Facing Down the Storm: Firsthand Accounts of the Day Irma Struck the V.I.

On the first anniversary of the passage of Hurricane Irma, some of the people called to duty in the face of the onslaught shared their stories. Here are their accounts of their experiences.

Irvin Mason, St. John Disaster Response Coordinator

Irvin Mason, St. John Disaster Response Coordinator

“September 6. I got up. A storm is approaching the territory. It already has a name, definitely going to hit. It’s Irma. It’s going to hit the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 hurricane.

We at VITEMA are preparing; making sure people get information, making sure they get their property and disaster kit ready, get their supplies ready for when the storm hits.

I remember when that hurricane hit. We were at VITEMA [emergency operations center at Susannaberg]; everything was fine.

We had high winds, and in the middle of the storm I felt my ears popping — popping, popping. And when I looked up, the roof was gone. At VITEMA headquarters here on St. John, the roof was gone.

Water was gushing, coming down the building. There was an air conditioner just bouncing off the wall. We had a couple of people in there with us, about eight of us — Linda, the police lieutenant, the fire chief.

And we had to literally get a rope — an electrical cord — and we had to hold onto the door, making sure it didn’t blow in. The wind was going to pull the door off the hinges. That’s how serious it was.

That was after the roof went off. We were in there, praying, hoping.
At one time it got real quiet. You know, at that time, the eye was passing over. Any time the eye is passing over it gets real quiet. Then it picked up again, about 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning it picked up again.

When I woke up the next morning and I saw the devastation we had on St. John, I was surprised we didn’t lose a lot of lives in that hurricane. It had to be the work of God, of a supreme being, that we didn’t have that much people die in that disaster — Irma.

I got outside in the morning and I looked at the devastation — Oof. Especially Coral Bay. When we got to Coral Bay it looked like somebody had taken a bomb and just dropped it in Coral Bay. Everything was brown. It was like Hiroshima.

People were just walking around — they couldn’t believe it —  in dismay. They couldn’t believe they were in such a disaster on St. John.

In a vehicle, it takes a couple of hours — takes a long time because everything was down. Part of the way, we had to walk, because we couldn’t get through.

In fact, one of the guys who was in the [emergency operations center] that night, when he got out in the morning and he had to get home, he couldn’t get out. He had to get home. He walked from VITEMA to Bordeaux Mountain, and that’s an elder guy — he’s in his 60s.

Our EOC manager, Linda — her family — she didn’t know what was going on with her family. It was so funny. She got up about 3 o’clock in the morning.

She said, ‘Gotta go, gotta go. I gotta get out of here. Gotta go to my family.’

But we wouldn’t let her go. Because if she had gotten out at that time, trees were down, poles were down. Everything was down. It was really devastating.”

Athniel “Addie” Ottley, President, Ottley Communications, Broadcaster

“Once we started getting the reports from the Florida area coming into the Caribbean, we knew this was a serious storm. It wasn’t reports where it was going to turn north and then drop off — it kept looking directly at us.

That was something else. But we have basically been prepared here at WSTA with the generator, two generators. The good thing, the way that we’re blessed, is that the tower stayed up. All the weather — the wind, the rain, the thunder, the lightning. Nothing shorted out.

So we were able to stay up on the air twenty-four, seven — throughout this entire period. That’s the real story of WSTA. Being prepared, being the people’s station. Able to survive two Category 5 hurricanes.

The way we’re sitting now [at master control, looking through a window at a marine terminal in Crown Bay], is the way I was sitting twenty-four, seven. Even this was closed. I couldn’t see outside. It was all barred up.

I did not realize how serious the hurricane damage was until I opened that front door. The first thing that hit my sight was the laundry. I said, “Geez! What would have happened if we were not on the air?”

Where would I go? Everything’s on the ground. How do I travel? Then we started getting calls, then I realized how serious this problem was. I know that we had to be here 24 hours, on the air, checking with other radio stations. We were the only place in the Virgin Islands at the time. For several days, really.

That taught me a lesson, because then we had to decide how were were going to shift our staff around; who’s going to be here on a regular basis. Because you couldn’t move back and forth because of the damage that was done to the territory.

So I made the decision that I would stay here, sleep here, work here twenty-four, seven. And I did that for several weeks.

But that was an experience.”

Ernest Matthias, Deputy Chief, Virgin Islands Fire Service, St. John

Ernest Matthias, Deputy Chief, Virgin Islands Fire Service, St. John

“I’ve seen all kinds of hurricanes, growing up in John’s Folly with my parents. Right down on the beach, beautiful beach in John’s Folly. I’ve seen many hurricanes.

I start with Hurricane Frederick, David, Marilyn, Hugo and Georges. It’s kind of a unique place where I live, on the beach. When you live in the States, when the snow comes, you have to dig yourself out.

Living on the beach in John’s Folly, actually I live right on the beach. There’s no road to get to the beach. It’s a beach. So it can take days and days to get out. It’s unique where my mom’s house is set up, because you can see all those big waves, pounding and pounding. It would just miss our parent’s house.

I was out there, wearing my hat as fire chief, we all were going into emergency mode, getting prepared for the hurricane. We did a lot of preparation with both fire houses.

As you know, all emergencies are at VITEMA, and that’s where I was, sheltering out the hurricane. Unfortunately all the electronics at VITEMA were shot because we lost the roof there. Everything was flooded. We lost all communication.

We had to fight to hold onto the door, taking turns tying in doors so they don’t blow off. They had one air conditioner there, it was amazing. It was running.

We lost power, but we had a generator. It was energizing the building. The unit was going in and out with the wind, water’s flooding, but it never stopped. That was the amazing thing.

Up to now, this day, it still does work (laughs).

VITEMA is basically where all the heads go. They dispatch information out. For me, to the firefighters. If there’s an emergency we send them out. But for me, in every meeting I go, safety’s first. To an extent we send firefighters out, but when it gets too dangerous, we shelter in.

From that night at VITEMA, the next morning we lost communication. I walked from VITEMA, all the way to Coral Bay. Over trees, under trees. Around wires, over wires, under wires. It took me three hours to get out here.

When I got out here, I see all the destruction. I met one of my firefighters who was walking to town, and told me he lost his parent’s house. He told me the situation at the firehouse. He told me a big tree from [Guy Benjamin] school fell on the generator, smashed the generator and the power stopped.

He told me some windows were blown out from the firehouse and trees and debris smashed the ambulance. It was kind of scary, so they left after the storm slowed down and headed to Calabash Boom, where most of the firefighters live.

I came and I saw all the debris. It was amazing. I walked three and a half hours to get here and stuck with the firefighters. Most of them weren’t here. They had moved to Calabash Boom because of the destruction.

The road was blocked, so they couldn’t move our vehicles from here. They had to walk. I walked from here out to Calabash Boom. I met with the guys, we held a little meeting.

I tell them take care of their families that night and then we met first thing in the morning. Thank God for the firefighters. They helped the families, then they came back and went into emergency mode.

They started cleaning the road with chainsaws, with community help. The firehouse was amazing because it was the number one place to come to.”

Schneider Hospital’s VP of Facilities Darryl Smalls stands inside the largely abandoned administrative area on the hospital’s second floor.

Darryl Smalls, Sr. Vice President of Operations, Schneider Regional Medical Center

“What generally happens is much of the senior leadership team resides in the building during a storm because of not being able to get here during the storm. Many of us were already here in the building. Also, depending on what love ones you had here, they may have been here.

So not only was the clinical staff assisting, we had a number of individuals — whether their children or their significant others, or spouses, helping. Moving water. Not getting into patient care, but just helping with water movement, debris. Anything to try to help keep the building a safe environment.

You’re here, for the most part comfortable. We do have air conditioning. We did not lose power for the storm. We have generators.

The night of the storm the winds started picking up. The (Water and Power Authority electrical) feeders started dropping. Even before that, I automatically put the building on back up generator power. It provides 100 percent power for the facility.

All air conditioning, all systems are operational. We ran on generator for about five days before WAPA restored power to the hospital. Because of requirements for the hospital we have to be connected to two feeders — one generally is an overhead feeder. The other is an underground feeder.

By all means, WAPA was able to restore power to the hospital fairly quickly.

From a facilities standpoint, I focus on five areas, following a disaster — emergency room, anticipating an influx of patients; the operating room, to hande whatever trauma comes through the door; ICU to house those individuals who might be critical. Our dialysis unit, as well as labor and delivery.

Obviously traumatic events like that might induce labor, in some cases. As a result, those are my priorities. I can tell you that within 24 hours of the storm, four of those five areas were up and running. Not 100 percent but we were anticipating an influx of patients.

The one area that was not up was dialysis and it was not because the dialysis unit was damaged. It was the air conditioning for that literally imploded and I needed two days to fabricate some siding for it. Once we got that up, it provided some air conditioning for the building.”

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