around 7:00am, Stewart went out of our safe room. I got my shoes on and told the boys to wait while we checked out the house. We peeked through the window on the living room door to see what we could see. We could see trees still swaying in the wind. Stewart could see that there was quite a lot of debris on the lawn. After assessing the inside of our home, we hadn’t lost any of our ceiling. We had some large puddles by each of our doors. Any and all towels we had put down to stem the water had been completely soaked through. We also had a very large, very brown, and very smelly puddle right next to our fridge.
We weren’t sure of the extent of the damage to the exterior of our home until Stewart braved to pull open our doors. As we yanked on them – they had warped with all the water – we got our first view of the devastation outside. That is what it was – devastating. Our lush green island – that Gabe had lovingly called the “green mossy shoe” – was now ALL brown for miles. I cried. I cried for the loss of color and life. I cried for those I knew had not fared as well as we did. And I cried out of gratitude that we had experienced the miracle of safety and protection.
Looking around our small neighborhood I knew we would have a lot of work ahead of us as a family, a community, an island. The storm was terrifying and now the real survival was to begin. As always though, I will choose courage. I will choose love. I will choose service. I will choose joy.