On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma struck St. Thomas as a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 mph, battering the island for hours. The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin tore through this U.S. Virgin Islands, leaving raw devastation in its wake. Michelle and Jake Schomp and their full-time travelling Retired Toddlers (Henley, 4, and Jagger, 2) were unable to evacuate ahead of the storm so they rode it out in a vacation rental condo facing the storm on the east side of the island on Cowpet Bay.
We didn’t take any chances during the storm. We had prepped as best we could by stockpiling gallons of water, freezing extra meals, and sealing up the condo in every way available. Even though we felt prepared, nothing could ready us for the onslaught of the storm and the disjointed aftermath that it left behind.
We lost power and cell service in the morning and with it lost all connection to information about Irma’s path. Our last look showed that we would be spared the worst of it as it was heading further north. What we didn’t know was that in the next few hours Irma both strengthened and shifted toward us instead of away from us.
When the storm descended upon us we retreated to the bathroom. Towels and pillows lined the tub for a “hurricane party” with iPad movies playing to keep the kids’ attention off the incessant tornado-like gusts threatening to break down our sealed windows and doors. In the heart of the storm the vacant condo above us exploded with sounds of debris smashing into walls. We figured the roof ripped off it as the building shook with fear (we later found its roof intact but the massive front doors blown wide open with deadbolt blasted inward leaving water, sticks, leaves and furnishings strewn throughout the once pristine condo).
The next day we ventured out to check on friends we had met at the resort next door. The area was torn up in every direction. Most cars had windows smashed in. Roofs all around were partially or totally gone. Trees were top-chopped or snapped in half. Tears ran. Amazingly, everyone in our area had survived. Elsewhere they were not so fortunate.
Over the next few days we were cut off from the outside world. Only very few people had cell service which was extremely isolated to tops of hills, worked once out of a hundred tries, only good for a minute call before getting cut off, and had no access to internet for reliable evacuation information. The roads were largely impassable, littered with shattered telephone poles and power lines intertwined across streets like pick-up-sticks.
The people were beautiful. Generous, helping, working, kind. Everyone gave what they could to help one another. Food, water, phones, supplies and information were shared without hesitation. We were instantly bonded together, all trying to ease each other’s worries and escape the island to the safety and security of our loved ones back home. Henley and Jagger’s lighthearted and infectious laughter brought many smiles to weary faces. There was a lot of misinformation flowing around: We thought we would be evacuated in a couple of days, so we packed our bags and sat together for hours awaiting vans, boats, planes that never arrived. Finally we very thankfully were evacuated by boat to the kind people of Puerto Rico. (The family managed to evacuate before another powerful storm, Hurricane Maria, made landfall in Puerto Rico.)
We were lucky. Our story doesn’t include injury or even exposure to the immense elements of the beastly hurricane. We were just tourists visiting this beautiful island. The residents of St. Thomas, St. John, the British Virgin Islands and the other impacted islands don’t get to evacuate to make this devastation a distant memory. They will have to endure months without power, with limited supplies, a crippled infrastructure and a new post-Irma reality. They lost homes, cars, boats, businesses, schools, public safety buildings and peace of mind. We pray for those left behind and wish them strength and support to rebuild their paradise that they so graciously share with us tourists.
The Retired Toddlers decided to continue on their Caribbean journey with stays planned in Puerto Rico, Dominica, Barbados and Grand Cayman, but first they will make a stop back home in Tampa for a visit with family and friends. Follow their travels @RetiredToddlers on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or at RetiredToddlers.com.