Lace and Cyndi Waldron, a couple born and raised in Michigan found themselves in a dangerous situation after accepting their first Workamping job earlier this year, in the beautiful Virgin Island paradise of St. Thomas. The couple, new to the world of Workamping, had just come off of a 4-year job of managing a resort in New Zealand when they saw a post for a beach resort in need of a temporary relief manager for just a few weeks during the month of September, in the Caribbean.
“The winds and pressure from a hurricane are near unbearable. It feels like your head is being crushed in a vice. We decided on a closet for our safe space as it had no windows to worry about and was at the back of the building by a concrete wall. We covered the door with heavy plastic to hopefully keep the wind and water from entering. Because the door opened into the closet we brought in screws and boards to screw the door shut and prevent the wind from forcing it open. We did not want 200mph winds in our safe space.”
Workamping Through a Hurricane
Question: When did you hear about this job?
Cyndi: We saw the assignment in March of this year
Question: What was your first thought?
Lace: We thought it would be a great assignment… we had the experience and had never been to the Caribbean!”
Their assignment was an amazing job, some will only dream about being offered, let alone being able to accept. Operate a hotel for 3 weeks, then stay and play for additional 3 weeks at no cost. The property was the 9 room, boutique hotel called the Green Iguana that sits on the side of a mountain overlooking the bay.
Question: How did you contact the employer?
Lace: We sent the employer our resume through Workamper’s site. It was only about half an hour and the Managers of the hotel replied and set up an interview.
Question: What steps were required before actually arriving in St. Thomas?
Cyndi: We sent our personal information to the Managers. We got a lot of information from them on the duties we would be required to perform. They also sent us information on the Island of St Thomas and the activities on the island. St Thomas is a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands so although no passport is required for entry, it is recommended you bring it.
Question: How long were you there? How long was the original commitment?
Lace: We left for St Thomas on August 24thand were to return home on October 18th. As you know those plans were change dramatically by Irma. The first week of our assignment was spent with the Managers, Gwen and John, in training.
Cyndi remembers the fun times she had during her week on training, and the amazing restaurants and ‘water holes’ she was introduced to. The surreal feeling of living in a tropical oasis, would soon be overshadowed by the massive hurricane, we would come to call Irma.
Question: When did you first hear about Irma?
Lace: We had heard about Irma before we left for the assignment. It was a tropical depression off the coast of Africa. We had no indication at that time that it would develop into a hurricane and be heading for the Virgin Islands. St Thomas had not had a major storm for over 16 years. Thinking back, we said that maybe the island was due to be hit, but the chances seemed slim.
Question: What were your initial thoughts?
Cyndi: We watched the development of the hurricane very closely and watched as it came closer and closer. Many islanders and others at home kept saying Irma was going to track North and not be a problem for St Thomas. We both had a gut feeling that it was going to hit the island and were praying that it would track North as others were saying. We believe people were hoping it would track North, but it was just hope and not based on any real knowledge.
Putting fear of the unknown and uncontrollable aside, they traveled to the small island and touched down exactly when promised, August 24thto start their week of training. During this time, although they knew about the storm- they had very limited information about what was being predicted by the National Weather Service, as much of the focus was being placed on the possible hit and destruction of the state of Florida. Very little was being said about the almost imminent threat to the Virgin Islands, which the Waldron’s described as “very frustrating to everyone on the island.”
Question: Did you plan to leave or intend to ride it out?
Lace: We felt we had a duty and obligation to the guests at the hotel that did not have a choice to get out. We had locals staying that had no place to go and felt the hotel was a safer place than at home. One couple lived on a boat in the bay and needed a safe haven to ride out Irma. We could not leave our guests, we had a responsibility to help keep them safe. We, up to last minute were still praying it would miss us or at least be less life threatening. We never want to be in an eye wall of a cat 5+ hurricane, but we had to play the cards we were dealt.
Looking back on their decision to go to St. Thomas, Lace & Cyndi have no regrets. They viewed the people of St. Thomas as calm, thinking and praying this storm would be like many others that went around the island or slightly touched it with minimum damage.
Question: What was the local buzz on the island?
Cyndi: The people of the island were hoping Irma what just be a glancing blow. We had visited the local restaurants and talked to local islanders and they seemed concerned but calm. We only noticed real concern just a few hours before it hit. This is not to say the islanders weren’t preparing, they were stocking up on water and food and anything they felt they needed in the aftermath of the storm. We were doing the same. The stores soon ran out of supplies. Some of the longtime residents had gone through several hurricanes so they were helping people to prepare by telling them what to expect.
Question: Tell me about the time leading up to Irma? How did you prepare?
Cyndi: Lace has had some experience with the aftermath of powerful hurricanes. He was a catastrophe adjuster with a major insurance carrier and also as an independent adjuster. We met with the guests hours prior to the land fall of Irma and shared information on what to do to better their chances of getting through this storm without injury. We explained to find a save space in their rooms normally a closet or the bathroom, someplace with solid walls and no windows. We discussed using mattresses to block the windows or use as cover from flying glass and debris. One important thing we told them is to not get curious to stay in their safe space until it was sure to be safe. Wait until the winds have subsided to a low sound.
Never being anywhere close to a hurricane myself, I asked the Waldrons what was it like to be on that island as the storm approached. Cyndi said, “It was very calm and peaceful just before Irma made landfall. There were no birds, apparently, they leave the island before it hits. The sky was an eerie gray color, very discerning. We started getting some lighter winds at first but they began to increase quite rapidly. While looking out our slider we started seeing trees bind and lose their leaves, debris was starting to fly through the air. The first thing to go were the two satellite dishes attached to a wall on our deck, next to go was the wall itself. It was getting very load and threatening.” Nearly speechless, and left sitting on edge inside a tight closet, boarded up from the inside with boards held by a several screws into the door frame. The wind blew hard for hours without any signs of letting up or passing quickly.
Question: What was the actually experience of Irma hitting the island like? What happened?
Lace: We were in our safe space for 5 and a half hours before we could safely get out. The door we screwed shut was bowing in from the force of 185mph sustained winds and 228mph gusts.
Cyndi: At one-point Lace got up and pushed against the door to keep it from blowing open. If the door was compromised we were sure it wouldn’t be a good thing for us. The pressure on our ears and head were beyond what we expected, we had ear plugs in which helped a little. We had a number of cushions from the chairs and couches we sat on and could use to protect ourselves from flying debris or falling ceilings.
Lace: Cyndi at one point heard what sounded like a choir singing, some has asked her if it was the angles singing, perhaps it was or maybe just the wind.
They believe they made the right choice to stay and were maybe even able to help save a few lives by doing so. The couple told me a story about a group of young travelers, who wanted to move hotels right before the storm. They were staying at another hotel in the area, and thought the Green Iguana would be a safer location. With only two rooms on the third floor available for rent, Lace & Cyndi made the tough decision to turn them down. They felt the third floor would not hold up during the storm, and were not comfortable taking a gambling with these lives. In fact, they moved other guests from that floor before the storm hit, and thank God they did!
When the couple emerged from their closet bunker after 5 ½ hours, the destruction was unimaginable! The resort was destroyed and the beautiful island was no more. Every leaf had been ripped off of every tree and debris was everywhere. The third floor of the hotel had been completely ripped off the building, damage was beyond severe. Cyndi said, “had any guests been in those rooms we don’t think they would have survived.” As they made their rounds, checking on guests, they were pleased to find that everyone was accounted for. Lace remembers, “We began seeing the other guests emerge from their rooms, all were accounted for and we had no serious injuries, there was a lot of hugging and crying. A special bond had been formed by the experience of Irma. We were now no longer a hotel, but a survival compound.”
Question: What happened afterwards?
Cyndi:We have great respect for the people of St Thomas. The community came together to help each other no matter of any difference they had prior to the storm. They are just wonderful people, everyone always asked if you needed anything or if they could help in any way. People gave those who had nothing, their water and food, even though they had little of their own. A group of us began clearing the roads around the hotel of fallen trees and building parts. We were a group of strangers whom soon became friends. Everyone pitched in and just went to work. In the following days, we continued to help our neighbors by tarping roofs and clearing debris from their homes. We also provided much needed water and food. We became a community of survivors.
Lace: There was group of young men we owe a lot of thanks to. Tyrone, Dekyle, Damion and Taj. These young men were there when everyone needed them most, from clearing roads to tarping roofs. They also brought rain water to those in need and never refused a request for help. They joined the Red Cross as volunteers soon after the storm and continue to help all in need. We look upon them as sons. Dekyle who was only sixteen, but wanted to help, told the Red Cross he was eighteen in order to volunteer. A shelter that turned him away after the storm is now his responsibility as its’ supervisor. God works in mysterious ways.
With one of the only generators in their surrounding area, Lace & Cyndi became a very important part of the community! They were able to not only help with water and supplies around the hotel, but they were able to charge people’s cell phones and offer a hot cup of coffee to people who were in need of both energy, and a sense of normality. The Waldrons, even went as far as to prepare meals for the young men volunteering with the Red Cross, with food they brought from their homes, trying not to let it go to waste and spoil in the refrigerator.
Question: How long were you there after Irma?
Lace: We had a responsibility to stay at the hotel until the managers returned. We were not going to abandon or new friends at the hotel. We had the responsibility to make sure all continued to be safe. We left after the return of the managers, about 10 days after the storm. The airport wasn’t open so we had to make other arrangements to get out. The airport was due to open o September 28th.
Cyndi: Two of our guests John and Susan had a brother in Sa Juan, Douglas, he was able to get us on a manifest of a boat leaving for San Juan. We were leaving just ahead of hurricane Maria, we needed to get out as Maria was fast on our heels. We made it to the boat and took the 3 hour trip to San Juan. We didn’t feel safe with Maria chasing us and got a flight out of San Juan the next day. The following day Maria hit Porto Rico. We really didn’t feel the ordeal was over until we landed back in Michigan. We still have fits of emotion grips us when we think of all our friends in St Thomas. God Bless the People of the Virgin Islands.
I was amazed at the story told by the Waldron’s. It seemed they had gone to St. Thomas, just to be hit by the hurricane. IF that was the case, it appeared fate had a hand in aligning the events and steps needed to get them there. In doing so, they were able to see a side of humanity that is sometimes forgotten. A side less often talked about in the media. The side of human nature that pours with love, goodwill and respect for another human life, just out of the goodness of one’s heart. Lace noted that during the aftermath, “It was incredible. There was no color, no politics & no religion. Just people helping people, because they could. There is an inherent goodness in people that comes to the surface in the time of extreme need. We have a renewed faith in the kindness of people.”
It’s been only 2 weeks since they’ve been back home, but they seemed to have settled back into life post-Irma. They told me they were talking advantage of the smaller things in life, like the convenience of running water and the ability to shower daily. They are optimistic about finding another less extreme Workamping opportunity and still have their resumes active.
Question: Where is your next Workamping adventure?
Lace: Some less hurricane prone region.
Cyndi: We’re ready!