"To live in that moment, not knowing if everything was okay and everybody was alive, was really hard," the country superstar tells PEOPLE

By Cynthia Sanz and Emily Zauzmer
August 01, 2018 03:30 PM
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Kenny Chesney was in Nashville when Hurricane Irma hit the Virgin Islands last September, but the country superstar quickly sprang into action, inviting friends in storm’s path to take refuge in his St. John home. With the island abode built to withstand 200 mph winds, Chesney hoped the group would be safe — but he didn’t anticipate the days of agonizing silence that awaited him.

Shortly before 17 island pals and five of their dogs locked themselves in his laundry room to wait out the Category 5 storm ripping its way across the Caribbean, “they sent me a video saying, ‘Thank you’ and ‘We love you,’” Chesney — who had made a home in St. John and considered it a refuge for more than 20 years — tells PEOPLE in the latest issue. “And that’s the last I heard from anyone.”

For six days Chesney, who was glued to the television in Tennessee, couldn’t reach his friends. “That was a tough thing for me. I didn’t have a lot of communication with anyone that I cared about for several days,” he recalls. “To live in that moment, not knowing if everything was okay and everybody was alive, was really hard.”

“Everybody was scared,” he continues. “There was no Internet, no cell towers, no power. I wanted to fly down the day after and take some supplies and get some people off, but we couldn’t. They had to clear the runways.”

Kenny Chesney standing where his St. John home used to be
| Credit: Allister Ann

In the end, all of Chesney’s pals — many of whom he housed in Nashville in the aftermath of the storm — survived. But his house, along with properties across the area, was decimated. As the totals were tallied, the singer discovered the devastation caused by Irma killed 38 people in the Caribbean.

Chesney, 50, flew to the island that week. “I literally wept in the helicopter,” he tells PEOPLE. “My heart broke. I knew that a lot of people that I loved and an island that I loved was really bleeding, and we had to figure out a way to stop it.”

The devastation from Hurricane Irma
| Credit: Courtesy of Kenny Chesney

Not one to stand idly by, Chesney created the Love for Love City foundation to address the devastation. Aimed at funneling relief to St. John and the rest of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Love City gets its title from the island’s nickname. Chesney mobilized volunteers to supply food, water, generators, and medical supplies to Hurricane Irma’s victims — both human and animal alike. The musician even used his private jet to help.

“The moment FEMA cleared us to land we were flying supplies down three to four times a week,” Chesney says.

Where KC home formerly stood
The site of Chesney’s former home
| Credit: Allister Ann

And when work began on his latest album, Chesney realized his music could benefit the island as well. The country star is donating all proceeds from his just-released new record, Songs for the Saints, to the foundation.

“This record is about hope and love and the rebuilding of the human spirit,” he tells PEOPLE of the album, out Aug. 7. “I internalized everything that happened and all the faces that I saw and all the emotions. There’s a lot of songs about moving forward with the strength you may or may not have known you had.”

Kenny Chesney on the beach near his St. John home
| Credit: Ben Bourassa

Almost a year later, Chesney — who says he feels “more compassion and empathy” since the disaster — continues to ponder the good that can emerge from tragedy.

“When something this devastating happens, it’s an equalizer because it doesn’t matter your social status or how much money you have or don’t have; everybody is the same,” he notes. “And what I saw come out was a level of togetherness and community and love that is pretty rare, and it was beautiful to watch.”

Kenny Chesney at the site of his former home
| Credit: Allister Ann

As another album cycle begins and his summer stadium tour ends, Chesney plans to keep his focus on the disaster in the years to come.

“A year later it’s not in the news anymore,” he says, “but this is something I’m going to be passionate about for the rest of my life.”

Chesney channeled these feelings and memories into his inspirational new song, “Better Boat.” While he feels that the track — penned by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose — was initially inspired by the desire to “move forward and be a better person” following the end of a relationship, he finds it especially meaningful in the wake of the hurricane as his friends and loved ones attempt to rebuild.

“If you wrap your head around what happened in the Virgin Islands and how everybody is trying to move forward and how everybody is trying to make it better, how everybody is trying to help, how everybody is really concerned and everybody is really upset,” he says in a behind the scenes clip of the song, “this song talks about the helplessness of all of it and how you just have to put it in God’s hands and it’s just going to come out how it’s going to come out.”

For more on Kenny Chesney, his new album and the musician’s relief efforts, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.