More than 900 people stuck in the U.S. Virgin Islands
because of Hurricane Irma, many grateful to be alive, arrived at PortMiami on
Friday morning after being rescued in St. Thomas by the Norwegian Sky cruise
The majority were tourists stranded when Irma's 185 mph
winds obliterated the Cyril E. King Airport in Charlotte Amalie. "The
control tower is gone," said Charlene Woolley, who was on vacation from
Atlanta. "[Flying] was not an option."
The Norwegian Sky had sailed empty to Cancun during the
storm and motored directly to St. Thomas once the government there sent out an
urgent request for transportation off the island.
The 2,004-passenger ship picked up a total of 923 evacuees,
including 99 from St. John who had been brought to St. Thomas by a U.S. Coast
Before the hurricane, Woolley said she was relocated from
the beachfront hotel where she had been staying to the Windward Passage. That
hotel is built of concrete and mostly stood against the storm's assault, but sustained
a lot of damage.
"It was raining in the room," Woolley said. "Some
rooms had lost their ceilings. The air conditioner was gone. We were in the
bathroom. The whole building was shaking the whole time. Imagine a really big
hotel door that was rattling like you think it was going to blow off."
Hurricane Irma evacuee Arlene Graham shares a photo of the storm with Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Andy Stuart at PortMiami. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
She said the shatter-proof windows looked like they were
"breathing," being sucked in and out by the pressure.
But Woolley said the aftermath was worse.
"Because of where our hotel was, it was kind of a bad
part of town. So there was nightly shooting. They were robbing the tourists because
they knew they had cash," she said. "There was no power. There was a
generator that the manager of the hotel ran only at night for lights, for
safety. We actually had the St. Croix police staying in our hotel and there
were still people trying to get in. You literally stood outside your room and
guarded your supplies, your water, ice, toilet paper."
Woolley found out on the web that the Norwegian Sky was
coming to evacuate people. She and her companion got their names on the list.
"You literally saved our lives," Woolley told
Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Andy Stuart, who was at the port on Friday to greet
evacuees. "I can't say that enough."
For Terry Denton and his family, Norwegian Cruise Line represented
hope at the darkest hour.
The Phoenix businessman was on a 10-day vacation with his
wife and two relatives. They had planned to fly back before the storm hit, "but
that didn't happen," Denton said.
Instead they were moved from their waterside villa to a
condo building, where the walls held but the windows shattered. The room flooded.
Still left with some internet service, Denton heard a rumor
that a cruise ship was coming and sent Facebook messages to every line he
Only Norwegian replied. "They simply typed back, 'You're
not forgotten. Someone will come help you,'" said Denton's wife Jodi.
Until that point, the group, which included Denton's brother
and the brother's daughter, had been in the dark literally and figuratively. "We
had nothing before that," Jodi Denton said. "It gave us hope."
Another evacuee, Arlene Graham, had been through hurricanes
before. As a 20-year-resident of St. Croix and St. Thomas, she had seen some
severe storms, including Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, which left 11,000 people on
St. Thomas homeless.
"This hurricane was worse," she said.
Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Andy Stuart talks with Charlene Woolley, an Atlanta resident on vacation in St. Thomas when Hurricane Irma hit. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Although her home held up fairly well, Graham said she left
her husband to take care of the property so she could get her 15-year-old son
Ahmad reestablished in school in northern Virginia.
"We're not sure how the storm will affect things,"
said Graham, a financial analyst for the Department of Education.
Graham said there was no looting in her neighborhood, but
the island is in dire need of supplies, including tarps for damaged roofs,
food, water and ice.
"The main concern is for people to be able to get back
on their feet and sustain themselves, and get what is needed to rebuild,"