Hurricane Irma survivor from Indiana: "I had no idea what was about to happen to my small island"


October 5, 2017

Michelle Pappas felt the ferocity of Hurricane Irma through thick walls and bolstered doors of her neighbor's much sturdier home.

Pappas, who was born and raised in Valparaiso, lives on the 20-square-mile island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the Category 5 hurricane hit squarely on Sept. 6. She knew it was barreling her way. She decided to stick it out and hope for the best.

"It's my home," explained Pappas, 41, who has lived on St. John for five years. "But I had no idea what was about to happen to my small island."

Cruz Bay, the island's largest town, was devastated within minutes. Boats washed ashore onto flooded streets. Vehicles turned upside down like toys. Entire homes sucked up and dumped hundreds of feet away.

"That morning we watched in disbelief as the sky turned solid white with wind and rain while trees bent completely sideways as if they were made of rubber," Pappas recalled. "We were finally forced to take true shelter."

Along with her dog Ferngully, and her younger sister Cortney Gulleson, they huddled in a neighbor's newly bolstered basement, praying it would stay intact. Watch a video and view more photos at

"The sound was eerie and loud," Gulleson said.

"We could feel it in our heads. Our ears kept popping," Pappas said.

Winds of 180 mph whipped through the home, bending doors, sucking them in and out. Pappas and the home's owner, named Dave, slammed a bookshelf against the door to stabilize it.

"We held it with all our strength, screaming for a drill to fasten it tightly," Pappas said.

For several hours they hunkered down in the basement, reassuring each other that their island would somehow absorb the hurricane of all hurricanes.

"We shared laughs and stories through the madness, easing the tension," Pappas said. "It was a surreal sort of romantic if you could just forget a violent hurricane was thrashing outside."

At dusk, they heard the winds subside, enough to take a curious peek outside.

"Pure shock. Devastation everywhere. It was overwhelming," Pappas said.

Photos of the sisters' neighborhood as well as the island's shoreline, taken before and after the hurricane, show its dramatic devastation. Lush, green, picturesque scenery transmogrified into brown, barren ruins as if the island was carpet-bombed by war.

"Never before has the Atlantic Ocean brought such a forceful and destructive hurricane into the Caribbean and our islands," Pappas said.

No power. No cell service. No police presence for a while for the approximately 5,000 residents of the island, which has been under U.S. control for more than a century.

"Just a small speck in the middle of two oceans," Pappas said. "We felt desperately exposed and unprotected. Destruction was now our reality."

Before the hurricane, the sisters did everything they could to prepare their home, located on the side of a lush, forested hill. They stocked up on food, water, and gas. They boarded windows. They strapped down everything.

More importantly, they packed into the safest room more than 50 large plastic bins of Pappas' blossoming business venture, Vines Islandwear. Her home was headquarters to the business inventory — thousands of pairs of new sandals, and her business partner, Liz Ylitalo, of Nashville, Tenn.

Tourism was the lifeblood of the island, with Pappas operating a vendor booth near the beach for sandal-friendly tourists.

"My living space was destroyed, the roof was gone and walls collapsed, but the sandal bins were still stacked right where I left them," she later wrote on her business website for online customers. "Only a couple of bins had lost their lid and were filled with water."

After donating 150 pairs of sandals to locals in need of footwear, Pappas considered boating the rest of her inventory to Puerto Rico for distribution shipping. St. John's postal service is down indefinitely, the island's critical infrastructure would take months to rebuild, and she had customers' online orders to fill.

And then came word that Hurricane Maria was soon headed their way. The sisters couldn't believe the dreaded news. Their hearts sank in disappointment.

After days of cleaning up their home, clearing roads and getting their lives somewhat back in order, Pappas made the difficult decision to flee her home, and the island, for the U.S. mainland.

"I needed telephone and internet capabilities to keep our business running," she said.

Pappas hitched a ride on a speedboat for St. Thomas, then hopped a private jet owned by an anonymous donor to aid the mass evacuation. The flight landed in Florida, where Pappas took a commercial flight to Chicago, then drove to Valparaiso where she is staying with her mother for the time being.

I met with her there, where she watched on TV the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. This time St. John was spared, especially compared to Puerto Rico.

"After going through all that in person, it was surreal to watch it as a spectator," she said.

Since Hurricane Irma hit the island, country music star Kenny Chesney has been helping with rebuilding efforts while flying in supplies and flying out victims. His home on the island was totally destroyed.

"I don't know what to say," he posted on his Love for Love City fundraising page. "I've never been in war, but the devastation, the people's faces in a place I know by heart have left me feeling helpless. It's total devastation."

Chesney's charitable foundation for hurricane relief efforts inspired Pappas to launch her own "Hurricampaign" fundraiser with a goal of $10,000 for St John residents. Through her Vines Island wear business, $5 from each sandals sale will go towards relief efforts. (For more information, visit

"They're double hurricane tested," joked Pappas, who plans to return soon to St. John. "The people there are special, and so resilient. I'm proud to be one of them."


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