Texas Vacationers Survive Hurricane Irma on St. Thomas

by Donna Long on November 3, 2017 in Lifestyle, Living Texas, Travels,
airport after Irma Photo by Katrina King e1509737917457

What started as a much-anticipated vacation promising days of relaxation on the high seas turned into something drastically different. Stuck on an island devastated by Hurricane Irma, this Texas couple walked away with enough memories to last a lifetime • Cover photo St. Thomas airport after Hurricane Irma, by Katrina King

The Ultimate Peaceful Vacation: No crowds. No honking horns. No screeching sirens. Unfettered relaxed digital detox freedom. That is what Texas residents Mark and Katrina King and a couple of close friends had in mind when they rented a self-captained catamaran to sail around the British Virgin Islands for a week.

That they booked during hurricane season did not concern them. They did their homework and researched the frequency of direct hits of hurricanes in the area.

The beach front bar at Emerald Beach Resort on St. Thomas before Hurricane Irma.
Photo Katrina King

The beach front bar after Hurricane Irma.
Photo by Katrina King

If It Happens, We Deal With It: It was a beautiful sunny day in Tortola (the largest of the British Virgin Islands) when Mark and Katrina arrived at the catamaran. During the checkout process, the crew of the rental company said there was a possible hurricane forming but not to be concerned. If it was going to turn into an issue, the office would call them back. Mark recalls, “We kept in touch on a daily basis and had a great time diving, swimming, and exploring coves. We would tie up to mooring balls at night enjoying beautiful starry sky while having dinner.”

Saturday, September 2nd, Mark checked in with the office. No major concern, although they asked Mark to “stay south, closer to their base.”

The pool walkway at Emerald Beach Resort after Hurricane Irma.
Photo by Katrina King

Emerald Beach Resort after Hurricane Irma.
Photo by Katrina King

The Call – Return To Port Now: They decided to head to Soper’s Hole in the West End of Tortola. Sunday, they were sitting in a cute little restaurant having a croissant, recalls Katrina. That was when they got the call. The office said to have the boat back by Monday at noon. With only one night left on the boat, the pair was disappointed, but still not worried. The original plan, before the hurricane, was to return the boat on Wednesday, then take the ferry to St. Thomas, USVI and stay the night at Emerald Beach Resort. They’d fly home to Texas on Thursday. That was the plan anyways.

It Was Eerie and Surreal: Typically, when you near a marina, boats are scattered, explains Katrina. Some are leaving, some are returning, and some are just anchored in the bay enjoying a beautiful afternoon. Not this time. “You could see them all going in the same direction—towards the marina,” she says. “It was eerie.” The charter crew was working with noticeable urgency as the group docked. The friends were off the boat and on their way to the taxi for the ferry to St. Thomas in less than 30 minutes.

Hello Irma: The day before Irma hit St. Thomas was beautiful. “We lounged by the pool at Emerald Beach Resort and did some touristy things downtown,” Katrina says.

By 11 am, Irma was at the front door.

The winds picked up, the rain was coming down, and there was no electricity. Mark and Katrina laugh, recalling how they lay on the bed looking over at the sliding glass door. Katrina would get up every so often and mop the floors with towels, bedspreads—whatever was handy. After a while, she realized it was a losing battle.

The winds got so intense that the glass in the windows and door was bowing so much they could slide their hands between the stationary glass panel and the sliding patio door. Realizing that even tempered glass couldn’t withstand much of that, they decided to push against the center jams to keep the glass from bowing. For six hours they stood, taking turns holding the door.

The Aftermath: “We were astounded by the complete devastation,” says Mark. “It looked like someone had cut the grass and then used a leaf blower to spread the wet cuttings everywhere.” Big palm trees were reduced to leafless stubs or blown over. The beautiful blue pool they sat beside a couple of days before was a brown mess, full of sand, dirt, macerated plants, glass, and more. Emerald Beach Resort escaped—in comparison to other structures—with minimal damage.

Many nearby structures and hotels were either completely gone or had lost 80-95% of their structural integrity.

Working Side By Side With The Locals: “We couldn’t just sit there,” Mark says as Katrina nods. “We got out there with the hotel staff, us in our cute vacation shorts and sundress, sweeping up glass and debris, hauling away branches, and using a machete to cut through fallen trees,” explains Katrina. “It was hard and labor intensive, yet it kinda helped in a therapeutic kind of way.”

The owner of Emerald Beach—Louie—and the staff chose to weather the hurricane with the guests instead of leaving them to fend for themselves. They brought their families to the hotel; they even brought their dogs. “Louie took care of us. He opened his pantry to feed us three meals a day,” says Mark. And Louie did not charge his guests. “Other hotels were charging guests for the food and rooms, even though there was no running water, electricity or air conditioning,” recalls Mark.

Finally Going Home: With cell coverage spotty at best, it was hard at first to believe when they heard news that a cruise ship was on its way to pick up the stranded vacationers. “There were too many times that we were told there was a rescue team on the way, only to find out it was for a different group or a different island,” says Mark. Norwegian Cruise Line picked them up, one of several companies that made humanitarian trips to the islands.

Mark emphasizes that, although it was a cruise ship, it was not in cruise mode. “There were no fancy buffets, no nightly entertainment, the pools did not even have water in them—not that anyone cared. They were all thrilled to just be going home.”

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