ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca native Katie Gasteiger, who had lived on St. John for the past year, is one of thousands of residents who have fled the U.S. Virgin Islands after hurricanes have devastated the small islands that are typically a tourist oasis.
The condition of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been described as “disastrous” after Hurricane Irma. The Category 5 storm, which had winds up to 185 miles per hour, has caused significant damage to the islands. Homes were flattened, trees were downed, power went out and help has been slow to arrive.
St. John’s pristine beaches, national park and many resorts and shops make it a popular tourist destination. At about eight miles long and four miles wide, St. John is the smallest of the main Virgin Islands. It has a population of just over 4,000, but tourists make that number swell.
After visiting the island once, Gasteiger said she knew she wanted to live there. So a few months after graduating from Ithaca College last year, Gasteiger moved to St. John with her boyfriend, Nathan Martin, from Lansing. Martin moved there first to find them a house and did in a just a few days. Gasteiger describes the house is a little cottage on Bordeaux Mountain. Martin got a job as a head bartender at one of the longest-standing restaurants on the island. Gasteiger also found a job at the popular restaurant Rhumb Lines in Cruz Bay.
Before moving to St. John, Gasteiger said she did her research — and she wasn’t kidding. She described several historical tsunamis and hurricanes, including their categories, names and years. One of the worst in recent memory was Hurricane Marilyn in the early 90s, she said, which knocked power out for months. That was a Category 3 storm when it hit the island. So, powerful hurricanes were not common.
But when news of Hurricane Irma came, which was initially a Category 3 storm, Gasteiger began preparing because she knew how much damage Hurricane Marilyn had caused. She and Martin went to the nearby island of St. Thomas — where most people shop — to buy a month’s worth of food along with candles, first aid kits and sanitary supplies. She wrapped their valuables in plastic bags and put things in the center of the house. She also bagged up her important documents and kept them on her.
“It was like doomsday prepping basically,” she said. “And people laughed at us and they were like it’s not going to be bad as you’re thinking.”
Gasteiger puts some blame for people not being as prepared or concerned on the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, who did not declare a state of emergency until two days after Florida declared, when the storm was less than 48 hours away.
Waiting out the storm
The worst of the storm battered St. John for around four to six hours, but the damage during that time was devastating as winds reached up to 185 miles per hour.
Gasteiger and Martin did not end up staying in their house during the storm. They thought it would be too risky to stay at high elevation in a wood cottage with such strong winds expected. Instead, they were able to stay with a few friends in a Category 5 hurricane-proof villa on Rendezvous Bay.
Gasteiger shared a picture of their view of the sunset from the villa the evening before the storm. Overlooking the bay, it looked like a tropical postcard.
But by 5 a.m. the next morning, when Gasteiger said woke because she was so nervous, the sky was gray. She thought it looked like a regular rainy day. By noon, the rain had become really strong, but the wind had not picked up much yet. She and her friends made lunch and watermelon margaritas, she said, to enjoy the last moments of normalcy.
At around 1:30 p.m., the wind really began to fire up.
“It honestly sounded like children screaming. It was so, so loud and so fierce,” she said.
The rain and gray outside had gotten even thicker by that time. She said they could no longer see even 10 feet out the window. As the wind and rain continued to batter the house, the front began to leak.
“There was water pouring in from the outlets in the kitchen, water was pouring in through the front door, which is a hurricane-proof front door,” she said. “When we looked outside outside the window to see where the debris was, there was so much debris it was up to my belly button and water was up to my chest.”
To control the water that was pouring in, Gasteiger said they basically created a dam using dozens of towels in the villa and directed the water down to the bottom floor where there was a drain.
“We were just shoveling the water down the stairs and to the drain for about four hours. And each bedroom that was upstairs flooded up to your ankles, so we had to push that water down the stairs. It was like a literal waterfall in the house,” Gasteiger said. “And the wind began to pick up more and more. Have you ever been on a subway before? … So you know when you’re standing there and you hear the subway coming and it’s really really loud and it’s screeching and thudding, almost, just imagine that times ten. It was so loud and deafening that we had to start shouting over each other.”
As they worked through the storm to keep the water under control, she said they just thought everything must be gone outside.
“You can’t listen to those sounds and see what you’re seeing outside these windows and believe there’s anything left,” Gasteiger said.
By 8 p.m., the wind began to die down and they went outside to see the damage. They found the top of their Jeep had blown off, a pergola by the pool that was cemented it had completely blown away. Some neighboring houses had completely collapsed, power lines were down and trees were down everywhere. Almost no wooden houses were left standing, she said.
One of her friends, Adam Cook, who has a concrete business, had brought a tractor and began helping clear roads and dig people out that night. He used his backhoe to clear debris and entire houses off the road, she said. Since, Hurricane Irma and through Maria, Cook, Martin and his friends have continued to work to clean the island.
Gasteiger and Martin’s home did end up surviving the storm.
“Miraculously it was untouched,” she said. “It was a miracle. I think it was one of four houses that made it on the entire mountain.”
The devastation Gasteiger saw on St. John was the same picture across the Virgin Islands after the storm. In an interview with NPR last week, Gov. Kenneth Mapp said their hospital on St. Thomas was made “useless” by the storm and schools were devastated. Mapp said St. John was completely without power, except for generators and ninety percent of the island’s power lines and poles were on the ground.
At least three people have died in the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Time.
Some relief has been coming, including some National Guard and state police from New York, but it will take a long time to recover.
With another hurricane on the way and concerns about looting and safety, Gasteiger said she took the opportunity to evacuate when offered. She said she was lucky she had family to stay with. Martin stayed behind to help with relief efforts.
“There are some people who the Virgins Islands is it. They don’t have family elsewhere. There’s generations of people who have been living there for so long and they can’t evacuate, they can’t move, they don’t have the means to, or they’ve lost everything.”
Gasteiger is staying with her mother who lives in Spencer for a few months, until it’s safe to return to St. John.
Gasteiger wanted to share her story about St. John because there has been so little attention to St. John and the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Irma. Most of the attention has been on Florida. She is not alone in feeling that either. Many people have taken to social media to share information about the storm damage and see if family and friends are safe.
“I haven’t heard any news. You don’t even know if you’re getting aid. It’s just so important, especially coming from a small town where people actually care about humanitarian crises,” Gasteiger said. “Keeping people informed is a huge deal to me, especially since I love my home so much down there and they’re going through a whole other Category 5 hurricane two weeks after. We already went through the worst hurricane in history to reach landfall.”
How to help
Gasteiger has set up a GoFundMe page to help with relief efforts on St. John. She has also recommended several other donation pages that help St. John and the U.S. Virgin Islands.