The plans were simple. They usually are. Rhonda and I would elope to the Caribbean and get married on September 1, 2017. Easy enough. A wedding under an azure sky surrounded by the lapping of turquoise water while being caressed by a warm ocean breeze sounded perfect. The choice of which isle to select was not an easy one. Each island’s pictures showed their own little slice of paradise. Eventually we settled on the beautiful Antigua. Antigua is a tiny 100 sq. mi. nation in the West Indies with an equally small sister nation of Barbuda, only separated by about 40 miles of ocean.
With help from the resort we formed a timeline. We would arrive there two days before our wedding to finalize the plans and be pampered by the luxurious amenities. Then our big day would be followed by another five of relaxing on the beach with colorful drinks to sip on.
Shortly before our departure, my mom began to fret about a storm brewing in the Atlantic. I told her not to worry about some unnamed tropical depression off the western coast of Africa. “That’s practically the other side of the world” I told her. Oops.
The flight and shuttle bus to the resort must have been fairly uneventful, since I have no real memories of them. Or maybe that’s only because our eventual exit from the island eleven days later so drastically overshadowed anything interesting on our journey there. The island and resort were everything we had hoped it to be and everything you imagine when you daydream about a tropical wonderland. Palm trees reached majestically upward while swaying continuously as the lush grass beckoned for bare feet. Standing on the third floor of the main building we could look out at the huge, curving blue pool with the even bluer water of the ocean mere steps beyond. Small personal sailboats languidly floated just offshore. As we were chauffeured from the main building to our private bungalow we ambled along a meandering sidewalk; a dense wall of fragrant green vegetation formed a wall on one side while the other side opened to a horizon where it was impossible to delineate where the sky ended and the sea began.
The bungalow sat among a small opening nestled into the jungle of palms, ferns, and flowers. With a private pool two steps from the back door and an ivied fence to make it invisible to the rest of the guests, we were home. Nowhere on our radar was there a hurricane. Everything was perfect.
Two days later we were married. The day was as gorgeous as could be. It was exactly as we had hoped. But already the omens were beginning. The wind was stronger this day than the last and the waves were a little bigger, but it was still an unforgettably wonderful day to wed. We said our vows, we cried, we danced, we feasted and we took beautiful pictures. There is no other way I would have wanted to marry the woman I love.
The following day, a feeling of unease began to settle on the resort. We had all been watching the unnamed storm slowly grow into a behemoth. Its once comfortable distance was now frighteningly close. The hurricane trackers were beginning to be able to pinpoint a more accurate path and it was on a collision course with us. Management held a meeting for all the guests to brief them on things to come. Family and friends began texting their concerns.
We were due to leave the day the storm was scheduled to hit. There was debate about ending our honeymoon early, but we hated the idea of abandoning the once in a lifetime trip. As the storm continued its westward relentless churning, it picked up even more strength and the situation steadily became more serious. Soon, it was evident that we weren’t going anywhere though. Being so small, Antigua does not have a lot of air traffic in and out of the country. And the few flights they did have were either already full or canceled. We spent hours navigating airline websites trying to find a way out. The resort lifted any charges associated with using the phones so we spent hours on hold only to be told there was nothing else to be done. We were stuck with a soon-to-be category 5 hurricane lurking menacingly to our east.
The only thing to do was to try and enjoy ourselves. We ate and drank and laid by the pool, all while continually looking out to the ocean, wondering about the unseen tempest beginning to make its presence felt. The employees did a commendable job taking care of the guests still there. The restaurants were open, the bars were open, and management continued to have meetings to prepare us for what was to come. We were told the main buildings on the resort were designed to withstand category 4 winds. “What does that mean for category 5 winds?” we wondered. There was enough backup generation to provide power for weeks. Some of the buildings were to be evacuated and moved to higher rooms. Surprisingly, we were allowed to stay in our room despite it being at sea level and only about 200 feet from the shore. Our bungalow was said to have been built like a fortress and was not at risk of flooding. We couldn’t help but feel privileged and a little guilty. How many of the amazing people providing for us were going to a home not designed to withstand a hurricane? How many of the smiling, friendly faces we had seen for the past week were going to have their lives changed in the following days?
Hurricane Irma was scheduled to make landfall late at night on Tuesday, September 5. Care packages had been delivered to our rooms, consisting of fruit, snacks, and alcohol. It is doubtful that any TV or radio that was on was tuned to anything but the weather. The storm was measuring over 300 miles across. Antigua felt perilously small. Winds were over 180mph. One final meeting in the afternoon and we were warned not to leave our rooms after 6:00pm. The outer bands of the storm were working their way over the island. The transformation was stark. The skies had morphed from the calming blue to an ominous grey streaked with terrible clouds. Clear blue water turned an odd shade of green and the normal, peacefully rippling waves had been replaced with white caps and strong rip currents. All of the beachside equipment was gone. No more lounge chairs, sailboats, or kayaks. The scuba diving stand was boarded up. The open-air restaurants no longer had tables and chairs. The ever-present music in the distance from one of the pools went silent.
We spent the evening waiting for track updates. Irma had slightly turned north. Good for us, but bad for the sister nation Barbuda. Trees outside our room began to lean precariously. The wind seemed like one incredibly long gust. There was no respite, no relief for the trees. The lights flickered off for a moment as the resort most likely switched to generator power. Even with the onslaught of an imminent hurricane, they wanted us to be comfortable.
The skies blackened as the roar of the ocean was overwhelmed by the wind. Oddly, the night sky made the storm slightly less scary. We couldn’t see mother nature’s torment outside. Something violent was taking place. But it was out there. Out there in the dark. But we were in our room, protected. We watched TV until the signal was lost. Then we talked and waited. I said I wanted to go outside as the eye passed over. My new bride convinced me not to. We fell asleep as Irma continued her devastation out there.
We awoke to the same beautiful blue sky as earlier in the week. Unfortunately, not everything was the same. Our intimate, private pool was overflowed with debris and murky water. And while our room had not flooded, sand from the beach had been pushed all around us from the storm surge. The sidewalk out front had been blocked by a fallen tree. Piles of seaweed littered the beach. The dining area of one oceanside restaurant was under almost a foot of sand. Amazingly, there were no signs of damage to the buildings themselves. Much of the artistically manicured landscaping was damaged from uprooted trees and flying debris. Overall, it appeared that the resort had survived intact. We began to hear the heartbreaking news that Barbuda, to our north, had gotten a much more direct hit. Our access to outside news was still limited but it was being reported that no building was left standing on Barbuda. The news didn’t sink in. Certainly, it had to be hyperbolic. It was unthinkable that no building could be left. How was it possible that our A/C ran all night while the island 40 miles north was totally demolished?