ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS – Kathy Michelle “Smo” Raymond is a strong woman. She’s a former boat captain and now wedding planner in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands who has been through multiple natural disasters. She’s withstood much in her 49 years.
For just a few moments six days after Hurricane Irma ripped through St. Thomas and other Caribbean islands, Irma’s aftermath finally pierced through her stoic wall.
I was with a group gathered around my Jeep repairing my second flat tire of the day. I saw a woman I had just met minutes before crouched in what remained of the nearby woods with her face in her hands. Then I heard the sobs start. Our mutual friend Jen went to her and crouched and hugged her. I wanted to help but didn’t want to intrude on that moment, but I felt so compelled to go to her.
I walked over and made it a group hug, just wanting her to know she had people around her who cared. The three of us just knelt and sat there entwined. Jen slipped to the side and Smo fell fully into my arms. And the emotional dam broke. She cried again. Heaving cries. Primal sobbing. I have never heard and felt some cry so deeply.
“I survived Marilyn! I’ve survived storms at sea! I’ve survived earthquakes!” she wailed. “I am stronger than this! But I saw my house blown away before my eyes!”
“You are strong,” I said, not knowing if the words of a stranger would matter. “This is just emotion and stress
After her personal storm passed, we sat against a concrete wall and talked. I wanted to hear her story.
“We were riding out the storm, my husband Kevin and three cats,” she said, explaining they lived in up the hill in the Bolongo area on the south side of the island. “We spent most of the storm in the living room. Kevin left the room, which was a Godsend since he’s on crutches.” She walked into their spare bathroom to peer out of the only unboarded window of the house. “I started the iPad video for my ‘I am in the middle of my Irma blah blah blah report …”
Then there was a loud noise. Not just a something-hitting-the-roof bam. It was a piercing catastrophic crash.
She stood there staring at what was unfolding on her iPad screen not seeing the real destruction happening around her. “It was like I was like I was watching a movie. I could not process that I was living it.”
Then she snapped out of it and turned off the video. “Kevin was yelling, ‘We have to get out of here!” She searched, but the survival bag they had packed was gone.
The house was rumbling and pieces of it were being torn away. Kevin was desperately trying to get Smo out, screaming, “The house is coming apart! We have to go!”
There was no time to look for their third kitty. “We made a run for the car that was parked next to the only remaining part of the house. We didn’t know what we should do. If that piece of the house blew apart, we could be in danger but if we tried to drive we might just get tossed down the cliff.”
Then the windshield cracked. “So I jumped in the back seat.
Finally, the winds slowed. They had survived with two of their cats and not much else.
When it was safe, they ventured into the drenched rubble of their home.
Now, as she leaned against the driveway wall recounting the horror of Irma to me, tears trickled down her face.
“I lost my boat in Marilyn.” She had sailed that boat from San Diego and had weathered storms at sea. In 1995 – an incredibly eventful hurricane season – the Caribbean had just gone through Hurricane Luis when Cat 3 Marilyn came through on its heels 10 days later and pummeled the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a California girl, Smo has also endured earthquakes.
“We are usually the ones who are feeding and taking care of others after these things happen,” said Smo as she looked around the compound strewn with debris where she is now camping with friends who are feeding and housing her family. “We have always been the refugee camp for others. It’s so strange and hard being the refugee this time …”