My brother and his family live on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And so, when the maps on The Weather Channel showed the swirls of a tropical storm forming into Hurricane Irma, I emailed my brother to ask him, “Do you think you’ll get hit?” to which he replied, “We think she’ll turn north and head out to sea.”
Irma, however, had other plans.
Initially fluctuating in intensity, Irma soon roared into a powerful Category 5 hurricane headed directly toward the Leeward Islands, which included St. John.
My brother sent a last email to my sister and me before the cell towers were dismantled, to preserve them. In his own unique brand of humor, he simply said, “Nice knowin’ ya!”
Irma would be the first Category 5 hurricane on record to hit the Leeward Islands, and all kidding aside, he had a good idea what was headed his way.
Once the storm had passed over the islands, and the news reports began trickling in, they were not good. They were extremely “not good.” It seemed most everything in Irma’s path had been destroyed. And, there were casualties on some islands. Scary. Really scary.
In the first news reports, people on St. John described the destruction as unfathomable, apocalyptic. My heart sank. Were people OK? Were my brother and his family OK? An inner battle began. When I sat quietly, I felt in my gut that they were OK. But in my mind…that was something else. My thoughts had them in a bunker, safe—but the house above had toppled on them, and they couldn’t get out, and no one knew they were there! (This is the downside of having a creative mind.)
Remembering that people turned to social media in these times to search for loved ones, I found a page that had been set up for the Leeward Islands. Several people were already searching for news of my brother’s family. As I entered my name as also searching for them, I thought, This is what other people do! I don’t do this. This can’t be happening.
Over the years, when I’d seen people frantically looking for loved ones after a disaster, of course, I always felt compassion. But this was somehow “over there” somewhere distant. Now, I understood exactly what people go through when they’re waiting to hear news—because the wait was terrible. Each hour their names didn’t show up on the Found Safe page seemed to warp into days.
Finally, someone contacted us with the news: my brother and his family were safe, and, they still had a home. I felt so relieved and grateful.
Within a week, after walking some distance and climbing onto a building, my brother was able to call us. I could tell from his voice that he was still somewhat in shock. The little community where he lived had been flattened. He talked about so many homes being reduced to splinters. It was going to be a long haul ahead.
He said, “I guess this means I can’t tease you anymore about your winters.” Just like any brother would, he had always loved to email us with short panoramic videos of the idyllic weather he was experiencing in the midst of our freezing East Coast winters.
“Yeah, you totally can’t do that anymore.” We both laughed. “But are you OK? Are you really OK?” I asked.
“We are. We definitely are. Don’t worry.”
Human beings can be such resilient creatures. In the weeks to come, I could hear the resolve in his voice. He would not leave the island. He would stay to help. When I asked him how he was coping, he said that the secret for him was to do the next task in front of him and not to think too much. “But,” he said, “That’s pretty much what I always do.”
Sage advice from after the storm.