A Very Powerful Story About Hurricane Irma & St. John

Sean and Devon O'Neil with their mother Christie. Image credit: Steve Simonsen Photography
Sean and Devon O’Neil with their mother Christie. Image credit: Steve Simonsen Photography

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.

Click here to read the rest of Devon’s story in Outside magazine.

35 thoughts on “A Very Powerful Story About Hurricane Irma & St. John”

  1. Wow what a powerful story. I have long known her name as an agent on island but didn’t know her. I would have assumed she would have had a really solid adobe considering her real estate connections. I’m guessing she got a slamming deal on her wood frame house when she initially bought it years ago and was well aware this could happen.

    • I spent a great deal of my younger years living and going to school in St Thomas and visiting most of the places contained in this story. This was beautifully written and extremely touching. About halfway through I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. Growing up in the islands is so different then the states and loving them the way I always have is so different from my love of any place on the mainland. Thank you very very much for putting into words what so many of us share in feelings.

    • Hey Durk was a stupid comment – wishing a disaster on you and your family so others can be cavalier about your losses….what a JERK…
      DURK the JERK…..

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this remarkable story. Our family recently came back from spending 2 weeks on island and the resilience of the St. John people is remarkable. There’s a lot happening on the island, lots, tons of rebuilding. There’s also a bit of a pall over the island, the sadness of the few who lost their lives. Good luck to your family.

  3. What an amazing article. It brought tears to my eyes but seeing what a fantastic community is on St John, they have weathered the storm with their strength, hard work and love. I live in the UK but my daughter and grandson live on St John. I was so gtateful that they were visiting us when the hurricanes arrived and they could stay on extra time not returning until November. Seeing what she went through not knowing what had happened to her Home, friends homes and businesses was heart breaking. However the people of St John are rising above it all. What admiration I have for this community. God Bless them.

  4. Thank you Devon for sharing your families story. I was very well written, and told the tale of the Virgin Islands from such a personal perspective. Better days ahead…

    Thank you Jenn for sharing this. I would have missed it.

  5. Jen: Thank you so much for posting this. I wonder how long it will take before I stop sobbing every time I read about Irma. Everything can seem fine and then the tears just start pouring down my face. It will take a very long time to heal those wounds.

  6. Thank you so much, Jenn — horrifying, but I care deeply, and want to share in these stories. Blessings to all there. I long to return, and help.

  7. Heartbreaking story of a beautiful area. Well written and detailed from the heart. I can’t imagine how you feel.
    We visited St. Croix in 2009 and St. Thomas, St. John in 2017 as part of a March sailing vacation. It was so wonderful and so sad to see it now.
    Thoughts, prayers for you and the great people of that region.

  8. A riveting account…thanks, Jenn, for posting. There are no words, other than to say I am stunned, just as I was the day Irma changed everything.

  9. We loved the artical and were so happy to here you were okay, right after tried to email Christie. St. John is special and will rebound! we hope we can visit in 2019, we believe things will be open then. You boys are men now! Time goes by! Love–

    • Hey Patty and Rich, Thanks for your thoughts and I would love to see you on island next year. Give Harry hugs from us!

  10. Thank you for this article. I experienced both Hurricane Irma and Maria on Tortola the main island located in the British Virgin Islands and I have heard and read many stories. I must say that I wondered for days about the dead man that was found and I am glad to get some insight on his life. But from reading this He lived a great one. Like most, I lost everything but I have life and like the Virgin Islands (British and US) we will rebuild. Thank you for sharing your story and the people of the Virgin Islands stories. May God continue to bless you, your family especially your mom. St. John will miss her dearly.

  11. Beyond WOW! Christie obviously raised her boys to respect what STJ meant to her, the family and the resilient people of Love City!
    Thank you Jenn for sharing this warm but sad story!
    Happy St Patrick’s Day to all on St John!

  12. I cried as I read this incredibly powerful story. I lived on St. John from 1989-1999. I built a beautiful house over Rendezvous Bay and Gift Hill. We owned Bestech. Circumstances happened that forced me to leave. I loved it there. I loved my life there. After work to be able to go to Trunk Bay for a swim is something I will always treasure. My stateside friends who never visited can not understand what St. John meant to me. I went through Marilyn and Hugo but. Marilyn knocked out our power for 3 months. Thank god for generators. So my heart goes out to everyone on the island. I hope someday soon you will be able to go for a swim after work soon. I only wish it was possible for me to go there and help with the reconstruction. Hang in there.

  13. I have realized a whole new perspective of this storm’s survivors and I feel a true, renewed connection to post-Irma St. John. Thank you for this article… and I will soon return to this ‘Rock of Love’!

  14. Jenn, this was a real gift. Your sharing gives me such detailed insight into what my cousin, Fred Trayser, endured.

    While he tried to protect us from the brutal reality of this, you have let us know what a brave man he is to stay and rebuild beautiful St. John.

    Thank you so much for these Amazing insights into this mother nature reality.

  15. The first time that I went to St John was to stay at cinnamon Bay in the screened-in Cabanas… when I arrived it was literally love at first sight it was the most amazing place in the world to me and has been so ever since. When I saw the storm approaching the islands in the news I held my breath and wept as I saw the on the news unfolding. For 20-plus years I have been in my beloved st. John and I cannot tell you how this is affected me my dream has always been to retire there and now I feel damaged… this article truly hit my soul as their dream was to be my dream God bless these wonderful people Patrick Rodgers

  16. What is STJ doing to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season? Is it safe for tourists to ever really return if tornadoes and hurricanes can cause such devastation? Seems like nonstop widespread panic.

    • I can only offer my perspective on this Daniel. Life is too short to shy away from things that have a low % chance of catastrophe and can’t be controlled. I can’t think of anywhere in the world where there is not a change of a natural disaster. In Minnesota we have tornadoes, blizzards and I’ve even heard about small earthquakes. But we just hosted a Superbowl here without incident(other than the Vikings not being in it). Live life to the fullest as everyday is a gift. Come to the Islands, you will be safe. Just watch for the falling coconuts!!! Love City Strong.
      You are all wonderful human beings.

  17. There has been so much attention paid to the hurricane destruction in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas that the devastation in the Virgin Islands has not received the attention that it deserves. Devon, your article is the best that I’ve read on the subject. During the recent budget compromise, Congress did include the U.S. Virgin Islands in the $90 billion of additional natural disaster aid. Many persons on the U.S. mainland probably do not even know that persons born in the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. citizens. Keep up the good work, which will contribute to the resurgence of the Islands. Barry

  18. We just returned from St. John last night after an 8 day vacation. It’s still beautiful; it’s still Love City; it’s still paradise. The island is open for business! There are many villas available and much of the island is reopened. There are truly more businesses opening everyday! Everybody on island is so appreciative and excited to have people back. We were thanked by nearly every server we had for coming back. This is their livelihood. They’re happy to share their home with anybody and everybody. If your favorite spots aren’t open, find new favorite spots. St. John is ready and still incredibly beautiful!

  19. Christie,
    Happy to hear that you are okay. Your son wrote a wonderful article and we’ve sent it on to others who have been there as our guests. What I found remarkable is that you were able to handle our real estate business while dealing with your own loss. Thank you from all of us. I’ll be on island very soon and will try to look you up.

  20. This was a great article. It sounds strange to say that due to the subject matter but I literally could not stop reading. Like several people have stated, it is very well written and powerful. Love City Strong!!! Keep coming down everyone.

  21. I used to ride the ferry with you two when you went to school in Saint Thomas. I can remember Your mother dropping you off at the ferry and thinking what good looking boys she had. My memory of her was that she had a smile that would light up a room!
    Thank you so much for writing the story, and bringing back memories of that time in my life. I rode out hurricane Marilyn on my kitchen counter while waves went over the house in Turner Bay. I’ve heard many times from my friends that are still there, that Irma was far worse than Marilyn. It’s hard to believe, but I know it is true.

    Christie, come visit, I’m in Sausalito, CA!

  22. Thank you so much for your wonderful writing! Having visited and sailed these very special islands many times I have followed the progress after Irma & Maria. Your story is heart breaking, frightening, inspiring and yet best of all….hopeful, as it should be! Thanks for sharing the story of your wonderful and beautiful island with such strong and caring people!

  23. I’m sure it’s easier said than done but what about creating some sort of shelter on island? Carve out part of a west facing side of the mountain and stock it to the roof. There are places like that in PA that hold important records in case of natural disaster. At least the people will be safe. All else can be rebuilt.

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