Our Hurricane Irma Story
St. John, US Virgin Islands, September 4th: I finished packing and labeling my last pre-storm shipment of 30 pairs of Vines sandals and headed for the post office in Cruz Bay. I was loaded with envelopes and boxes all packed with LUV. Though it seemed like a normal delivery to the post, it was not. I felt anxious and worried as I rushed around getting my last errands completed. I had no idea how long it would be until I could ship out again, until life would be “normal” again. I had no idea what was about to happen to my small island.
Hurricane Irma, a Category 5, was heading straight toward us and was expected to hit our island the following morning. I had stocked up on water, food and gas, and had communicated my plans to my friends, family and my Nashville business partner, Liz, to prepare for whatever was coming next. We expected, at a minimum, we wouldn’t have power, Internet, or phone service for at least a few days. Later, we realized that was a huge underestimation.
The adrenaline kicked in as I rearranged and packed up my entire home and hauled more than 50 large bins full of Vines sandals into what I hoped was the “safest” room in my house. Nailing plywood over my windows and doors, I prayed. Would my charming, wooden house hold up? Would our entire business inventory and all my personal belongings end up strewn across the ravines and hills of St. John? After securing everything as best I could in the amount of time I had, Ferngully (my dog) and I left to join my sister, my friends, and another dog in a safe house and location to pass the storm.
Irma swept over us on Sept. 5th with such force that meteorologists determined its strength was even greater than a Cat. 5. It was declared a Category 5, F1. Never before has the Atlantic brought such a strong, forceful, and destructive hurricane into the Caribbean and our islands. St. John is tiny, only 20 square miles in total. We felt desperately exposed and unprotected. Just a small speck in the middle of two oceans.
That morning we watched in disbelief as the sky turned solid white with wind and rain while tress bent completely sideways as if they were made of rubber. As it continued to escalate, we were finally forced to take true shelter. We closed ourselves into the basement and could do nothing but let the hurricane pound down on us for over seven hours. The sound was never-ending, creepy, eerie and overwhelmingly loud. Suddenly there was a different kind of banging and shaking and the barometric pressure was all over the place. We could feel it in our heads, our ears kept popping. The toilet was shooting water up and down like a fountain from the pressure changes.
The wind was whipping around violently and we saw that the front double door was about to burst open. It was bending, sucking in and out. Two of us slammed a bookshelf up against the bulging door and held it with all our strength, screaming for a drill. The situation had become so tense and extreme that I had a sudden realization that this was FOR REAL and anything could happen. Someone came with a drill and a table which we drilled above the bookshelf. When I let go, I was trembling, my chest was tight, but I was finally able to release the breath I didn’t even realize I had been holding.
The next long hours were spent mopping up the flooding inside, wringing out towels and telling ourselves that it wasn’t really that bad. Everything would be ok, and HEY! We did have snacks, candles and most importantly each other. We shared laughs and stories through the madness, easing the tension. It was a surreal sort of romantic…if you could just forget a violent hurricane was thrashing outside.
It was finally dusk. The winds died down enough for us to feel safe enough to emerge from our shelter. Pure shock. It was overwhelming. Devastation everywhere. I could barely see through my own salty, thick tears. Annihilation. Practically everything was broken. Our hearts were broken. I felt complete disbelief and distress. Tornadoes had torn through the island picking up people’s homes and spitting out all their personal belongings all over the hillsides. It looked as if bombs had exploded from inside of them. No leaves left on the trees. No green anywhere. I wept. We were in shock and scared for our friends, our neighbors, the wildlife.
There was no time for this to sink in. Destruction was now our reality. We had to instantly deal with the hard realization that life as we knew it was long gone. Our paradise had become a brown, barren wasteland. The national park looking like it had turned into a war zone. In one day the St. John we knew and loved was now only a memory.
If it wasn’t for the amazing spirit of St. Johnians, it would have taken weeks to be able to drive the roads. Without a pause, we all began working together as a community. Everyone immediately took to the streets to clear telephone poles, roofs, trees and unexpected and bizarre any debris - hot tubs, trailers, kayaks, whole rooms of houses, flipped vehicles. Incredibly, the main road was passable halfway across the island within less than 24 hours!
Making our way to town, our minds were racing. Did anyone die? How many people were hurt? Is everyone accounted for? What happened where? We felt helpless without telephones. The intensity of stress everyone felt along with the unbearable, shadeless heat was like a screaming hot, boiling kettle. We were beyond anxious to reach out to our loved ones off island. Coming around the roundabout into town, we saw hundreds of people hanging off the balcony of Dolphin Market, trying to get a signal to make phone calls out. Everyone was hugging each other, tears of relief fell all around. We all shared phones to help others get through to home, but we were limited to only brief words as we fought for a good signal.
Coral Bay, on the east side of the island where Irma made first contact, was cut off for about 2 days. The roads were so badly blocked that no one could get in or out. We couldn’t imagine the destruction being any worse than what we were seeing in Cruz Bay. But it was. Coral Bay was hit even harder and left even more ravaged. The trees were severed at only 3-5 feet high. The wind was so powerful, it carried all the broken branches off with it and now the lush, green hillsides look like a desert of wooden pegs.
The stories of the storm survivors buzzed across the island, helping us assimilate what had just occurred. People spoke of hiding in closets, frantically running from room to room as roofs and walls were ripped off by the whipping winds. Some abandoned their homes and took refuge in cars in the middle of the raging storm. Rain flooded into homes, pooling on the floors. People were afraid of electrocution when generators kicked on. Many laid in bathtubs, mattresses held on top of children, screaming. I heard about a young boy who urgently told his parents goodbye because he was sure they were going to die. So many families have been left without homes, out of work for the foreseeable future and with no solution in site.
My sister, Cortney’s house was completely destroyed – gone. Her top floor now sits directly upon small river that runs about 150 feet below her property. When I came upon my home and I saw it was still standing, all I could do was cry. I walked into through the space where my front door used to be and relief swept over me. My living space was destroyed, the roof gone and walls collapsed, but the sandal bins were still stacked right where I left them. Only a couple of small bins of sandals had lost their lids and been completely filled with water! And those bins just happened to hold our “STORM” sandals!! As my hurricane family and I tried to figure out how I would possibly move all this merchandise to a safe space, five people I didn’t even know well offered to help. My tears fell again. Together, we carried the 52 bins up the dilapidated stairs to a pickup truck and jeep. It took 4 trips each down one of the rockiest roads in Love City to get them to their new safe space. We were beyond thankful and relieved. LUV was all around!!
Liz and I were in immediate agreement that we would donate 150 pairs of sandals to those on the island who had lost so much – including the shirts on their back and the shoes on their feet. The Storm sandals along with others were destined to walk on the feet of Hurricane Irma survivors. I handed some out on the streets, sent some in a truck to Coral Bay and gave the rest to the onsite, local Red Cross efforts. It was the beginning of a long recovery process. I had no idea when we would be able to resume our Vines fulfillment, and thought about transporting everything to Puerto Rico until St. John’s infrastructure was back in place.
BUT THEN, before we could really even catch our breath, Hurricane Maria was on her way. We had little time to assess the damage before making the most crucial repairs to our safe space and taking cover again. I made the difficult decision to leave my home, our sandals, and Ferngully with my sister and dear friends two days before Maria hit. I evacuated STJ to travel back to the states to regroup with Liz. I knew that I needed telephone and internet capabilities in order to keep our business running.
St. Croix and Puerto Rico were pounded by Maria. We feel for them so very much. Amazingly, St. John was not hit as badly this time. Recovery and reconstruction efforts were set back a bit and there is a long way to go. We are slowly moving forward, one moment at a time, together. The destruction, the unknown future, and the heat (with no leaves left to shade us any longer) weighs heavily on all of us. But those who live on STJ are a special breed. “The people are as strong as the island’s vegetation,” as one Vine’s customer wrote to us after Irma. “With some sunshine, rain and time, the island will be renewed. Once again it will be lush and green.”
FEMA, The Red Cross, The US Navy and Coast Guard have arrived onsite. They are vital to our recovery, safety and survival. Our gratitude is overwhelming. Since day one post-Irma, Kenny Chesney has been directly helping STJ as well. His connection with and love for the islands and their inhabitants is longstanding. He has been flying in supplies almost daily and flying out passengers, evacuating hundreds of islanders and their animals. Kenny and Dale Earnhardt Jr’s (who also used his plane in aide) generosity has touched the lives of many, including mine. They made it possible for me to get off island just before Maria. They have made a world of difference in so many people’s lives. We LUV you!
These days we are constantly in touch with our STJ family, keeping up on news of airport and post office re-openings. There are so many patient, supportive Vines LUV’ahs eagerly awaiting their online orders to be fulfilled and we are focused on getting them out and on feet as soon as we can!
As we say, Vines are Strappy. Sassy. Strong. Can’t deny their strength. Double hurricane tested!! And our values are stronger than ever. Our ultimate goal is to create a quality product line of islandwear and be able to give back to this beautiful world we live in. So why not start now?
Update: We had a successful Vines Islandwear “Hurricampaign” where we committed portions of our sandal sales to donate to St. John through Kenny Chesney’s Love for Love City Foundation, and were able to donate hundreds of pairs of LUV sandals to those in need on the islands! With Liz in Nashville, Michelle in St. John, and a business built on LOVE, how could it be any more fitting?