Baltimore County woman stranded after St. Thomas hit by Hurricane Irma. (WJZ)
Gail Pardoe needed a vacation when she headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands last Sunday.
The Reisterstown woman hadn't taken one in 10 years, and after losing her younger sister to cancer last July, and both of her parents unexpectedly in February, she figured she and another sister needed to get away.
But their trip to St. Thomas, the most populous of the Virgin Islands, came during one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in history.
Hurricane Irma swept through the island on Wednesday, wrecking hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses. Power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged, and the harbor was in ruins.
Pardoe, who is now in the neighboring U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, said many people have asked her whether she knew about the hurricane.
"Yes and no," she said. "I didn't know it was going to this extent."
She said she has seen minimal coverage on the island that she now describes as "destroyed." Pardoe said local news focused largely on the Bahamas and Barbuda. It made no mention of Irma hitting St. Thomas, she said.
Pardoe said she and her sister left last Sunday for St. Thomas and arrived at the Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort that afternoon.
Pardoe said she and her sister had a few good hours on the island Sunday and Monday, but on Tuesday, their vacation took a turn for the worse.
Hotel staff knocked on the door around 11 a.m. and told Pardoe and her sister to grab a pillow and a blanket, she said. All guests went down to the underground floor, where they stayed overnight.
"At first, it was crazy and exciting and odd. We were told the Frenchman's was the safest structure on the island … and [that] the hurricanes never hit the islands that bad," she said. "Nobody was prepared for that."
On Wednesday, hours before the eye hit around 1:30 p.m., Pardoe said, water started seeping through the concrete wall. The ceiling was caving in, and guests were moved to a different part of the floor and into a hallway.
"You could feel the air coming in," Pardoe said. "It blew the doors off" in the dining room and restaurant area.
The hotel soon lost power, Pardoe said. Generators kicked in, but power flickered on and off throughout the day. At one point, she said she could smell diesel fuel. There was a small electrical fire, and eventually the group lost water.
Around 10 p.m., Pardoe said, the storm finally passed.
Pardoe said she and other guests were not allowed outdoors because the island was unsafe, according to orders of FEMA and Red Cross officials.
At that moment, she said, anxiety levels started to rise. Water was limited and food was scarce. Pardoe said staff worked hard to keep people fed, serving up hamburgers, salad and ham-and-cheese sandwiches in a small cafeteria with a leaking roof.
A manager later held a meeting, Pardoe said, and said the hotel was now a shelter, and Hurricane Jose was potentially on its way. The manager told everyone to pack no more than one bag and to be outside by 7:30 a.m. Friday to board a vessel that would take them to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Pardoe said.
The next day, guests waited outside until around 6 p.m. when vessels were cleared, Pardoe said. First responders made more than a dozen trips in more than 10 vehicles to transport passengers to a nearby port, she said. Guests boarded the cargo ship at around 9 p.m. for a three-hour trip to Puerto Rico, Pardoe said.
On the Frenchman's Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort Facebook page, the company said Friday the resort was closed due to the hurricane. "The safety of our guests and associates is always a top priority at Frenchman's Reef, and there are no reported injuries," the resort said.
A spokeswoman said Monday that the building had been damaged by the hurricane. "We are currently assessing damage and the property is closed until further notice," Kerstin Sachl said.
Pardoe, who is now staying at a Sheraton in San Juan, said she has a flight to Maryland on Monday. Many of the people she met, now friends, are flying out between Monday and Friday this week, she said.
"It was really cool because there were people of all walks of life, all different cultures," she said. "Everyone became a family."
She said there were no problems among the people, despite the stress of the situation. She met islanders whose homes were wiped out in the storm, and employees who brought their families and their pets.
"It was really amazing how everyone bonded," she said.
Still, Pardoe said she was disturbed that St. Thomas has received less news coverage than other places affected by Hurricane Irma. Pardoe said many off the travelers' relatives were unaware that they were affected by the storm.
"None of our relatives knew we were OK," she said. "We didn't have phone service from Tuesday until Friday night."
She said a woman with a working cell phone service allowed other guests to text their families to let them know they were alive.
"We're fortunate because we're coming home to our houses," Pardoe said.