Jesse and Renee Lopez in their backyard in Oak Harbor. The couple made it back home early in the morning on Sept. 12 after getting stuff in the Caribbean during Hurricane Irma. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor couple’s Caribbean trip a hurricane nightmare

Jesse and Renee Lopez thought a trip to the Caribbean would be a fun place to celebrate Jesse’s 51st birthday.

The Oak Harbor couple had never been there. Jesse, a former Navy chief, and Renee, a manager at Whidbey Island Bank, arrived on the Dutch side of the island of St. Martin on Sept. 1, but Hurricane Irma had already formed and was headed their way.

“Being Washingtonians, that’s one thing you don’t really think about when you book your vacation six months in advance, you don’t really look at the hurricane schedules,” said Renee.

The couple stayed at a resort in Simpson Bay and celebrated Jesse’s birthday on Sept. 5. That night, however, the wind started picking up, dark clouds rolled in and the ocean swelled, they said.

Around 6 a.m. on Sept. 6, the hurricane hit the island, bringing 185 mph winds, with gusts reaching over 200 mph.

The Lopezes were hunkered down in their hotel bathroom, which they were told was the safest place.

“The one thing that I’ll never forget about this storm is the high-pitched noise that you hear from the wind and that pressure that literally feels like your eardrums are going to burst,” Renee said.

The two spent between two-and-a-half and three hours in that bathroom, during which they lost power and cell service. They only had the food and water they were able to get at markets in the days leading up to the storm.

Neither had experienced a hurricane before, and didn’t know what to expect. After their first trip to the market, they took a picture of their supplies and posted it on Facebook.

The couple immediately received suggestions from friends that they get more of everything and to focus on food that didn’t require electricity to cook.

It took three separate trips to different markets, spending between 30 to 45 minutes standing in line at each one, to be able to find enough food and water.

This effort proved necessary. The Lopezes spent three days in the hotel awaiting evacuation.

During those three days, the Lopezes took in more couples whose rooms were destroyed. At one point, six more people shared their room.

Every day was in the low 90s and humid.

“It was so humid, the room was basically wet,” Jesse said.

With no power, they slept outside and used buckets of water from the pool to flush their toilets.

“It felt like we were playing a game of survivor, only in real life,” Renee said.

Jesse and Renee both said they’re grateful for the hotel staff and how they managed the situation.

Staff stayed throughout the storm, the kitchen gave out food and staff sent the guests’ passport information to their home countries so they would know who needed to be evacuated.

The Dutch military arrived at the hotel to prevent looting reportedly happening at other hotels in the area.

Contacting family and friends proved to be a challenge for the Lopezes. With intermittent service, they were mostly able to send occasional text messages. They also used Facebook to contact many of their friends at one time.

Their granddaughter Jazzlyn, 9, was able to teach Renee’s 84-year-old mother to use Facebook Messenger to keep in touch.

“I could really feel the love and support,” Renee said. “That really helped us out in the days after the hurricane.”

The worst behind them, at about 4 a.m. on Sept. 9, the Lopezes lined up in their hotel lobby, waiting to be bused to the airport.

The building at the airport was destroyed, but the runway was cleared enough to allow planes to land. They had to leave behind most of their luggage, taking only small bags — which were eventually lost.

As they left the hotel, Renee hugged their staff friend Edward and told him he could take anything that he wanted from what they left behind in their room.

That morning was the first time they saw the extent of the damage to the town. Cars were toppled over, roofs were ripped from buildings and debris was everywhere.

“The island looked like it was just a war zone,” Renee said.

The Lopezes said that, despite the difficulty of their experience, they are grateful that they had a home to return to after seeing the impact on the lives of the locals on the island.

Long lines awaited them at the airport, and people were prioritized by medical need and country of origin. Dutch nationals received first priority.

As they lined up on the tarmac, they could see the dark clouds of Hurricane Jose starting to roll in.

They were able to board the U.S. Air Force C-130 before Jose neared the island. Upon arrival in San Juan, Puerto Rico, officials from the U.S. Department of State told them they were responsible for finding their own way home from there.

After two days in San Juan, the Lopezes flew home to the states on Sept. 11, making it back to Oak Harbor just past midnight on the 12th.

One of the first things they did after arriving home was donate to a fund for the employees at the hotel where they stayed.

“We’ll be back,” Jesse said.

“Absolutely,” Renee added. “It’s not going to deter us from going back to the Caribbean.”

Next trip, though, they said they’ll avoid hurricane season.

 

Renee and Jesse Lopez sit on the deck of their hotel room after Hurricane Irma. They were vacationing on the Island St. Martin when the Category-5 storm hit. Photo provided by Renee Lopez