A couple was inspired to show the world that beauty can still be found on the Caribbean island they call home weeks after it was decimated by the Category 5 winds of Hurricane Irma and Maria.
The one-two punch of Hurricane Irma, then Maria just two weeks later, left structures toppled and trees ripped from the ground across the U.S. Virgin Islands when they smashed into the Caribbean in September. Residents of the islands were without electricity, gas or water in the wake of the storms, and today, locals are adjusting to a “new normal” as they strive to rebuild. In the U.S. territory of St. John, Lauren Saia and Marty Bruckner, who teamed up with photographer Anne Bequette of STJ Creative Photography, recently went through with an engagement photo shoot on Nov. 6 to recapture the bit of normalcy that has been absent on the island for too long.
“I wanted to do the photo shoot because it was supposed to be here,” Brucker, 28, who has lived on St. John for nine years, tells PEOPLE. “Destruction wasn’t going to stop me from taking the photos.”
With the scars from the hurricanes still visible all around, it was important to the couple and their photographer to show the resiliency of the island, to prove that life can still move forward and that not all was lost.
“We had loosely planned to take the photos in September, but Irma had other plans,” Saia, 32, tells PEOPLE. “But we wanted to take them in St. John to be meaningful and genuine.”
In the days leading up to Irma, the couple were visiting Boston together until Buckner returned to St. John for work. Saia was set to join him a few days later, but when word picked up about the hurricane, she changed her flight to stay with friends in Florida. With no way to see each Bruckner in person, she watched the news as Irma grew powerful as it approached the 20-square-mile paradise.
“All of us were pretty upset that morning. We cried a lot. I was terrified for everyone,” Saia recalls. “I felt helpless. It was an awful feeling. I wanted to be there regardless… I wasn’t sure if I was going to see any of them again.”
The two were reunited when Bruckner was evacuated to the U.S. mainland before Hurricane Maria, and once the storm passed, they slowly made their way back to St. John.
Bequette—who was so afraid for her life during Irma that she texted a “will” to her family—quickly began thinking of ways to use her photography to document the disaster when Bruckner asked if she was willing to take their engagement photos despite the destruction around them. She quickly agreed.
“I wanted to show that beauty and love does still exist in the midst of the ruins from two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes,” Bequette, a resident of St. John for 12 years, says. “I have all the faith that we will all regrow and rebuild.”
Saia and Bruckner met six years ago when Saia moved to St. John and bartended at a pub near the boat rental shop Brucker was running. The two have been together ever since Bruckner invited Saia for a boat ride.
“We have so much fun together and he challenges me almost every day,” Saia says. “He has a huge heart and truly cares about people. He’s the strongest person I know.”
In February, Bruckner asked her to marry him during a trip to Lake Tahoe, and the couple still hopes to have the ceremony in May 2018 at Gallows Point Resort on the island.
“Lauren is everything to me. She’s made me a much better person than I could ever imagine,” Bruckner says. “She is my best friend and I couldn’t really ever imagine life without her.”
Traveling around the island for the shoot was an emotional experience for everyone, they say, since it was the first time they were able to visit many of the areas since the storms.
“It was surreal. You have a memory of what these places look like and they’re almost unrecognizable,” Saia says. “We were walking over pieces of glass and random ceiling fans. You just wonder how powerful this storm really was, how close I was to losing everything and how many people did lose everything.”
Bruckner has faith that the island can one day return to its former status, and much of that faiths stems from seeing the progress made by his neighbors on the island in just two months.
“It’s still so beautiful if you can see past all of the damage,” he says, adding that he hopes people who view their photos can see the beauty past the destruction. “This tiny little rock we call home will always be America’s gem.”