Nightmare on St. Croix

By Kirk S. Thomas

I wrote this account at the request of my mother shortly after getting off the island in 1989.


Although I had bought the 14 sheets of plywood the day before, I had had a rehearsal for the play I was directing that evening and so had been unable to use them. My partner, Jacques Soukup, had called from Indianapolis the night before and had reminded me to pick up some files at the office for safe keeping this morning, if possible. With hurricane Hugo scheduled to pass somewhere near our home island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands sometime tomorrow, today would be a busy day.

Our office was in the town of Frederiksted on the west coast of the island, and being so close to the sea could mean flooding from the storm surge, should the hurricane pass to the north. I drove there and opened up the office, meanwhile trying to decide what to take back home. I grabbed the files I knew I needed to save, mentally said goodby to everything else, locked up and drove away. Once home I began the tedious job of taping all the windows and cutting and screwing the plywood pieces on to the sliding door and window frames. I knew I didn't have enough wood, and prayed that Hugo would pass at least 50 miles away. In that event, the winds would only be in the 100 miles per hour range and bring enough rain to be what our friend Nan Williams would call a "Frog Strangler". The plywood might hold on the exposed windows and our house would come out alright.

My immediate problem was that I had no one to help me with the plywood, making it an exhausting and slow job. Finally, our secretary Virginia Rounds and her husband Rick called to see how I was doing. They had been working on their own house and were practically finished, so they came over and helped me out. Rick helped me with the plywood while Virginia started carrying our artwork down to the pool room. This room was made of concrete and set into the hill by the pool, and should survive anything, so we decided to stuff as much as possible into it. The paintings, the automatic bread maker, antique clocks, canned food and bottled water, Jacques' favorite pillow----all went into the pool room. The statuary we collected went into the master toilet room as it had no windows. The Rounds' left after getting me to promise to come over that evening to spend the night as Hugo was reported to have sped up and could arrive by early afternoon. After a quick shower (my last for a while), I packed a suitcase, grabbed the rest of the food I had prepared as well as a mattress from a cot and my pillow, loaded the cat into a cat carrier, and loaded up the Blazer. Just then the phone rang, and Jacques was on the other end. I could tell he was very worried, so I tried to sound confident, reminding him I would be in a concrete basement and so would probably be fine. He then said that if worse came to worse and he couldn't fly back in on Tuesday as scheduled, he would rent a plane or boat and get to me within five days. Sure, if they'll let you, I thought.

I suspected that if we got very unlucky and hurricane Hugo should hit St. Croix directly, then our house might not survive. Though very well built, it was still a frame house and not concrete block, and could be vulnerable. Rick and Virginia had invited me to spend the hurricane with them in their basement and I had readily accepted. Once there, I saw where we would be, and immediately grew worried. Their basement was divided into two rooms by a frame wall. The larger room, Rick's workshop, was "L" shaped and wrapped around the laundry room. Both rooms had doors facing east, with the laundry room having a solid door with metal louvered windows in it, as well as another louvered window by the door and still another facing northeast. The workshop also had a window which faced to the southeast. The door to the workshop was actually two thin bifold doors with very little to hold them in place, and they faced east, the probable direction that the worst winds would come from. Rick, an extremely handy man, agreed that we needed to strengthen all these, and so we set out to alter them. We reinforced the doors and nailed all but one piece down solid. Then we worked out a system to lock them from the inside. Rick also cut some 2 X 4's and extra plywood to have inside, and we took in a solid core door he had to be a base for my mattress. We put plywood over the south basement window, and I duct taped all the cracks on all the other basement windows and doors. We would be very glad for all our preparations.


The morning dawned clear and sunny, with puffy white clouds moving out of the northeast. It hardly looked as though a hurricane was on its way, except that the wind direction was too northerly. The hurricane winds would first come out of the north, I knew, so the wind shift struck me as ominous.

It was obvious, though, that we still had some time, so I drove home for some last minute preparations. I turned off the propane tank and went in the house for a quick look around. Everything looked so solid with the plywood covering all the east windows and doors. Maybe we would be all right. But then, maybe not. I went into the master toilet room and promptly took out all the good statues we had stashed in there and carried them down to the pool room, squeezing them in. Then I went back up to the house and picked up every loose object I could find and stuffed them into drawers and cabinets. The winds were picking up and the sky had clouded over, so I walked through for one last time, locked the front door and drove back to the Rounds' house.

While driving back, I suddenly realized that Jacques was at that moment in our gas balloon competing in the Indianapolis Balloon Race, which is why he wasn't in St. Croix. I mentally wished him luck and wondered if I would see him again, then chided myself for being so melodramatic. It was comforting to think of him in a normal setting.

Virginia was still running around putting loose objects away and stashing stuff in closets, so Rick and I carried down the baskets of food, pillows and the ice chest to the basement workroom. We then carried down one of the guest room beds, leaving our cat Sasha peacefully sleeping on the other one. We set the bed up in the workroom and set out the candles and Coleman lamp, ready to go. We were as ready as we could be.

We decided to stay upstairs as long as we could. Rick then went next door to talk to their neighbors, the Nicodemous'. They were not taking the hurricane seriously, and had only put 1/2" masking tape on the sliding doors that sat on the east side of every room in their house. They were playing cards in the kitchen (our power had already gone off), and assured Rick they would be alright, but would come over to our workroom shelter if things got too bad. About this time the rain started, so we grabbed Sasha and the Rounds' two cats and set off for the workroom. Since the wind was out of the north, we left the basement door open for ventilation, planning to close it only when the rain started to come in. Little did we know that lack of ventilation would not be a problem that night.

Soon darkness fell, and we could make out lights on the island that must have been at houses with generators. I wondered how many would be on the following night. The rain started to come in, so we reluctantly closed up the door and sat down to wait. We had three radios with us, so we turned one on and started searching for stations. Only one St. Croix station was operating, and they were playing a tape made by one of their reporters who had gone down to the docks near the station at Gallows Bay, by Christiansted. The sea was already flooding and trees were already breaking, and the reporter fled back to the station. The time was about 8:30 pm. The winds continued increasing, and our door started to move quite a bit, which was alarming. We put a board across the door and a 2 X 4 down to a board we nailed to the floor as a brace. This seemed to help somewhat, so we chewed our lips and tried to relax. Water started leaking through the door, and so we had to spend a lot of time keeping after it. Also, at the bottom of our north wall was a hole that the dryer vent hose went through, and Rick had jury-rigged a board across the outside and a plug on the inside, but it was leaking too, right by my cot. It was while we were trying to keep up with all this water that the St. Croix radio station suddenly went off the air. We searched the radio bands frantically to find a station that could give us the hurricane's latest position. Finally, on the AM band, we found a station in St. Thomas, WSTA, Lucky 13. The wind was getting louder and louder, forcing us to almost shout to carry on a conversation. We had to retreat to the beds around the corner to really listen to the radio. The 10:30 pm position report from Coral Gables, Florida, came on, and we could see on our chart that Hugo was wobbling quite a bit, making it impossible to tell whether the storm's eye would strike us or not. However, it was certain that it would pass very close to us, perhaps as close as 25 miles to the south. The next report would not come until 3:00 am the next morning, so all we could do was wait.

The wind was even stronger now. We could hear the stacks of tile that Rick had outside the door begin to peel off like a deck of cards in the wind, hitting the walls and our problem door like rapid machine gun fire. Once we realized what the new sound must be, we kept our alarm in check. A large plastic water tank tied to the left side of the deck above us banged against the wall with a rhythmic, hollow booming sound. It's just as well that we were not aware of other events taking place outside around us.

Next door at the Nickodemous' house, the elderly couple had just retired to bed for the night. Suddenly, the roof over their bed began to come off, the wind whipping into the room. They fled to the bathroom, pulling off the bed spread and sheets as they went, and braced themselves against the bathroom door. They had been inside the bathroom mere seconds when the entire roof on the house lifted off in one piece and blew away. They could then hear all the sliding glass doors and windows shatter and the furniture sliding on the floor. They held on to the door with all their might, but the wind was starting to crack the frame. Mrs. Nicodemous knew they couldn't hold it, so she screamed to her husband that when the door gave way, they were to run around the corner to where the toilet was and hunker down. When they did, she wrapped them up in the bed clothes and looked frantically around for something to cover their heads with. She had potted plants in the bathroom, in baskets, so she found a basket that fit over her head. But none of the others were big enough for her husband! Finally she found a small wooden pirate's chest planter and stuck it on his head, with the lid hanging down in front of his face. They both looked so absurd that they had to laugh. Mr. Nicodemous was crouching on the floor while his wife sat on the toilet. The rain coming in began to pool in the room, and eventually would get knee deep. And sometime during the night's ordeal, Mrs. Nicodemous would suddenly realize the truth of the old adage about getting the crap scared out of you. After much maneuvering, and with her husband crawling around the bathroom in search of a bit of paper, she finally managed to find relief.

Meanwhile, we were sitting on our beds trying to keep from getting too tense, listening to "Lucky 13" in St. Thomas. Vitelco, the local phone company, did their best to keep the lines open. We listened to caller after caller cry for help as their roofs came off or their windows blew in, and many of the callers were on St. Croix! While people couldn't get a hold of the disaster center VITEMA in Christiansted, they could still get through to the radio station in St. Thomas which VITEMA was monitoring. At one point the National Guard called the station to report the successful rescue and transfer to shelter of some of the callers. I cannot stress Vitelco's dedication and frantic hard work that night enough. They deserve a commendation. Calls continued to get through to St. Thomas until the microwave towers themselves finally blew down. As the evening wore on, however, fewer calls from St. Croix came in and more from St. Thomas and St. John began to flood the radio station's lines. St. Thomas, you see, was 60 miles further north of the storm than we were, and our phone lines were blowing down rapidly.

Suddenly a huge crash shook our basement shelter, causing the entire room to shudder. We now believe that a neighbor's roof 200 yards away blew off at that time, sending part of it into us. It ripped into the deck above us and tore it off, taking part of the living room roof with it. It also punctured the door to the laundry room next to our shelter, and caused our door to bow and shudder in the wind. Rick quickly added two more 2 X 4's to the one bracing the door, which seemed to hold it better, though the door was still pulsing in the wind. I also noticed that a very strong draught was coming through a very small hole in the frame wall of the laundry room. We had feared that we would be hot and sticky in the closed up room, but that was hardly the case. Our "sealed up room' was leaky as a sieve in those winds.

Rick had had an old aircraft altimeter which had been mounted in a plastic box, which I had insisted we take down to the shelter with us. Normally, to find your altitude you would dial in your barometric pressure on the scale, but I realized you could do that in reverse. Since we knew our altitude above sea level on the island (320 feet), we could keep the altitude dialed in and the pressure scale would show us how far our pressure had fallen. The lowest pressure of all is at the center of tornadoes and hurricanes, so this device would help us know how close the center of the storm was to us. The pressure when we went down to our shelter that afternoon was 29.60, which is fairly high. During the course of the storm it went steadily downward, with the altitude jumping up as much as 500 feet at a time! Periodically we would tap it (they were designed for vibrating airplanes) and reset the altitude at 320 feet. Thus we watched the storm's inexorable progress towards us.

It was near 2:00 am that the worst of the storm began. The noise was incredible. There were gusts of wind up to 212 miles per hour. It was like a freight train flying over your head constantly, or a jet parked outside the door with engines going full blast. And just when you were sure that it couldn't get any louder, it would. Virginia heard the glass doors upstairs (that Rick had worked on so hard to cover) crash down and slide along the floor. We all could hear heavy objects sliding along the living room floor above us. Another set of loud crashes against the door of our shelter got us scurrying. We grabbed the solid core door that my mattress had been on and used it to form yet another brace on the sagging door against the deafening wind. The frame wall between us and the breached laundry room began pulsing like crazy, bending where notches had been cut in the supports for pipes to pass through. Rick grabbed another piece of 2 X 4 and nailed it over the worst cut out and so managed to keep the pulsing from getting any worse. We were now out of wood, and there was nothing more we could do. The wind howled louder and louder; it seemed it would never stop growing! We had spent hours swallowing periodically to clear and "pop" our ears, but now we were having to do it almost constantly. We went and sat on Rick and Virginia's bed and held each other in silence, sick with fear. If the doors blew in we were probably dead. The concrete walls and pillars vibrated more and more. Suddenly, the wind started to die. For fifteen minutes or so the wind grew almost quiet. The eye of the hurricane was passing over the top of us! This meant that the storm would soon return with the same intensity, but from another direction! Our weakened door would no longer be taking the brunt of the wind. Next door, Mr. Nicodemous looked up and saw the full moon in a clear sky overhead. In our shelter, I told Virginia that I thought the worst was over for us, and went to check the altimeter. After setting the altitude back to 320 feet (it took a lot of setting that time), I was shocked to see that the air pressure was off the scale---it only went as low as 28.00 inches of mercury, and we had dropped lower than that---in the vicinity of 27.60.

Now that the wind direction had changed to the southwest, things were a little quieter down in our shelter. Of course, with winds gusting up to 170 miles per hour battering the house above us, it wasn't over yet. The wind now, instead of trying to batter our door down, was trying to suck it out. We knew that we had to let air out downwind somewhere, so Rick opened up the dryer vent hole that we had sealed up earlier in the evening. The wind whistled in the hole as it flew out.

Around 4:00 am we turned off the radio and tried to get a little sleep. Sasha curled up against me and we all fell into an exhausted slumber. At 7:30 am, however, we were awakened by light coming into the room through the dryer vent hole. Rick tore off the bracing we had put against the door and tried to push the door open. A portion of the deck had fallen against the door, and so took a bit of pushing to open it. Once open, we gazed, stunned, at the vista confronting us. The winds were still blowing at hurricane force, though much lower, perhaps in the 70-80 mile per hour range, and the rain was falling horizontally. The whole scene was blasted—not a leaf remained anywhere. Where once trees and bushes stood, now remained only barren sticks. Devastated houses stood in ruins on the ridge line, and debris was everywhere. Our beautiful St. Croix was gone. Outside it looked to me like all the descriptions I had heard of Nuclear Winter.

Rick then started to put on his rain slicker. Virginia and I both protested---surely he wasn't going out in that wind! But he was adamant. He had to go next door and check on the Nicodemous' . And he had to see what remained of his house. After he left, Virginia also squeezed out and looked up through where the deck had been towards the living room. She gasped and then shimmied around the corner to see the master bedroom wing. She quickly returned to tell me that the roof had gone. I looked up and saw holes where the doors and windows in the living room had been, and saw the hole in the living room roof.

Meanwhile, Rick fought the wind over to the Nicodemous' house. They had told him the night before that they would go into their bathrooms should danger threaten, so he decided to look there first. Their house looked like a construction site--- all that stood were the walls---no doors, windows or roof---and all the furniture was piled against the back walls. He peered into the master bathroom but saw nothing but debris, so proceeded on to the other bath. For a moment he thought he heard a voice, but shrugged it off as his imagination. The other bathroom was empty as well, and both cars were still parked outside. After his glasses flew off his face and he instinctively managed to grab them in mid air, he decided it was time to go back to the shelter. It looked as though the Nicodemous 1 were gone.

In the Nicodemous' bathroom, under bed spreads, baskets and debris, Mrs. Nicodemous thought she saw a hand on the edge of the door frame. Surprise and shock kept her silent for a moment, but then she called out. No one came in, so she decided it must have been her imagination.

I was itching to find out what remained of our house, so when the winds dropped down to more manageable levels, around 11:30 am, Rick and I walked over there. The roads were covered with power lines, debris and broken trees. As we walked up Dead End Lane, our road, our neighbors the Stevens' met us. Ellie was delighted to see us. She told us of how they had spent the night scurrying from closet to closet with their dogs (and one neighbor dog) as their roof peeled off in sections. They ended up in their master bedroom, and there the roof held. She asked me how our house had fared, and I told her I was on my way to find out. She pointed to the hill behind me and said, "Look at that Gannett house, just like yours. There's nothing left!" The house on the hill wasn't even there at all. There was a roof upside down a couple of hundred yards away, and I think it had come from that house. This gave me little hope for our own home. When we got up to our next door neighbor's house, we had to thread our way through piles of debris from their house which had covered the road. Finally we topped the rise and had a clear view of our house.

My heart stopped. The roof had been blown off, and the walls had folded in on top of the furniture, having the perverse effect of holding everything in place. The baby grand piano still stood in the living room with a wall on top of it, and the living room couch was still in position. The front wall of the house had blown down into the garden, and the bedroom was a pile of rubble. The maid's room still stood somewhat, and the garage had folded in such a way that the convertible appeared to be all right. The generator room was shattered, but the generator itself survived. And the pool area and pool room were fine. The gardens were devastated. Out of seven mature palm trees, only three still stood. The view from the house of Salt River bay was arresting. The day before, the bay had been filled with boats of all kinds hiding here at the islands' best hurricane hole. Now there were only a few boats visible—many washed up on the shore or piled up on top of each other---while the majority had washed out to sea and sunk. People had been partying on some of those boats. I still don't know if they got off or not.

These next few days are a blur to me now. We got up every day with the sun and went to bed with it. We cleaned and salvaged what we could. Rick and I managed to take our generator over to Rick and Virginia's house where we hooked it up to run the water system, so that the cistern water could be run through a charcoal filter. We also had a few cold showers. Virginia and I salvaged quite a lot of food from our refrigerator and the ruins of the kitchen, and we looked to be in good shape.

We checked on the neighbors. Our next door neighbor, Cam Staples, had spent the hurricane in a bathroom--one of two rooms to survive. During the storm a hole had appeared in her roof and a young rat had joined her, running up her arm. She got it off her and it sat, eyes wide with fear, in a corner across the room from her. Finally it crawled into a waste basket where it spent the remainder of the night. Another neighbor, Mr. Moffit, is a blind ham radio operator. We went to him partly to see what we could do to get the radio back on the air so we all could get messages out. He had broken his ribs in the storm, however, and was only back from the ruins of the hospital when we found him. We tried to get him to go to the airport and get on a relief flight (they were taking injured people, families with small children and elderly people) but he refused, saying that his house was on the market for $650,000 and that he needed to stay and protect his investment. You just can't argue with some people.

What was scary was hearing on the St. Thomas radio station about the looting taking place on St. Croix. Even the National Guard and the police were guilty of this, apparently. I suspect that the majority of the guard and police were trying to salvage their homes and families like everyone else, and that there were really only a few bad apples looting. Also, the two prisons had blown down, releasing all the prisoners, so we stopped being able to sleep at night.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Jacques Soukup, my business partner, was frantically trying to get down to St. Croix. After winning the Gas Balloon race, he chartered a plane back to South Dakota. His weatherman, Bob Rice, had assured him that Hugo had gone right over St. Croix, and that damage would be extensive. Also, the early reports of looting were alarming. At first Jacques had trouble finding a plane big enough, or with pilots willing to fly to St. Croix. He called Governor Michelson of South Dakota who got him in touch with Senator Pressler's office. The Senator's aide, Brad Berkstrom, managed to go through flow control for airspace clearance, and since Jacques would be taking in generators and food and water, his plane would be classified as a relief plane and would be allowed in. Jacques got in touch with my sister (my mother had just been released from the hospital after surgery, and was frantic) and they managed to find a jet and pilots capable of going down to the Caribbean. My sister Kim handled getting the generators, mountain bikes (should they need to ride in to get us) and a friend in counter-terrorism for back-up. Jacques handled clearances and got the food, water and thanks to Doc Saloum in Tyndall, a medical kit. Senator Pressler sent Jacques a letter asking for all to aid him, and the Governor of Utah did the same for Kim. They flew down to Miami late Wednesday night and arrived in St. Croix Thursday morning. While Kim and her friend went looking for a truck to commandeer, Jacques saw a van, the usual St. Croix taxi, drive up, and so he flagged it down. The driver was a very nice and helpful lady accompanied by her neighbor's son for safety. They agreed to try and get them up the mountain to either the Rounds' house or ours.

That morning Rick and I had decided that we had to fortify our perimeter against any marauding looters. If worse came to worse we could always evacuate to the Undersea Lab base nearby. Rick had been the director there until recently, and they had told us that they would take us in. In fact, I had gotten a tetanus shot there the day before and had overheard them talk by radio with the Coast Guard cutter in Christiansted harbor. They had indicated that the ‘reliable' National Guard and police had set up a patrolled area at the airport to protect any planes coming in with supplies, etc. But they also said that it was not safe outside at night. After getting the shot (Doc Shane had saved one dose for me before sending the rest off to their other base at the island's east end) I hurried home before night could fall.

Anyway, Rick and I went to our house to try to salvage any plywood that might still be left from all my hurricane preparations. We managed to find quite a bit, plus some which must have been part of the roof but had separated cleanly. We loaded up the Blazer and drove back to Rick's house. On the way back we heard on the radio that Hess Oil was sending in a special relief plane to get Hess dependents out, and Rick turned to me and said jokingly,"So where's the Soukup-Thomas relief plane?" Just as we were backing up to the door we heard some car honking repeatedly, and looking down at the main road below we could see a van with some blond man waving wildly. I thought it looked like Jacques, but of course it couldn't be. Then Rick said, yes it did look like Jacques, and then we could tell that it WAS Jacques! I suddenly began to cry. I guess I hadn't had time before.

We gave water and bags of food to the taxi driver, and one of the mountain bikes to the young man with her. After taking Jacques to the ruins of our house we drove to Frederiksted and dropped off the rest of the food, water, one generator and the medical supplies with friends who were holed up in a house which survived intact and which was sheltering twelve people, one of whom was a Registered Nurse. It was while driving through Frederiksted that we saw looting. Three members of the National Guard were standing by with rifles down while the drug store was looted. Evidently, the owner had stood guard with a gun until the day before when he had shot and killed someone. The police showed up in Frederiksted for the first time and arrested him. With no one to guard the store, it was easy game. One of the guest houses in town was just a smoking ruin. The owner had sat in the window showing off his shotgun and made someone mad. They threw molotov cocktails at the place.

Our office was miraculously intact as of then. Since it was at the back of a store it was very dark, and when the store was looted they must have overlooked us. Of course, there is no telling now whether or not any of it is still there.

We planned to leave with the Rounds' and their cats, as well as our Sasha, and the pilots said that we could squeeze in one more, so we went to visit Cam Staples, our next door neighbor. She had been alone all week in the ruins of her house, and I had visited her every day. She was disoriented at first but was holding on. Jacques and I gave her five minutes to decide if she wanted to leave the island, giving her every reason we could think of to convince her. Finally, she agreed it was best, so we threw what little she had found into plastic bags and drove off.

The curfew was at 6 pm, so we hurried out to the airport and were the last plane allowed out that day, leaving just minutes before the airport closed for the night at 6:00. We spent the night in Miami, where Rick and Virginia went on to his mother's in Rhode Island, Cam to her ex-husband's in Ft. Lauderdale, and we then took our plane to South Dakota with Kim and her friend continuing on to Utah.

Now begins the process of rebuilding—not just our home but our lives. St. Croix won't be back to "normal* for months at least and possibly not for years. What had taken years to build had been destroyed overnight. We now have to take a deep breath and plunge back in. What we end up doing, we can't say for sure. But that certainly was a week to remember.