In the Eye of the Storm
By Bethany Douglas
On September 6, 2017, I posted on social media: “We are so incredibly thankful to have been spared from the worst of Hurricane Irma. But even if all had been destroyed, God would still be good and gracious.”
We had just experienced our first hurricane since making the island of St. Croix our home. As a literature teacher, I often point out examples of foreshadowing to my students. If the events of the past several months were a work of fiction, I certainly would have highlighted this post as an instance of foreshadowing. I’ve learned God often uses these moments to prepare us for a deeper trial to come, and that’s certainly what was happening in my life.
When we learned our island had been spared from being fully devastated by Irma by a mere 20 miles, we were overwhelmingly humbled by God’s goodness and protection. In shock, we pored over news reports describing the damage Irma left in her wake. Our sister islands of St. Thomas and St. John were destroyed and many of our fellow islanders lost everything.
St. Croix quickly became the hub for disaster relief
in the Caribbean.
Since it was still hurricane season, we weren’t surprised to learn several more storms were forming off of the coast of Africa, but we were concerned by how quickly they strengthened. Unbelievably, only two weeks after Irma, we were under a hurricane advisory yet again. The advisories quickly turned into warnings as newly named Hurricane Maria accelerated from category 3 to category 5 in 24 hours.
As Maria intensified and weather projections showed St. Croix in the cone of impact, my anxiety grew and grew. Our team decided to seek shelter in the church and in one of the homes on campus, as we had during Hurricane Irma. The buildings were lower in the valley and thus better protected from the imminent hurricane force winds.
Shortly after settling in and claiming our air mattresses, the island’s power grid shut down. The remaining hours before Maria’s landfall passed very slowly. Late in the night, the winds intensified. Rain started to fall in sheets, and a constant roar began that continued throughout the night. We tried to sleep, but the roar of the storm and the sounds of debris hitting the building made sleep impossible.
Suddenly, we heard a loud cracking sound. It was the church steeple! The wind toppled it and pushed it to the side. It crashed onto the roof and eventually rolled into the churchyard below. As the storm intensified, the winds ripped the protective boards from the windows above us. Without power and light, it was impossible to know what was happening outside our walls.
I truly wish I could say I felt peace during that night. Despite the danger and uncertainty of those hours, many of my friends were able to rest and felt God’s presence around them. Though I know He was present during the storm, I cannot say I truly felt His peace until I finally redirected my focus from the chaos around me to the unwavering promises in His Word.
As the storm reached its height, flooding began. I soon became too busy working to waste energy worrying. We took turns mopping, moving from one end of the building to the other. We worked for hours in a constant circle, fighting a losing battle. We sopped up water with towels and mops, swept out water with brooms, and filled bucket after bucket. After a few risky trips into the hurricane to move boards and create barriers, the flooding finally slowed and most of the water receded.
By morning, the storm had calmed enough for us to view the destruction. Though our campus was flooded, trees were down everywhere, and anything green had been blown away, the church and school buildings escaped with little damage. We soon learned this was not true for many of our fellow islanders. Later that day, my husband Thad and I made our way up the difficult road to our home. Though I could see we still had a roof, I was shocked by the extent of the damages in our neighborhood. We had the remnants of two roofs in our driveway, the road was blocked by major debris, and it appeared our house was one of only two in the area that still had a roof. Witnessing the destruction around us while knowing our home was intact was incredibly humbling. As it did after Irma, the feeling of undeserved grace overwhelmed me, and I was struck by God’s graciousness as He protected us through the storm.
Photo: Damage is still widespread weeks into the recovery effort.
Unable to access our home due to major debris, my husband and I lived in the church for almost a week, while we all worked on clearing the campuses. Every morning, our team met and prayed together. After prayer, we discussed what needed to be taken care of that morning. Teams were assigned to wait in long lines for necessities like MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), fuel, and groceries.
Each evening we would eat and gather to hear the governor’s radio address—our only source of news for weeks. It wasn’t until my first afternoon off campus that I truly grasped the reality of what happened to the island. Scenes of absolute destruction overwhelmed me. It seemed as if every power pole had been toppled. Massive piles of debris and the remains of roofs and walls surrounded countless homes.
In the weeks following, we began to see slow progress in the recovery efforts on the island. The campus was cleaned, and students, parents, and community volunteers helped us prepare to reopen the school. Though we still did not have electricity, we resumed classes using generator power.
We praise God that though many families were forced to move off island, we didn’t see a major drop in enrollment. Many organizations and individuals donated financially, sent care packages, and filled trailers of supplies to assist our ministry. As we distributed these supplies in the community, we built new relationships with those around us. During this recovery period, we experienced a renewed sense of unity and saw examples of astonishing resiliency each day.
Though our tasks are now planned around available sunlight and generator power, the normal rhythms of life on island are returning again. As I reflect on this incredibly difficult time, I can still say with confidence God is good and gracious. I see His hand at work in the shelter of newly tarped roofs, the green life sprouting around us, and the joy of fellowship with those we love through the most difficult of circumstances. While we were surprised and shaken by Maria, God was not. He placed people within our lives to support us and encourage us through this trial. No words can adequately describe the gratitude we feel toward those who reached out to us in love and support during these difficult days. Though we are still in the midst of recovery, we can rest in the knowledge God has gone before us and makes all things new and whole again.
About the Writer: Bethany Douglas and her husband Thad are teachers at the Free Will Baptist School on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. To help with ongoing relief efforts on the island, visit www.fwbmastersmen.org.