When Hurricane Irma barreled through the U.S. Virgin Islands, making landfall on St. John as a category 5 storm on Sept. 6, Gig Harbor High School graduate Kim Michaelson and her fiancée Adam Majchrzak were hunkered down with friends.
“We knew the hurricane was coming for days ahead and we boarded up windows, bought water and supplies, made sure we had propane and gas for the generator,” said Michaelson.
They knew the drill, but this storm was going to be different.
“In all the years I’ve lived there we’ve never gone through anything like that,” Michaelson said.
Michaelson, who has lived in the Virgin Islands and St. John for 11 years, is no slacker when it comes to living on an island. She has a 100-ton masters license and captains a 50-foot catamaran, Kekoa, taking tourists out for the day.
“We do local snorkel trips around the Virgin Islands. Boating is one of the main tourist attractions,” she said.
Majchrzak also makes his living on the water as a captain and first mate working as a fisherman for World Class Anglers running daily fishing charters.
Hoping to save Kekoa, Michaelson and Majchrzak moved the catamaran to a spot called Hurricane Hole, where they hoped it would be safe.
“We worked for days getting the boat ready with sand screws and anchors, tying the boat off and taking off anything that could fly away,” she said.
On the day of the storm, the power went out about 10 a.m. and Irma slammed into the island by noon.
The couple moved to a friend’s house where they felt safe.
“Five of us stayed at the house and the wind started to pick up, the rain came and initially we didn’t think it would be that bad. We were standing on the deck of the house and all of a sudden a roof came flying off a house. We thought ‘It is time to go inside,’” she said, adding, “It was insane.”
With winds clocked at 200-plus mph, Irma was one of the biggest storms in recorded history.
The couple waited the storm out with friends, nervously watching while the hillside behind the house turned into a massive waterfall.
“Honestly, I thought we wouldn’t make it,” said Michaelson.
They spent the next week trying to get off the island. Ferries weren’t running and there were no boats. Their plan was to make it to Puerto Rico and fly out from there.
They knew help would not be coming any time soon.
Meanwhile, back in Gig Harbor, Michaelson’s parents, Tony and Margo, were desperate for information. The Weather Channel became their main source of information during those hours.
“We knew St. John was right in Irma’s path,” Tony said.
“She had been through one hurricane before, but it was minor. They always moved the boats around but this hurricane took the boats and threw them on the shore,” he said.
The waiting was agonizing.
That was the scary part, waiting to see if they made it through Irma, the most devastating hurricane in the last 95 years.
Tony Michaelson, whose daughter survived Hurricane Irma
“That was the scary part, waiting to see if they made it through Irma, the most devastating hurricane in the last 95 years,” he said.
Early on, Michaelson was able to call her family, but after Irma’s fury took everything out, there was no news from her.
“The next 24 hours we heard nothing from her as the communication system was off line and then overloaded. They were more concerned with their own situation,” her father said.
The parking lot where the couple parked their truck was gone, but thanks to some quick thinking they had moved the vehicle to another location hoping it would be protected, he said.
After the winds died down, it was time for Michaelson and Majchrzak to assess the damage.
“All of the roads were blocked, telephone and power lines were blocking the roads, the entire island was wiped out and everyone was in shock. It was very isolating,” said Michaelson.
The catamaran and Adam’s boat were both destroyed. The next challenge was getting to Puerto Rico.
A friend offered a boat, but it had a hole in it. Fortunately, Majchrzak came to the rescue by mixing up some fiberglass and patching the hole. With no time to test it out, they took off for Puerto Rico and after two days there they were able to fly out. Their luggage consisted of two backpacks and one duffel bag.
The future for the couple is uncertain.
“We want to go home (to St. John) but we don’t really know. There is nothing there now, no water, no power. Our place is still standing but flooded and we don’t have work there anymore,” Kim said.
The recently-engaged couple were planning a June wedding on St. John.
“We are still planning on it,” said Michaelson.