The winds of Hurricane Irma were so intense Wichita doctor Dan Reimer could see trees being flattened and limbs being stripped as he watched from an elevated floor of the only hospital on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
“We were like, ‘Oh, wow — that’s crazy,’” said Reimer, who was serving a weeklong medical rotation in St. Thomas when Irma struck on Sept. 6. “At least we feel secure behind these windows.”
And then the windows blew in.
“These huge gusts of wind came in, pummeling through the medical ward along with the rain,” Reimer said. “The rain was just getting pushed in by the wind, soaking through medical charts and the false ceiling.”
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Nurses told patients to stay in their room. Much of the medical staff fled the compromised fourth floor, Reimer said, though the wind was blowing so fiercely it was difficult to get doors open.
“I didn’t know if we were abandoning them to their deaths,” Reimer said. “At the time, you never know what’s going to happen. If the window blows in further, it could be sucking patients out” of the building.
Reimer sought refuge on the third floor, but the wind was blowing so hard he wondered if the five-story, 169-bed hospital was about to collapse. Irma had sustained winds of 185 miles an hour for a record-setting 37 consecutive hours as it moved through the Atlantic and struck the Caribbean.
On impulse, he stopped in a hallway and prayed with another staff member “that the hospital would stand and it would survive this,” Reimer said. “The hospital was shaking such that little bits of the false ceiling were raining down on the table below.”
Rain was being pushed “through every little crevice it can possibly find,” he said.
As he huddled in fear, he said, he felt vulnerable and helpless.
“You’re feeling very small” at a moment like that, he said.
The fierce winds and lashing rains lasted at least 10 to 15 minutes, he said, before conditions gradually improved. The storm ripped the roof off of the hospital and rainwater soaked floors and damaged equipment. A generator provided electricity, but the air conditioning was gone.
The damage prompted officials to close the hospital, Reimer said. The 35 patients in the hospital and about 60 dialysis patients were airlifted the next day to a U.S. Navy hospital ship before being transferred to Puerto Rico or St. Croix.
For the next few days, Reimer slept on a couch or a patient bed at the hospital until he and a couple of other doctors were moved to one of the few apartment buildings on the island that still had electricity.
With the airport closed, Reimer waited until he was able to board a Norwegian Cruise Line ship with about 1,000 other people – many of them stranded tourists – and they landed in Miami about three days later.
He’s back in Wichita now, still absorbing his experience and wondering how the people of St. Thomas and neighboring St. John are doing. As hard as St. Thomas was hit – officials estimate it will take months to restore electricity and reopen key buildings such as the hospital – St. John was hammered “even worse,” Reimer said.
At least 90 percent of St. John was damaged or destroyed, he said. Less than two weeks after Irma devastated the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria moved through, saving its worst for Puerto Rico and St. Croix – the places patients from St. Thomas had been sent just a few days earlier.
In the days after Irma hit, Reimer said he was impressed by the good spirits of the residents of St. Thomas as they took stock of their situation. They’ve recovered after hurricanes before, they told him, and they’ll get through this one as well.
But officials estimate it could take years for St. Thomas and other islands to recover from Irma. As St. Thomas resident Steve Rockstein told USA Today, “Irma made Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn look like a passing shower.”
Reimer said he’s sharing his experiences in the hope that people will be inspired to contribute to the recovery under way in the devastated region. He’s pointing people to Samaritan's Purse, a humanitarian aid organization that is in the islands providing relief. People with questions may call 800-528-1980.
“Difficulties in trials bring people together,” Reimer said. “There’s a sense of community that’s built through difficulties that I really resonated with” on St. Thomas.
U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp is asking people to donate to USVI Recovery, the official site for the recovery effort of the U.S. territories.