I had just finished a packed summer working in the Frick Chemistry Lab at Princeton and was therefore so relieved and excited to see my parents. I had not seen them in over eight months, the longest I have ever gone without seeing them. Stepping off the plane and walking into the airport lobby, I was warmly greeted by my parents and two shots of flavored Cruzan Rum, a true reminder that I was home and a taste that I missed. We spent the next couple of weeks getting back to our old family life, living life how it was before I went to college.
I am proud to call myself a native U.S. Virgin Islander of 18 years. With over three quarters of St. John reserved as a national park, the pristine elegance is almost untouched by humanity, fully able to flourish and bring out the colors of the Caribbean. Each time I return home, I gain a new appreciation of how special a place it is that I come from. I can only ever hear awe mixed with envy from state-siders when I tell them where I hail from.
But then, all of a sudden, a rapid transformation occurred. Almost out of nowhere, a hurricane popped up on the local radio and radar of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A strengthening storm was on a direct collision course with our tiny cluster of islands. By the time Hurricane Irma would hit the Virgin Islands, it would be classified as a Category 5 hurricane, the worst hurricane ever to be recorded in the history of the existence of NOAA – actually, if Category 6 was a thing, Irma would have been considered that, but there isn’t such a category because such a powerful hurricane had never been seen before. Tell me climate change isn’t a thing and you are a complete fool.
The island prepared for an oncoming hit, buying essentials like canned food and bottled water. My dad and I prepared our home by putting up iron shutters around our house that would protect sliding glass doors and windows from debris flung around by the hurricane’s winds. We would soon feel the full force and indescribable wrath of 220+ mile-per-hour wind gusts on our tiny 32-square mile island, and boy, would the island never forget it.
The date was September 6. The news said that the force of Hurricane Irma would hit later that day. We were as prepared as we could be and braced for the storm. The wind gradually grew stronger as the day got longer and the night drew nearer. My Mom, Dad, and I stepped outside on our patio many times to see increasingly worsening conditions. Our last outside visit before Irma invaded was seeing one of our fondest trees enduring such high wind force bashing that it cracked in half, like an inflatable stick man used in car advertisements. Unsure of what was to come and hoping for the best, we went back inside and hunkered down. Soon after, our house lost power, like much of the entire island, and then all anyone could hear was the howling of the wind, the sound of an enormous, unending freight train passing by.
With candlelight illuminating the inside of our closed-up, dark house, we heard the unmistakable roaring and hissing of the wind, but then a new sound arrived — the battering of the iron shutters from, with what we could hear, all sorts of debris: from tiny pebbles and sticks, to huge branches and formidable stones that could crush a human body with one strike. We could hear our trees fighting the wind. As mentioned earlier, my family loves nature, and so, in the 20 years my parents have been on St. Thomas, we surrounded our house with a buffer zone of trees, not only for beauty’s sake and a sense of privacy, but also for protection in case of a hurricane. But that barrier couldn’t protect us for the circumstances we were going through. The one time we attempted to open one of our wooden doors, the sky was pitch-black and we couldn’t see a thing.
Once again, all we heard was the whistling of raging wind, and the pelting ping of threatening objects against the iron shutters. Yet once more, a new sound arose — the sad cracking of trees that resembled the falling effect of dominos one after another … Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Bam! Bam! Bam! Boom! A cacophony of chaos and mayhem swirled around us as we clung to each other, trying to stay sane with the feeling of pressurized changes throughout the rooms. We kept trying to equalize and pop our ears constantly to ease the ongoing discomfort of the changing pressures to no avail. However, that would soon be the least of our worries.
A few hours later, with Irma still wreaking havoc, we did our rounds of the house. Flooding had started to occur, so we plugged some leaks with towels. I manned the damp mop machine and continually wrung out the wet towels. It was nonstop tedious work, but it was necessary. And let me tell you, the worst flooding was coming from a solid wooden door inches thick. I don’t know how on Earth the water could be pouring in from a closed door, but it was.
I was honestly scared shitless. I had been through some tropical storms before and some minor hurricanes, but never a serious hurricane, let alone a Category 5 event. The last hurricanes to seriously impact the Virgin Islands, Hugo and Marilyn, blew off the entire floor of my house, as if it was built out of toothpicks. And Hugo and Marilyn were nowhere near as strong as Irma was.
After the flooding subsided and the eye of the storm was past us, we tried to get some rest, but with the wind barrages still ongoing and not letting up in magnitude, not to mention a thunderstorm pouring down around us, it was one of the worst nights I have ever had in my life. I had the feeling of not being safe and truly scared for my life. All it would take was for one window to crack, one pipe to rupture, one door to implode, and we would have been sucked away into the abyss.
Somehow, we made it through the night in one piece. With daylight dawning, we tried to open up one of our doors. It wouldn’t budge, as it was warped from heavy flooding and blockaded with wreckage. We opened a back door and went up to our roof to have our first glimpse of the aftermath. Our house resides on the north side of St. Thomas on its highest mountain, Crown Mountain. Irma’s force came from the northwest. Since we are so high up on the mountain, we have a complete panoramic view of three quarters of the island.
We climbed up our spiral staircase to the roof. We gasp. “HOLY SHIT! GONE, EVERYTHING IS GONE...” It was as if an atomic bomb had detonated. The entire island was in ruins. Trees that weren’t cracked or uprooted were leafless. Most houses were demolished, in pieces, or roofless. Power poles were down, horizontal on the ground. Power lines were strewn across the road, dangerous live wires that could electrocute someone to their death with a misstep.
We could barely look because it hurt so much. We could barely believe and come to terms with what had happened. I grabbed the binoculars, and my attention turned to Magen’s Bay, my favorite beach on St. Thomas. Once rated one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, it looked now like a heavily war-ravaged battlefield. The winds blew what foliage would be greeting you at the beach away. The once inviting water that once showed countless colors of blue was one shade of lime green, as if the island and water surrounding it was sick with some indescribable disease. My Mom turned to the right and saw the Norfolk pine that she planted 20 years ago.
Just a week ago, it was once the healthiest and tallest Norfolk pine on the island, and a landmark that we used to locate our house if someone was looking up from the sea. Its once lush and grandiose branches were now entirely stripped off. My Mom burst into tears, and just about at that point, so did my Dad and I. She said that the trees gave their lives to protect our house and she was right. They did. Our house was still standing. The once graceful Norfolk pine now looked like a large jagged knife sticking up from the ground. Another huge tree had crashed on top of our roof. Thank God the house was built out of solid, poured concrete. Unfortunately, many other houses were not. All were affected. The rich the poor, no matter how much you prepared or how much you thought you were protected; there was no escaping the wrath of Irma.
We were now, all of us, officially refugees of a catastrophe. Many had lost everything, their homes and personal belongings, all they had accumulated in their entire life, gone with the wind.
And so began the island-wide cleanup effort. I, like everyone else, had to help my family out first. If I hadn’t been there at home, my parents would never have been able to clean up our property, which was in a sad state, ankle-high in leaves and with fallen trees. The ground itself was so soaked that your foot would sink a couple inches into the soil when you tried to move. Years of my father’s sweat, blood, and tears spent gardening and managing our property was gone in a matter of hours. While my Mom and I cleared our road, he salvaged what he could of the plantings he had put life into and given a home so long ago. It was heartbreaking. And, one could say that these are only trees. I could still only imagine what the rest of the island looked like and what the people were going through, tourists and locals alike.
I spent the next three days cleaning up with my parents, hauling piles of leaves, palm fronds, and dead trees, spending more time with my mom then I ever did since the time I was home. Navigating the St. Thomas roads was like an ongoing obstacle course, avoiding dead trees, crossing over fallen power lines, trying to squeeze through the small openings without falling off the mountain. I helped my mother recover the last of her important surviving files out of her office at the Territorial Public Defenders. Her office was wiped out, leaving only wet, soggy piles of ripped up carpet, fallen roof, and forcibly disassembled wood.
Outside was pandemonium. There was an island-wide curfew from 12 noon to 6 p.m. So, you can imagine the lines for obtaining essentials like food, water, and gas. Lines at the surviving gas stations wrapped on and on. There was talk of looting, robbing at gunpoint, and other walks of crime that occurred in supermarkets, ATMs, and with people in their cars, all that were left vulnerable, exposed from Irma. Those acts of conduct were completely unacceptable, but what would you do if your family was in desperate need and it was, truly, a matter of life or death?
After helping my parents out enough, my primary concern was to get back to Princeton, because school was starting and I did not want to get behind on the surely-to-be-hectic academic year. Move-in day on Princeton’s campus for all returning students was September 9. I could not even leave my house by then. I was still clearing debris from our driveway. Classes started on September 13. Would I even make it back on time? How would I even get off the island?
The airport had suffered heavy damage. The communications tower used to relay information from the ground up to aircraft was destroyed in the storm, and therefore commercial flights would be inoperable for days, maybe even weeks. No one really knew what was going to happen. All I knew was that I could not wait that long. More importantly, other people, tourists and locals alike, with other, more dire needs, could not wait that long.
Days passed. By this time, island restoration had begun, but not at a fast enough pace. People were still homeless, without power, food, water, Internet service, or other forms of communication. My family and I, like others, developed a system to get water. Since the Virgin Islands are so small, there has never been a public water pipeline system, so the majority of residents have personal cisterns. We hauled buckets and water pails up from water cisterns, sending us back to a bygone era.
Tuning into WSTA 1340, Lucky 13, again as we often did, and listening to Addie Ottley, word had it that mercy cruise ships were being sent from Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines in coordination with the Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, to transport people who needed to get off the island to Miami, Florida, or San Juan, Puerto Rico. Not knowing when the airport would be functioning again, my parents decided that if those cruise ships did arrive, that would be the call. I would leave my island, my home, by water, and take a flight out of San Juan, which had luckily avoided the full force of Irma, back to Princeton.
I packed up my belongings. This might be the last time I would see my parents for a while. The next day, I said farewell to my Dad, not sure if I would see him again. My Mom and I waited by the Smoking Rooster Bar in Havensight Marina, the place where one would be admitted to board a cruise ship, for as long as we could. We spent the entire day there. Although first in line, it felt like we were waiting for an eternity. We weren’t the only ones, though. More and more people showed up, exhausted and desperate to leave.
My Mom had to leave before curfew ended, so I had to say goodbye to her in a most informal way. I have always known there is a special bond between a mother and son, and I felt it more strongly here than all the other times I had to leave my Mom. We embraced each other in a hug that I did not want to let go of, and neither did she. Tears filled our eyes. I hated myself for having to leave both my parents in such a state, but life was going on elsewhere whether with or without us, and for now, duty called me away from St. Thomas.
Later, it was another pitch-black night, as the cruise ship pulled into the Havensight cruise dock around 10:00 p.m. Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas was like a beacon of hope for those wanting to get off the island. The massive crowd and I boarded and at once were granted amenities that we sorely missed: showers, power, food, Internet service, and phone service. I felt so relieved, yet at the same time, so guilty that many still could not share in the delights that I was enjoying. Majesty of the Seas, initially scheduled to depart at midnight that same night, ended up staying docked a whole extra day to let extra passengers on until the cabins were filled to the brim.
We finally departed at 7:00 p.m. that day, September 13, and I was taken away from my home, saying another heart-aching goodbye. I finally slept better that night and we arrived at San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the cruise ship port by 7:00 a.m. on September 14. I debarked immediately from the cruise ship, wanting to waste no time. We were greeted by the U.S. Coast Guard, Army, and San Juan police. I was shocked by the way we were treated. I appreciated the attention, but I wish, from what I saw at St. Thomas when I left, more attention and resources would be spent there. Two police motorcycles escorted me on a shuttle from the cruise ship dock to the San Juan Airport. Whizzing over, we stopped not even once: running every light, the police cutting off traffic from incoming merging lanes. My heart raced and blood pressure rose even if it did not want to. After that, the details escape me.
Now, I am back at Princeton, safe and sound, but I cannot get my parents out of my mind. I cannot get the picture of the state of my home out of my mind. The image is too starkly imprinted, too vivid, too unforgettable. I wish I could just blink my eyes and have it all go back to the way it was before Irma, but that’s not possible. All I know is that when I graduated from St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as a senior from the Peter Gruber International Academy, I meant what I said, that I would come back to help the Virgin Islands. Before, it was one thing that I aspired to do: to bring what knowledge I gain from the outside world back to better my home. But, now it is my responsibility as a native Virgin Islander. St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands will recover, perhaps not to their former glory, but to a different and better beauty that reflects the magic within the Caribbean. I cannot leave my home in such a state. I will return.
Marcus Norkaitis is a junior in Chemical and Biological Engineering from St. Thomas, USVI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.