Lori Bonnell and her husband, Steve, usually have success when taking jobs on TrustedHouseSitters.com, a service that connects homeowners with people looking to play caretaker at a property for an extended period of time.
But when they agreed to a job this summer on the island of St. John, the smallest of the three US Virgin Islands, the plan took a sinister turn.
Two and a half months into their stay at a wooden home in the Fish Bay area of the island, Hurricane Irma, a powerful Category 5 storm, churned through the Atlantic, all but washing away the landscape.
“St. John is a mess,” Bonnell said. “It looks like a war zone. It’s horrible.”
Bonnell, who is originally from Phoenix, left the island three days ago after a stroke of luck helped get her family’s name on a list to board a charter boat to Puerto Rico.
Still, the memory of what she endured alongside her husband and her son, Dustin Vesey, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, as the storm barreled down on St. John remains vivid in her mind.
Bonnell said when the advisories from governmental officials first started rolling in ahead of the storm last week, she knew her family couldn’t stay put in the wooden structure in which they were house-sitting.
Terrified, Bonnell hopped online and turned to a Facebook page for St. John residents, hoping someone could help find a safer place to wait out the hurricane.
Almost immediately, a man named David Thomeczek — a complete stranger who lives in an area of the island known as Chocolate Hole — extended an invite to the Bonnells. He offered them his home — a concrete building with hurricane-resistant, floor-to-ceiling windows and multiple rooms — as a shelter.
“We got to his place, sight unseen, and he said, ‘Grab one of the rooms!’ The way it started and the way David was being such a positive person, it seemed like he was doing it as a hurricane party,” Bonnell said. “I don’t know if it was wishful thinking, or hope. But we all didn’t have any idea that it was going to be as bad as it was.”
Once the rain started, the strong winds soon followed. And then the tiles from the patio started coming off, one by one, as the storm intensified.
“When the tiles flew off of the outside balcony, Jason, who was there and is a good friend of David’s — I saw his face just go into panic,” Bonnell said. “He said, ‘That’s it. Everybody go.’ ”
The approximately 10 people gathered in the house with the Bonnells dispersed into various rooms to hunker down for shelter.
Bonnell, her husband, and son, Dustin, eventually ended up in an upstairs laundry room with two small windows. But the room — and home — proved no match for the ferocious storm.
The strong winds blew some of the windows out, sending them crashing to the ground. Items inside the house began to scatter around. A wooden door was all that separated the family from the catastrophic storm, Dustin said.
“In that hour-and-a-half, two-hour space of time when it was the worst, we were really, really scared,” Dustin said. “We had our backs pressed against the door [of the laundry room] trying to keep it closed.”
His mother added: “We were pressing and screaming at each other, ‘Hold the door! Hold the door!’ Water was coming in underneath the door and side of the door, we were drenched with sweat, and all this time you are holding this door and praying and hoping and praying that some miracle is going to happen, and it’s not going to just blow off and kill you.
“Every time someone would take their hand off the door to rest for a minute, it was horrifying,” she said. “It was truly, truly, absolutely horrifying.”
Eventually, when the storm died down a little, the family made a dash from the laundry room into the master bedroom, where the homeowner and his friends had been hiding in a closet. The weather settled outside, and the small group, packed together, passed around a bottle of tequila to relax their nerves, Dustin said.
For the next few days, the Bonnells stayed at the home and helped to clean up, as the community tried to grapple with the destruction left by Hurricane Irma.
“It was hard to tell what was established property and what wasn’t because there was stuff everywhere,” Dustin said of the debris. “It looked like there had been a giant bomb dropped on the island.”
Lori Bonnell said after volunteering and pooling resources, the family managed to hitch a ride on a boat paid for by private funds received through a GoFundMe.com campaign.
Now safe in Puerto Rico, where they are awaiting a flight home to the United States, Bonnell said she is trying to arrange to send donations back to the island, to support the people who took in her family in a time of need.
“Being on that boat, and looking out that little boat window and seeing David standing there . . . I yelled out the window at him, and I cried, and he looked up at me and he waved and he smiled,” she said. “I am very, very thankful.”