Imagine planning a bucket list vacation, doing something that you have dreamed about for years, and you were finally going to make it a reality. This Texas couple did just that. Their bucket list vacation started gloriously and was perfect in every fashion, except for Hurricane Irma.
A Perfect Digital-detox Vacation
It had been a dream of Doug and Tonya Davenports for many years to rent a self-captained sailboat and explore the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean. Self-captaining a boat meant that they could go where they wanted when they wanted – relax, unwind, and unplug from their hectic lifestyle. A perfect digital-detox vacation.
It was just as they imagined until they were caught in the direct path of Hurricane Irma trapped on St. Thomas. The eye of Irma passed almost directly over top of them, they survived in part by remembering their idyllic dream vacation and with the help of the welcoming residents of St. Thomas.
I sat down with Doug and Tonya on a warm afternoon in October and listened intently as they recounted their once in a lifetime tale of adventure, survival, and human compassion.
I asked them if booking their vacation during hurricane season was a concern for them.
Tonya replied, no. They had taken vacations before during hurricane season. Encountering a hurricane can be a significant drawback, there are positive aspects of vacationing during that time of year.
“August thru November is the offseason for warmer destinations because of hurricanes, so costs are usually significantly less,” replies Tonya. “Also, many people don’t travel during that time, so there are no crowds.” Tonya says, “in terms of sailing that meant that we had entire bays to ourselves. Being able to snorkel and dive among coral reefs without crowds was amazing. Fewer people is more important to us than threats of a possible hurricane”.
On the fifth day of their bucket-list vacation they received a call from the charter office – return to port, a hurricane is approaching. They returned to port in Tortola in time to catch the last ferry to St. Thomas but not in time to make the flight out of St. Thomas to the U.S. mainland. They were going to have to weather the storm in a hotel along side other tourists seeking shelter.
“We watched it from our balcony window,” Doug says as Tonya holds his hand, “it was like a six-hour tornado. I stood there off and on for six hours trying to stabilize the sliding glass doors that were bowing so much from the 165-mile hour winds that I could slide my hand through the seams of the two doors.”
When asked if they were concerned for their safety, Tonya responded, “Having never gone through something like that, we didn’t know enough to be scared. We asked the management, how do we handle this?” They said, “don’t open your doors. This building has been here for 29 years with minimal damage from other hurricanes. We will be fine.”
“We sat in the room, well our friends and I sat, Doug stood at the door,” teases Tonya. “There was a distinct lack of information about the hurricane and St. Thomas. The usual places I go to for news and weather just skimmed over St. Thomas. Everything was about Florida”.
With an edge of frustration, Tonya said she pulled up a radar app on her phone to watch the progression of the hurricane. “We saw our blue location dot and a rainbow of colors swirling toward us. We watched as the 400-mile wide hurricane came at us. We were guessing how much time we had – then we lost power.”
The Eye Passes
“In hindsight, this is pretty cool,” says Doug with a touch of engineers excitement, “As I watched the hurricane advance, I noticed a pattern in the waves. I remember hearing people talk about how winds change during a hurricane. I am watching, thinking about this, the waves first start coming from the north, then shift and start coming directly toward us, then they come from the south. I realized, it is not the winds that change, but rather it is the front, side, and back of the hurricane that I am seeing. It was an interesting revelation.”
Shortly after that, the hotel management knocked on the door, going room to room checking to make sure all the guests were ok and took a quick inventory of the damage.
“As we walk out of our room and see the devastation that is left, we were astounded,” Doug says. “That morning the trees covering the hills were lush and green. Now they were barren. It looked like winter. Fallen trees made walkways impassable.”
Thankfully the hotel weathered the hurricane with just a few missing shingles, some broken glass, and the front door blew off its hinges. Other neighboring hotels and homes were not so lucky.
“That first evening after the hurricane passed,” Doug said, “we worked side by side with residents, in the rain, with 30 to 40-mph winds, using machetes to clear paths to get to other buildings and guests. We worked until dark.”
Tonya said, “I had never experienced the 80/20 Rule before where 20 percent of the people will lend assistance. We just survived a category five hurricane by the grace of God and Louie (the owner of Emerald Beach Resort), we have no idea when we will be rescued. There were people in their rooms lamenting about the situation. We could not do that. There was no way we could sit there and do nothing.”
Rolling Up Imaginary Sleeves
Doug comments. “We already felt helpless. We were in a situation with zero control. We could not wallow in our self-pity while other people were trying to piece together their shattered lives and destroyed homes.”
So what did they do? They rolled up their imaginary sleeves. They were in vacation clothes – shorts, t-shirts, and sundresses – and got to work cleaning up broken glass and lumber, debris washed in from the ocean, emptying damaged rooms to get them ready for repairs, and piles upon piles of trees and shrubs.
Louie continued to feed his guests three meals a day – without charging them. Doug said that all charges had stopped from the time they lost power. Later they learned that some resorts continued to charge their guests for meals and rooms even after the hurricane.
Doug described Louie as a saint. “He was kind and selfless, went out of his way to care for us as best he could under the circumstances. It was humbling and caused me to look inside myself. If I can learn anything from this mixed adventure, it is to be a better person, like Louie.”
Doug and Tonya did bring that home. They, along with other vacationers they met on St. Thomas, keep in contact with some of the resort’s employees through a Facebook page. There they learn what dire items are needed. Care packages are then put together in USPS flat rate boxes and sent over.
Tonya said, “When we were rescued, it pulled at my heartstrings knowing that we were returning to running water, air conditioning, a complete roof over our head, and a refrigerator full of food. The residents were so kind and helpful, neighbor helping neighbor. I can’t – I won’t forget that”
Hurricanes were destructive in 2017. Thousands of people in St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and even here in Texas are still trying to rebuild their lives. Many are still without simple basics like electricity, clean water or batteries.