One Swirl After Another

It took 3 hours of hard labor and some neighborly support to finally clear our drive. However, it didn’t really matter. The island was still under a 24 hour curfew, for good reason, of course. We were just annihilated by Hurricane Irma about 15 hours prior, so the day afterwards wasn’t much fun. We were safe, little damage to our apartment itself, and thankfully we still have phone service (which was a rarity and quite frankly didn’t really matter since only about 1/8th of the island had it- if that).

It took about 36 hours before we risked leaving the comfort of our apartment. Though none of us wanted to risk driving, so we decided to walk. We climbed the mountain to check on our friends apartment. We assisted with some minor clean up there before we made the trek into town.

This is where I’m still at a loss for words. I honestly don’t know how to fully explain what I saw…houses in shambles, power lines everywhere, trees completely bare, roofs missing, plus not to mention garbage and random household items scattered along waterfront and roads. Cars backed up for a good mile trying to get down the mountain. Police officers trying to get people to return home due to curfew (this, of course, people didn’t know as we had no power). Buildings didn’t look like themselves. Roads were flooded. The ocean water was a deep turquoise.

But yet, there was something positive among this whole situation. People were happy to be alive. People were waving and talking, just making sure everyone was okay.

By Saturday, things were looking up. More and more people were outside helping to clean up the roads, to remove debris. Bars and restaurants, began their clean ups in order to attempt to start making food at whatever capacity as quickly as possible.

For myself and my friends, we knew we needed to think of something. Something to help up make it through each passing day, knowing the life we had here was gone and wouldn’t be back for a long while.

The hunt on Facebook began and thankfully, it wasn’t long before my friend, Kris, reached out and messaged me about My Brother’s Workshop (MBW Cafe and Bakery) and their need for volunteers. On Sunday, just 4 days after Hurricane Irma barreled across our island, we stood at the doors of MBW Cafe and Bakery assisting them in preparing free meals to hand out to feel islanders.

It started small at 300ish meals and slowly grew with each passing day. With each passing day, we knew we blessed and we knew that this program was going to be something special. We knew we were creating memories, friendships and growing into a post-hurricane family and becoming apart of the community; a need that needed filling. And by day 7 Post Hurricane Irma (let’s say PHI), I think we were closing in on 1000 meals a day FOR FREE. Other places had opened in this time frame, some of which also offered free food, but several places offered cold drinks, beverages, and an escape from reality, well outside of small 8-5 curfew that was in place (basically daylight).

But I wish this post could end on such a happy note.

By day 10 PHI (Saturday Sept 16th), we knew something was brewing eastward in the middle of the Atlantic and we had to face reality…Hurricane Maria was closing in on the Caribbean and fear was, once again, racing through everyone’s mind. We had just been hurt, battered and bruised by one of the stronger hurricane’s every recorded and now we had to prepare for another storm, not yet as strong but gaining strength. People were running low on supplies, gas, and water and lines started to become impossible to get through.

I wish I was kidding and I was praying She would move north as Hurricane Jose had done (and again, not kidding- Hurricane Jose was a little too close for comfort; and yes, this did make 3 hurricanes in 2 weeks).

By day 12 PHI, reality was in full force, Hurricane Maria was coming right towards us and STILL gaining strength. And I think what made it worse, she was coming at us from a different angle and about to hit two islands, who majorly assisted us in our time of need, DIRECTLY. Day 13 PHI, hurricane shutters returned to our windows and Hurricane Maria was now measuring as a Category 5 hurricane and slowing down. She also was scheduled to make landfall to our sister island of St. Croix in the middle of the night, which meant the same for us. It’s one thing for these monsters to hit us in the afternoon, but the middle of the night when our homes and night sky are completely black and dark is just cruel.

I was terrified when Irma hit, but my fear escalated, not for my safety, but for this island I have called home for over a year. Irma took so much away and damaged so much of our island (and much of the Caribbean), and her ugly sister Maria came in with vengeance.

I was blessed that I still had a home with a solid roof over my head and friends to ride out the storm with, but ignoring the outside noise and bypassing the time with card games only goes so far.

As Maria got closer and closer, she not only slowed down, but got louder and louder. While sitting in my room, this time around my room was actually safe to be in, I realized my PTSD from Irma started to kick in with the shakes, tears, and full on fear.

Let me explain something quickly…when I say safer here is why. The location of these hurricanes play a role in which rooms might be safer. Where my apartment is located we have East, North and West facing windows. For Irma, she passed by coming from the southeast with her swirl going counter-clockwise, making her winds hit our apartment to the west. My bedroom only has west facing windows, which remained unboarded during both storms, as they are on the 3rd floor and not easily accessible. For Maria, she passed up from the southeast, meaning her swirls went clockwise, hitting us from the north and east. These windows were fully boarded up with some cracks in our doorways.

So…for Irma our bedrooms weren’t the safest place. They were where you could hear the noise the worst and where the water entered the apartment. For Maria, our bedrooms were where the noise was lessened and no water was entering the apartment. Does that make sense…?

Now that you might understand a little more, laying in my bedroom as Maria was inching her way closer and closer, the noise started to get to me even though it wasn’t the loudest location in the apartment. I can only truly describe the noise as a consistent howl fluctuating in pitch and length combined with the sounds of wooshing, rustling trees (the ones that Irma missed) and raindrops pounding endlessly against all sides.

At this point, I was panicking and struggling to take my mind off of what was going on outside so I reached out to friends and family through texting and Facebook to help ease my racing heart and calm my nerves. Thank goodness I have such an amazing support system, because I managed to fall into a deep sleep ignoring much of ugly bitch Maria’s fury.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end here. When the morning sun rose, the night’s events became into full view. Nothing appeared at first glance to be majorly damaged minus the water that snuck into the apartment, which was an easy and simple clean up. And outside didn’t look much different than after Irma…until our friend attempted to head home.

Was it a tree blocking the drive way? No, not a tree…diffidently not a tree. It was a WALL. More specifically, it was a retaining wall and about 5 feet of road. Think I’m kidding. Yeah, I’m not. The landslide caused the retaining wall to completely collapse.

Our neighbor believes that this happened because the gutters/irrigation system near the retaining wall was still blocked from Irma and the water only had one place to go, over the road directly to it. Which of course overloaded the retaining wall and it’s support, resulting in a rockslide before the wall’s utter collaspe. Did I mention that this wall was about 2 feet thick of SOLID concrete and probably close to 30-40 feet in length.

STUCK. Completely STUCK. Maria’s fury took away our freedom to leave our property. Thankfully, I have amazing landlords, who, along with family and us, started clearing a pathway to be able to walk over the rockslide and concrete slab. But, ultimately we had ZERO hope in removing our vehicles from the property.

Thankfully, one of our friends had a spare car, which he graciously allowed us to drive until our cars were free from the retaining wall. This was a blessing because otherwise we’d have to hitch-hike down the mountain to My Brother’s Workshop (MBW Cafe and Bakery) to volunteer. Well, not really, as we had amazing new hurricane-family members, who offered to help us out. But this aspect diffidently put a damper on things. It also created a huge hassle, though we were still better off then majority of the Caribbean residents and for that I’m eternally grateful.

After Maria, we were under a 24 hour curfew, yet again, for about 48 hours and it was a tough 48 hours. We were forced to stay at home; we were living life in darkness; and our intake consisted of mostly canned food. Sounds fun right? Thankfully, we had a friend staying with us and he helped us get delicious, non-canned food!! These little things are what made post hurricane life tolerable.

It took us about three days before we were able to rejoin our amazing hurricane family at MBW Cafe and Bakery to resume the feeding program. This program saved my life, not physically, but mentally and emotionally. This program brought us a family, brought us hope, brought us happiness, and brought us enjoyment amongst the devastation. Without MBW, my post hurricane life probably would have resulted in me leaving the island. Instead, I stayed. And I know it sounds funny, maybe ironic, it might even sound strange, but although my life has completely changed since the first swirl hit St. Thomas, staying was the best decision.

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