St. John resident Mary Anne Steele, mother to young sons Arlo, 4, and Ezra, 2, felt first-hand the terrifying effects of Hurricane Irma on the U.S. Virgin Island.
Steele and her husband Karl Pytlik — owners of the sailing and snorkeling charter Virgin Magic Charters — headed to St. John Inn with their sons to ride out the storm because all flights off the island were booked. When the storm rolled in on Wednesday, the situation quickly turned dire.
“We were in our room and the woman in the room next door came to tell us that guests were seeing daylight between the top of the concrete walls and the wooden roof,” Steele tells PEOPLE. “No sooner had the words left her mouth when the roof blew off. All I had time to see was light out of the corner of my eye. It was the loudest, most terrifying noise I’ve ever heard. Wind and water were immediately swirling around the room. I grabbed my 2-year-old and my husband grabbed my 4-year-old. We ran into the neighbor’s room which still had a roof and we threw the mattress and box springs against the wall. My husband threw the armoire on top of that, and we huddled underneath for the next two hours.
“The wind was deafening and water was filling up the room. There was a satellite dish hanging by its cord on the roof. The wind was picking it up and slamming it into the roof every few seconds. My husband looked out from under the mattress and saw that the roof was separating from the building and the ceiling fan was bouncing up and down. He ran out into the storm (during the eye wall) to find us a safer place before we lost the roof. He was able to get into a room in another building that was on a lower level with a concrete roof. It was being used for storage. We grabbed the kids and made a run for it, running around the building we were in, up and down flights of stairs in the rain to get to the safe room. My husband is officially my hero.””
When the storm finally slowed down, Steele’s family grouped together with other guests into the few rooms that had cover.
“The first night was quiet,” she says. “We went outside but couldn’t see much in the dark.”
From there, circumstances only got worse.
“The second night I thought I saw flashlights in the room next to me around 4 a.m. I found out the next day that it had been people starting to loot, who’d been run off the property.”
Fearing for their family’s safety and preparing for the possible landfall of Hurricane Jose, Steele and her husband headed to a friend’s house in Coral Bay that had a concrete bunker. At that time, the family of four knew things were getting worse.
“The smell of dead animals was already permeating the air,” says Steele.
As they travelled to safe shelter (past curfew), Steele says, “I never saw one National Guardsmen. No police were visible. Locals are patrolling their own neighborhoods.”
When they arrived at her friend’s house, “we were met by our friends with crossbows in their hands, because we got there after dark and they didn’t know who we were,” she says. “But that is why we wanted to be there with them. There was protection. The law-abiding citizens are afraid — they are defending themselves any way they can.”
That night, the people she was staying with saw, “cars being set on fire in one area to draw security away, and then the looters attacking supplies of another neighborhood,” she says. “There is no cash available. Resources are the goal of looters, not assets like TVs or computers.”
Safety is of utmost concern. Residents have seen National Guard helicopters, but Steele says, “I didn’t see any presence on the ground.” Thanks to the generosity of numerous private citizens and nearby islanders with boats, she says, “Food and aid are arriving but security and infrastructure is a total failure — it’s mayhem — total destruction and chaos.”
Steele’s husband headed back to their home, which she says “was completely destroyed.” Of the surrounding damage, she says, “We saw dead donkeys, chickens and turtles. The smell of death is overwhelming. Walking down centerline street you can’t recognize it — you don’t know where you are because there is no identifiable point of reference. Telephone poles were lifted out of ground and didn’t break but left holes in the ground. Many — if not most — wooden structures are gone or severally damaged. Tornados within the storm seem to be what did most of the destruction.”
By Saturday, Steele was becoming increasingly concerned for their safety, their supplies were running low and cell phone service was almost non-existent.
“I didn’t want to get killed for a case of water,” she says. “Everyone was prepared for a few days but now people are running of out their hurricane supplies.”
“I was able to climb to the top of a building in Cruz Bay, and after turning my phone on and off about 10 times I was able to get one bar and call my parents,” she continues. “They informed me that my friend Kevin Culp had come over on a boat from St. Croix the day before and was trying to find me to get us out. I hung up with them and called Kevin and learned that there was another boat coming loaded with supplies to Coral Bay the next day (Sunday) and would take me to St. Croix.”
Steele and her sons were able to get that boat, but her husband stayed behind to help.
“I only was able to have a very broken up conversation with him last night for a moment,” she says. “Things are definitely not safe.”
As for the continued federal assistance, Steele says, “There is aid coming in but all eyes are focused on Florida. We are Americans, too, and our islands are completely devastated.”
She is now trying to make it stateside and feels “so appreciative that we got off. The breadth of it has not totally hit me, but survivor guilt is setting in,” she says.
When we arrived on St. Croix I was moved to tears at the efforts the Crucians are putting forth to help. They are raising money, purchasing supplies and sending them over on private boats. The boats are bringing people back to St. Croix. The Virgin Islands family is amazing!”
Amazingly, after her whole ordeal — and while awaiting the safe arrival of her husband — Steele is remaining positive.
“We will survive. Virgin Islanders have amazing fortitude,” she says.
Residents of St Johns island are being fed, transported, and rescued by many private citizens. A GoFundMe page has been set upto donate to those helping deliver goods and transport people.