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Anna Fisher had been looking forward to the trip for a long time.
The 34-year-old had never been to the US Virgin Islands, and the 10 days she and her boyfriend had planned there together looked to be a welcome respite of sun, sand and cocktails by the pool after a whirlwind summer of work trips and weddings.
“It was my first time there, and it was our only real vacation this year,” the Washington, DC bank vice president says. “That’s the reason we ended up going so late in the year.”
The next week, she was past her ankles in water, frantically bailing out their St. Thomas guest room with a hotel ice bucket as Hurricane Irma sent shattered palm trees and debris smashing into their windows at more than 100 miles per hour.
As Maria batters a weary Caribbean, making landfall on Wednesday in Puerto Rico as a Category Four hurricane for yet another round in this history-making season of storms, American travelers who survived Irma from the shelter of their hotels share their stories — and the lessons they hope the people hunkering down under Maria and future natural disasters can benefit from.
Cody Howard was in St. Thomas as well, but he landed in the USVI on Tuesday, the day before Irma hit, because of, not despite, the storm. The 23-year-old videographer from Fort Worth, Texas, was on assignment, and had snagged a room at the Windward Passage, a locally owned hotel on Charlotte Amalie Harbor rather than in the posher swath of beachside preferred by the big resorts. The choice of hotel was no mistake for the veteran storm chaser.
“It was built like a parking garage,” Howard says.
As they checked in, the hotel staff tried to temper expectations. The island had just been warned that the Irma had been upgraded from a Category Two to a Category Five storm, and the projected course now painted a target on St. Thomas.
“They just said, ‘You know, we can’t promise you’re going to have air conditioning, electricity or water,'” Howard says.
The hotel handed out bottled water, but Howard and his partner, the on-air talent, went to the gas station across the street to buy supplies for themselves, including snacks, more water and Coke. The prices seemed somewhat inflated, but grocery stores were swamped with locals buying their own necessities.
Over at the Frenchman’s Cove, a Marriott property with an adjoining sister resort, Fisher had resigned herself to having to live through the eye of a hurricane. She and her boyfriend had learned a few days earlier about the storm, but her attempts to find a flight or even a private charter back to the States were in vain. Down by the bar and pool area, the hotel staff had set up a storm tracker that they updated twice a day. They also gave specific instructions to guests about what to do to prepare — specifically to fill up their bathtubs with water, in case the water the hotel filtered itself gave out.
The hotel promised to contact guests with messages on their room phones with more updates and instructions the day of the storm, but asked guests to spend the day of landfall, Wednesday, inside their rooms. The windows were rated for Category Five winds, up to 160 miles per hour, and would be perfectly safe, they assured Fisher. Nevertheless, Fisher wrote notes to their neighbors on either side, introducing herself in case the windows failed and they needed to find immediate shelter.
“The guys were really excited about [the prospect of experiencing the hurricane] for some reason,” she says. “My boyfriend’s a former Marine, so he’s weirdly excited by challenges.”
The hotel had handed out water and small flashlights to each room, but Fisher, her boyfriend and a friend who’d met up to travel with them went out during the day Tuesday to get supplies and prepare bug-out bags. They brought back weeks’ worth of nonperishable foods, water, other basic necessities and gallon-sized Ziploc bags to protect electronics and important items.
With everything done that could be done to prepare, Fisher and many of the other guests did what they could to relax.
“We were like, ‘Let’s try to go enjoy what’s left of today,’ so everybody was actually down at the pool,” she says. “It was this very odd feeling of impending doom, of everybody forcing themselves to have a couple drinks by the pool.”
At the Windward Passage, the night before the storm, Howard and his partner shoved mattresses against their room windows and reinforced them with furniture, then helped the hotel staff and other guests do the same. Like at the Frenchman’s Cove, the hotel had asked guests to remain inside their rooms during the storm.
“The hotel manager was pretty confident in the strength of his windows — as long as debris didn’t hit them,” Howard says.
When it came to hurricane news, though, it seemed obvious that Howard and his partner, who were checking National Hurricane Center updates, were more in the loop about what was going on than the management was. (It wasn’t possible to contact the hotel at the time of writing this story, as communication lines were down.)
Meanwhile, at 10pm on Tuesday on a dark street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with only hours before the hurricane was expected to hit, Frances Robles arrived to find the hotel room she’d booked at $300 a night completely boarded up and abandoned.
The Miami-based New York Times correspondent had gotten a late assignment to cover the storm, and had used the company’s travel agency to book what appeared to be the last available hotel room on the island.
“People just assume people will be evacuating the place and it’ll be easy to find a hotel room, but that’s actually not the case,” she says. “A lot of people live in flood zones or get stuck on their from somewhere else like the Virgin Islands or cruise ships, so the rooms fill up really, really fast. I ended up having to accept all these terms, like no cancellation and paying for three days in advance.”
No one, however, had told her that the hotel she’d booked a room at, the El San Juan Hotel, a Hilton property, had been evacuated.
“The guard was like, ‘This hotel’s closed,’ so that’s how I found myself at 10pm at night by myself in the rain in San Juan with no place to stay and a hurricane barreling toward me.”
A Hilton spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
Luckily, she’d run into an acquaintance from a television news crew at baggage claim, and he let Robles crash in the suite they’d booked at the La Concha Renaissance, another Marriott hotel. The management wasn’t booking any rooms facing the ocean, so she ended up in a city-facing suite that the crew had arranged with the hotel to be stocked with plenty of water, food and other supplies.
“I learned that if you know you’re staying in a hotel in a hurricane, it’s a good idea to call in advance and speak to the manager and talk about what your needs are, because this crew had a lot of things already in the room waiting for them,” Robles says.
She found the hotel guests wandering around with little in the way of hard facts or direction from the staff. At one point, she had to personally inform guests in the restaurant that the manager was holding an important meeting in the lobby.
“They felt in an information vacuum,” Robles says. “They didn’t know what the procedures would be. I felt like the process of spreading the word was haphazard.”
At the meeting, however, the manager was helpful and to the point. If the wind picked up to the point of being dangerous, guests were to assemble in the ballroom. He went over evacuation routes and told them regular meal service would be suspended, though there was still a reasonably good buffet that would be put out.
Right up front, he told guests that they were stuck in the hotel until Friday at the least.
“‘Everyone’s going to pack up and go to the airport on Thursday morning, but let me tell you now: Don’t release your rooms, because you’re going to be back here crying and asking for your rooms back,'” Robles says. “And that’s exactly what happened. It took the airlines a full day to get their acts together to get everybody out.”
Robles spent the night on a pull-out couch in the suite living room to get some sleep before getting to work the next day. Luckily, the hurricane missed the city, and she and her colleagues lost no power or services. She never had to go into the emergency ballroom.
“I was pretty impressed with the hotel’s ability to handle it,” she says. “That said, I hope you’re never in that situation, because obviously it could just as well have gone the other way.”
On Wednesday morning at the Frenchman’s Cove in St. Thomas, Anna Fisher woke up at 6am, about two hours before the hurricane made landfall on the USVI, and couldn’t go back to sleep, so she placed their luggage in garbage bags. That turned out to be a good call, because as the storm picked up, their room began to flood despite being on the third floor. The drain in their ocean-facing balcony continually clogged up with the debris that was flying around everywhere, and soon the two-bedroom suite was a foot deep in water. They’d already stuffed towels into the door crack to keep out the howling wind, but that didn’t stem the incoming rush of water. The three Americans spent much of the storm with ice buckets and trash pails, scooping out as much water as they could. When they had down time, they tried to keep up spirits with movies they’d downloaded — the power stayed on in the hotel until around 1:30pm.
“We just kind of huddled in the bathroom, and my boyfriend had his iPad, but all he had was paranormal ghost stories, so I told him, ‘Maybe turn that off right now.’ We were updating friends and family, letting them know we were OK, and tried to watch a lot of funny movies. We were watching Sister Act when the power went off for good.”
The hurricane windows, though, remained solid.
“Whole pieces of palm tree — I’m talking about the actual stems — and pieces of room were slamming up against them and bounced off, and they were fine,” Fisher says.
The worst part, she says, was the wait her stomach dropped every time the winds picked up.
“The barometric pressure meant the winds were popping, and every time there was a wind gust, we’d feel this nauseous pit in our stomachs,” she says.
Over at Charlotte Amalie Harbor, the reinforced mattresses in Cody Howard’s room did the trick, and the windows didn’t blow out, though one or two of the other rooms in the hotel weren’t as lucky. The tropical-storm-strength winds became hurricane-strength winds above 74 miles per hour around 10:30am. At around 2pm, the island was being beaten with sustained winds of up to 200 miles per hour. Howard and his partner worked throughout, shooting the storm by poking his camera outside through a sheltered alcove in the hotel courtyard.
“I would stick my camera through the bars — there was no way I would leave my hotel. The amount of debris flying would have been way too dangerous.”
The Windward Passage had been well-prepared, and its large generator didn’t go down. Once the storm passed, the hotel was the only one in the neighborhood with power. The hotel supplied each room with a case of bottled water and emergency rations, nutritious but hardly delicious fare. The hotel’s freezer hadn’t survived the storm, so after the hurricane had passed, the guests were also treated to foods that would have otherwise spoiled, like hamburgers and hot dogs. (They weren’t charged for anything besides the three days for the room they’d already booked.) The water in the rooms was still running, but started coming out brown after the storm. Howard found Wi-Fi service to be spotty but more useful than cell phone service.
“Facebook was a lifesaver, especially Facebook Messenger,” he says.
The night of the storm, a bar behind the hotel had already reopened for business. There was a curfew in place throughout the island, but Howard went there for a beer anyway.
In some ways, Howard found the days following the storm more worrisome than the hurricane itself. Local tempers began to grow hot, and Howard stopped going to the nearby bar when another hotel guest had a gun pulled on him when he tried to break up an argument. The hotel had hired additional security, and the armed off-duty policemen made a point of being visible, especially at night — the hotel owner’s family and much of staff’s families were staying in the hotel too, Howard notes. The generator was on mostly at night, to keep the fence around the hotel well-lit. Unspoken but in the forefront of everyone’s minds was the island-wide riot that had broken out on St. Croix, another of the US Virgin Islands, after Hurricane Hugo.
“We could look out the window and see fights breaking out,” Howard says. “The police were really cracking down on that.”
At one point, a fire broke out at another hotel about 200 or 300 yards behind the hotel. Howard and the hotel manager looked on helplessly and tried to discern whether the flames were spreading their way. It took firefighters nearly three hours to respond.
At the Frenchman’s Cove, the area was littered with overturned cars and beached boats, but the hotel made it through with no structural damage. The adjoining resort, however, was damaged, and guests there were forced to group up in common rooms for safety.
Fisher and her boyfriend observed the curfew and remained in their hotel until they left the island. The hotel supplied the guests with regular meals starting with Thursday breakfast (“What you’d expect of camp, like sandwiches and fruits and yogurts and muffins,” Fisher says), though the adjacent resort got hot meals. A hotel staff member went around asking guests whether anyone needed specific medications, and someone was dispatched to a hospital to get needed supplies. The resort was well-guarded.
All the meals were free, Fisher says. Another guest asked if he’d be required to pay for the extra days they might have to stay in the resort, and a manager responded that one extra night would definitely be free, but that subsequent nights might be pay-as-you-can.
On Friday morning, Frenchman’s Cove guests were gathered for meeting and told that Marriott had hired a ship to take guests to the USVI. The manager told them they had a “50/50 chance” they’d make it on the ferry. Each guest was allowed to bring one bag only, and had to pack immediately. Hotel staff and volunteers cleared the road to the port, and staff members drove guests to the ship in their own cars.
In another part of the city, Howard had learned of the Marriott ship through posts by friends back in the US, but found that the hotel staff, local officials and even the US Coast Guard had no idea it was coming. He organized a group of guests from the hotel and flagged down a local resident with a pickup truck to take them to the docks.
Fisher was there too, and made it aboard, where there was hot food and even entertainment. She, her boyfriend and their friend made it to Puerto Rico, where they were taken to another Marriott hotel and given free rooms while they made arrangements to fly back home. Howard and her boyfriend stayed one night, and actually managed to make the connection to the return flight they’d already booked. She’d lived through a Category 5 hurricane and managed to make it back home on schedule.
Howard and his group, however, were denied permission to board the rescue ship, and ended up back at their hotel.
“Over the weekend, there was lots of hopes and promises, contact for private jets that FEMA wouldn’t let in, even a helicopter willing to get us that was sent to St. John. There was a C-130 FEMA plane that never solidified,” Howard says.
Finally, Norwegian Cruise Line sent a fully stocked ship from Mexico that arrived in St. Thomas on Tuesday morning. Howard made it aboard, and stepped off the ship in Miami three days later. He’d only expected to be in St. Thomas for three days. He plans on going back in the coming months to help the island rebuild.
“Don’t forget about those islands,” he says. “Donate, donate down there. And remember that despite this hurricane season, those islands need your money, and the only way they’re going to be able to rebuild is through tourism.”
A Marriott spokesman said it was company policy not to discuss its emergency procedures, but said that though Marriott wanted to assist Howard and the non-Marriott travelers, “the Marriott team on-the-ground was told they had no authorization to board additional passengers who were not on the manifest. This was enforced by dock security.”
Howard disputes this, and says the port authority and law enforcement pleaded with the ship to let the tourists on board, but that it was Marriott who denied them.
The New York Times’ Frances Robles, meanwhile, had quickly made it back to Miami after Irma passed and then almost immediately was sent to Key West, where she owns a home, and where the devastation was inescapable.
“If you were a tourist and didn’t evacuate, you were a fool,” she says.
Back in Washington, already on her first day back at work, Fisher says that she’d tell other travelers that there’s one golden rule to making it through a hurricane as a tourist on an island in the middle of a storm season like this one: “Don’t go.”
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