Note from Jenn: We’ve all read a lot about Hurricane Irma and St. John. Many of you have viewed the images, watched the videos and winced at the the aerial photographs. Many of you still have questions about what it was like during those five or so hours, how the residents fared and how the island is doing today. The following article, written by Devon O’Neil, a former resident who was raised on the island, was printed on March 15th in Outside magazine. It is the most powerful article I have read about Hurricane Irma and its effects here on island. If you do one thing today, please read this.
Devon O’Neil watched from a distance as Irma—one of the strongest storms to ever hit land—battered the Caribbean island of St. John with 200-mile-per-hour winds. Two months later, he returned to the place where he grew up to help clear the wreckage and process the destruction of his former home.
As a kid, you can’t control where you grow up. To land somewhere like St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, takes luck—and in my case an adventurous mother.
My fraternal twin brother, Sean, and I were five years old when our mom decided that she was tired of commuting from Westport, Connecticut, to New York City. So in December 1985, she and her boyfriend bought a 41-foot sailboat named Yahoo, we packed everything we owned into 19 duffel bags, and we headed south.
St. John, half of which is covered by Virgin Islands National Park, offered singular beauty—and plenty of places to anchor our new floating home. Mom took a job as a landscaper in Fish Bay and eventually got her real estate license. Sean and I fell in with a rat pack of kids who congregated after school to play tackle football, catch tarantulas and lizards, and crawl under barroom floors in search of quarters. We grew up boogie boarding and surfing on the south shore. One day we took turns reeling in a 350-pound shark off the west end of Jost Van Dyke, next door in the British Virgin Islands.
After two years on the boat, Mom bought a house. A house that, on September 6, 2017, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma. At the time, my mother was on the mainland for a wedding and a visit with Sean and me in Colorado, where we both live with our families. Four days after the storm, we found a YouTube video with aerial footage of our neighborhood. It was annihilated; I didn’t recognize our home, a modest two-story structure that had survived hurricanes for 30 years. It looked like someone had shot a missile into it. So did our neighbors’ houses. I watched the video five times. Despite studying the footage, which covered at least a quarter mile in all directions, I could not locate our roof.