Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean last week with ferocious Category 5 winds that decimated much of the area’s tropical islands and killed at least 38 people.
Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands—along with those from Puerto Rico, Cuba, St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands—are now in the process of rebuilding in the aftermath of the historic storm, which has left much of the Caribbean uninhabitable. Many are still without electricity, gas, or water, and will need continuous aid for the foreseeable future—and some residents say they feel forgotten by the U.S. mainland after the storm turned its crosshairs toward Florida.
When the second-strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean made landfall in the U.S. territory of St. John on Sept. 6, Cathríona Smith—along with her husband, Matt, 33, and their daughter, Vivienne, 2—crowded together with neighbors in a brick house to take shelter from the winds that slammed debris into buildings and tore roofs from homes.
“The wind was shrieking, it was like a banshee,” Smith, 33, tells PEOPLE. “It got to the point where I got on the floor on my knees and cried because I genuinely believed I was going to die. I thought there was no way the building could withstand the wind.”
St. John resident Nicole Walsh, her fiancé, Joe Pirone, and their two dogs rode out the storm in a bathtub.
“First the sliding glass doors blew out, then the porch blew away and the roof went up. We were running from room to room and my fiancé grabbed a part of a door and threw it over us as we jumped into the bathtub,” Walsh tells PEOPLE.
For three-and-a-half hours, they huddled together as several tornadoes and 215-mph winds battered the friend’s house they were staying in.
“It was insane. It was so loud. There was glass and stuff flying everywhere. A Christmas tree – we have no idea where it came from – flew past us,” she says. “I remember looking at my fiancé and saying, ‘We’re gonna die.’ “
The couple survived, but the friend’s home where they rode out the storm suffered major damage. So did most of the structures on the island. There is no power, limited cell phone service and very little food and water.
Walsh, who grew up in Massachusetts, lived on St. John for four months, having moved there from St. Thomas.
After the storm she and a group of other American workers were desperate to get off the island when they realized there was very little food and water and looting was becoming a growing problem.
The group escaped together, managing to get on a boat with seven people and nine dogs. Then they found a private plane that flew them to Charleston, South Carolina, and they’ve all been staying with a friend in nearby Myrtle Beach.
Stacey Alvarado is another member of the group and tells PEOPLE of the aftermath, “It was like a war zone, like something you would see in a zombie movie. People were just walking the streets but didn’t know where they were going.”
She lost everything but is grateful that she, her husband and son made it off the island.
“Literally everything we had is gone. Everything was destroyed. We’re taking it one day at a time right now. The people that are still on the island need help. They need so much aid, people just don’t know what to do.
“There’s nothing there. There’s no housing, nowhere to work, nowhere to go.”
Hurricane Irma’s 185-mph winds proved terrifying in their sound and power for many on the island.
“Our ears popped throughout the whole storm, the winds were extremely loud,” Kate Quigley, 33, tells PEOPLE. “It was as if there were chainsaws right outside the window, and they were going to come barreling through.”
Kate, who has lived on St. John for three years, stayed in the apartment of her sister, Colleen Quigley, and Colleen’s boyfriend, Marcel Freda. Together, the trio tried to shield the inside of their apartment from the intense wind and rain beating down outside. At one point, they were afraid their ceiling would collapse.
“We were just holding the doors tight trying to make sure they don’t blow in,” Kate says. “Adrenaline took over, we weren’t really thinking of anything other than survival, just getting from one minute to the next.”
Once residents emerged from their homes after the storm, devastation and uncertain futures awaited them.
“I had lived on his beautiful lush island, and after the storm, every leaf was gone,” Smith says. “Everything was gone.”
Smith is now on St. Croix, the largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands (the other being St. Thomas) which was spared much of Irma’s wrath, with her daughter. Matt, Smith’s husband, is a former Marine and chose to stay in St. John to help in the rebuilding efforts. On Monday morning, Smith and her daughter were taken in by a St. Croix family while they assess their plans moving forward.
For Kate, the catastrophe of the hurricane is hard to put into words.
“There is just so much damage,” she says. “The entire island is gone more or less, it’s hard to even describe. Walking through the town you’ve grown to love and seeing it decimated to the ground is a sight I never thought I would see.”
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After Irma hit the Caribbean, the storm shifted directions and hit Florida on Sunday morning, where it has caused widespread flooding and damage. But as the U.S. prepared for the catastrophic storm—just a week after Hurricane Harvey—Kate and other residents of the American territory felt they became an afterthought.
“I feel people have forgotten there are still many on St. John who are homeless and without anything,” says Kate, who has evacuated the island and is now in Puerto Rico awaiting to join her family in Boston.
Veronica Woods, who opened her rented home to 22 people during the storm because there were no shelters on the island, says they were told the U.S. would be sending military help Thursday, but help wouldn’t arrive until Monday morning.
“The response was not quick enough and the response was not strong enough,” says Woods, 28. “We are not Americans on foreign soil, we are Americans on American soil. That’s the bottom line—people are forgetting that, and people are forgetting us.”
Former NBA star Tim Duncan, who is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, recently started a donation page to help in rebuilding efforts. The donation page has since raised more than $1 million from donors, with another million matched by Duncan himself. Country singer Kenny Chesney, who has a home on St. John, started the Love for Love Foundation to support the islands.
Though she has evacuated the island, Woods says she will continue to raise awareness for her home until the day she is able to return.
“Right now I’ve been living hour to hour, I have no idea what my plan is other than to bring attention to the islands,” she says. “For my husband and I, St. John has been our whole world. That matters so much that, and at the same time, none of it matters. We’ll put aside our whole lives just to save what is left of the island.”
Kate says she, too, will continue to make sure the islands stay in people’s minds in the coming months and years.
“These beautiful places are going to take a long time and a lot of resources to rebuild,” Kate Quigley says. “But this is our home. We don’t want people to forget about us.”