As Hurricane Irma’s 185-mph hour winds stripped off the roof and shattered windows of their vacation villa last week, Dawn and Carlos Berrios barricaded themselves in the bathroom and prayed.
The Pooler couple had saved for two years to travel to Simpson Bay Resort in Sint Maarten and the storm threat gave them second thoughts.
“We ended up trying to get out of going to begin with,” Dawn Berrios said by phone Monday.
They nearly canceled the trip to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary in the Caribbean island nation, but found they’d lose their prepaid money and Delta Airlines wouldn’t refund their tickets. After checking the forecast and seeing the projection shift away from the Leeward Islands, they decided to leave as planned.
“It was moving north of the Leeward Islands, so we contacted Delta and they said we were good. So we made the call that we were going to go ahead and take it and go,” she said.
On Sunday, they saw that the path of Irma had changed. It was heading toward the island. Carlos Berrios began calling Delta to try to secure a flight home, but they reassured him that everything was fine and no travel alerts or advisories had been issued.
On Monday, the airline finally issued an advisory but didn’t schedule a flight into the island on Tuesday, so the couple was stuck again. Later that evening Delta tried to shift them to another flight, but the cost was too much.
“We would have had to pay $1,900 a person. We saved up for two years to (go to Sint Maarten) … even on a credit card we didn’t have that kind of money for tickets,” said Dawn Berrios.
The Berrioses had no other choice but to settle in and wait. They stocked up on food and water at a nearby grocery store and secured towels around their patio door. The winds started shortly after dark.
“The wind was kind of what the Hurricane Matthew wind was at the beginning, like a whistle noise,” she said, adding that that portion lasted until about 4:30 a.m., when a loud clanking noise startled the couple.
“My husband looks out the window and it was the roof. The roof was wrapped around one of the columns in the breezeway and it was just flapping back and forth. He looked at me and said, ‘Babe, we’ve got to get in the bathroom, I think our roof is going to come off.’”
As more water started coming into the room the Berrioses secured themselves in the bathroom when the seam between the mirror and roof started to lift up and slam back down. Dawn had made a point earlier to meet the people in the surrounding villas, and they fled to the villa on the floor below them. When the residents opened the door, it created a wind tunnel and the roof flew off.
“(My husband) basically slid down the staircase and we ran into the bathroom and he pinned himself against the door,” she said.
“… It was like somebody was constantly banging on the door. There was no whistling, just a constant thunderous noise. I can’t even explain it. I don’t know what adjective to describe the sound the wind was making.”
Berrios said there was nothing left to do at that point but pray.
“… All four of us were in that bathroom. The water was coming in and I’m worried about these two women that we just met that basically saved our lives,” she said.
“I kept praying, ‘God please wrap your arms around us, and take this wind away.’”
About an hour or so later the eye of Irma settled over the island, the winds started to calm and the group heard voices coming from the main resort building where they were able to seek shelter for the second round of the storm.
“It wasn’t just the wind, it was everything. The foundation, walls, everything was shaking and moving,” she said.
“We’ve never felt anything like that and a lot of the other American citizens we came in contact with hadn’t witnessed anything like that. It was definitely and experience… Afterwards we were just in awe; we didn’t know what to think.”
The storm blew out windows, caused fires and tossed cars on top of one another. Without utilities, the group bathed in the ocean and washed their faces with water collected in trash cans. They brushed their teeth with what bottled water they had left.
Berrios said the storm’s outer bands continued to bring wind and rain until about noon Thursday. She believes some of the damage was caused by tornadoes.
After conditions improved, the Berrioses were able share a room with a couple they’d met. They traveled to the nearby resort where their friend Carol Basch was staying. Dawn finally had enough cellphone service to call the American Consulate and plead for them to contact the U.S. State Department.
“We were getting bits and pieces of information from our friends in the U.S… The Dutch government did everything they could to get the airport up and running, but the problem was that the Dutch government really wasn’t concerned with getting the American citizens off, which I understand,” she said. Sint Maarten is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
By Saturday morning there was more hope, so the Berrioses packed what was left and were shuttled to Princess Juliana International Airport where they waited another three to four hours before they knew what was going on.
“The Dutch government was getting their people on their planes, so at that moment there were no American airliners on the runway,” she said, adding that soon after arriving at the airport the rain and wind of Hurricane Jose started to arrive.
After a while, the rain started to let up and Berrios saw a Gulfstream jet land followed by a C-130 military transport aircraft.
Much to Berrios’ surprise soon after the planes landed her name was called from a roster.
“I looked at my husband and said, ‘That’s me! What the heck?’” she said of the shock.
Berrios was able to get her husband’s name on the list and the two were flown by Cartersville, Ga.-based Phoenix Air on the Gulfstream jet to Puerto Rico. Basch had arrived prior to the Berrios in Puerto Rico on the first C-130 aircraft. Hurricane Jose forced the airport in Sint Maarten to close shortly after the group departed, so Berrios counts them very blessed.
“Don’t ask me how my name got on that list. I’m thinking it could be a combination of the call I made on Wednesday, or my husband, who works for Gulfstream and maybe they were working on their end to get us off,” she said.
“Everybody was doing everything they could to get us off, but honestly I still don’t know how it happened.”
From the time they arrived in Puerto Rico the group began working to get a flight back to the United States. Irma had moved on and was hindering air travel in the states, but after a two-hour phone call with Delta on Sunday night the Berrioses and Basch were finally able to get a flight.
They were supposed to fly to Atlanta and then connect to Savannah, but their Savannah flight was canceled, but luckily their two sons, one of who lives in Augusta, picked them up at the Atlanta airport and they reunited with Dawn’s parents and the couple’s other children early Monday morning.
“Last night we got into Atlanta and we reunited with our two oldest sons and then our bag is lost,” she said, adding that they had to leave most of their belongings on the island and had combined what they could bring back into a duffle bag.
“We waited in Atlanta for about three hours for them to relocate our bag.”
Dawn said the couple and their children will stay with her parents for a few more days to decompress and get back to normal after the overwhelming experience.
“I’m an emotional person anyway, so I’m having hard time dealing with it all and processing it all,” she said of seeing the destruction on Sint Maarten.
“…I have mixed feelings. Yes, I’m relieved that we’re here on U.S. soil alive with our children, but at the same time my heart just breaks for the Leeward Islands that were hit like Saint Maarten. You’re talking about human beings, I don’t care what nationality they are.”