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St. John resident says there were ‘houses flying away’ when Irma hit

Caribbean Buzz Helicopters via AP

Storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in St. John's Caneel Bay.

By Globe Staff 

Jack Harrington could barely get past the first few sentences of the e-mail he received this week from his property manager in St. John without choking up.

“There are no words for me to describe to you what has transpired here,” read the message from Rachelle Bisaillon, who was on the small Caribbean island when Hurricane Irma, a powerful Category 5 storm, hit. “More than half of our friends, colleagues, and neighbors have lost their homes and almost all have harrowing tales of their houses flying away while they were in them.”

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The correspondence only got worse from there. It included descriptions about the barren landscape, downed power lines, and how there are few buildings left standing in a place that for years Harrington has considered a second home.

“It’s just far worse than anyone could have expected,” said Harrington, a West Roxbury resident who owns a condominium complex in Cruz Bay in the building Bisaillon supervises. “People are in tough shape down there.”

Hurricane Irma swept past St. John, the smallest of the three US Virgin Islands, on Wednesday, leaving many people homeless and stranded without resources as it continued west-northwest on its destructive path.

The historic hurricane, which has been downgraded to a Category 4 storm, is projected to hit Florida this weekend. Governor Rick Scott on Friday urged residents in evacuation zones to immediately leave the area.

Harrington, 59, visits St. John four to five times a year, he said, and has spent two decades escaping the New England region to enjoy the idyllic getaway.

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He said the complex where he lives on the island, which sits hillside overlooking Cruz Bay, is a “concrete fortress” and served as a sturdy refuge for residents on the island as the storm barreled down.

“Every owner opened up their units so that families could come in, and it probably saved a lot of lives,” Harrington said. “It still sustained a lot of damage, but the building wasn’t going to go anywhere.”

The same couldn’t be said for other properties, restaurants, and buildings on the rest of the island, however.

In Bisaillon’s e-mail to Harrington, the arrival of which was delayed because cellular service was temporarily lost, she said people moved from room to room during the storm, as their houses were torn apart, before hiding in showers and bathrooms for safety.

“There has been definite loss of life, though we still don’t know the toll as of yet,” said Bisaillon’s e-mail, which was forwarded to the Globe by Harrington.

During a telephone interview, Harrington found it difficult to comprehend the emotional e-mail, even after reading through it several times.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. I can barely talk about it because it’s so sad.”

John Mongie, a longtime friend of Harrington’s, was also on edge Friday as he continued to monitor updates about the damage left by Hurricane Irma.

Mongie’s 83-year-old father, Henry, has lived on St. John for the last 55 years, in a wooden house that Mongie said was built by hand.

“The house was destroyed. He’s pretty distraught,” he said. “This is going to be a different chapter for him, that’s for sure.”

He said his father, who is partially blind, was able to flee his home with the help of a caretaker before the storm hit. He said they hunkered down for hours in the basement of an apartment building Mongie owns on a different part of the island.

Mongie lost communication with his father Wednesday, as the ferocious storm battered the region. On Thursday, the caretaker hiked through debris to the top of a hill so she could get a cellphone signal and tell Mongie they were OK.

Mongie and Harrington said they plan to host fund-raisers to help aid in the recovery efforts on St. John. They hope that by sharing their stories about what’s happening on the island, it will bring greater awareness to the damage caused by the storm.

As of Friday, the full impact on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John was still being assessed, according to the New York Times. But officials confirmed that at least four people had died.

Mongie said it’s going to be a long time before the island gets on its feet again, but he knows that inhabitants will persevere.

Bisaillon, who sent the heart-wrenching e-mail to Harrington, said people are already pulling together, feeding one another, and clearing the roads.

“At the end of the day Caribbean people are resilient, and many of us have been through this before,” she wrote. “We can only do our best to try and stay optimistic, grateful and support each other, because though almost everything is gone we are still alive.”

Julie Slodden lived in St. John for eight years before she moved to Cohasset. Her parents and close friends still live on the island she called her home, and she said she’s been glued to the weather channel since she first heard news of the storm.

“At one point, I was on my hands and knees praying,” she said. “And then you wait.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.anner@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.