Sarasota-Manatee dodged a bullet when Hurricane Irma hit as a Category 2 hurricane—not the Category 3-4 storm with the six to 10 feet of storm surge that was initially predicted. But the Caribbean islands and the Florida Keys weren't as lucky. Gov. Rick Scott spoke of crippling damage in the Keys and warned of a "long road" to recovery, and an official told The New York Times that 95 percent of St. Martin was destroyed.
One Sarasotan, Loren Mayo, was in St. Martin when Irma hit. Mayo, the co-owner of LuxeFit, a boutique wellness travel company, was on the Caribbean island with five other Americans for one of LuxeFit's fitness retreats when Irma roared ashore as a Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds.
"The storm started when it was pitch black outside, so we could only hear it, and the sound was like a freight train," she recalls. When the sun finally came up, she says, there was an eerie blue light and the rain and wind were so strong that the railing from the balcony from the room above them fell and hung by a single wire, swinging back and forth in the wind and threatening to crash into Mayo's room. Her glass balcony doors were ready to shatter.
"We were terrified," she says.
At that point, Mayo and her group locked themselves into their bathroom until the eye of the storm passed over the island and the second half of the hurricane roared through. "It was a bit weaker, but we could still hear the same terrifying sounds outside," Mayo says.
Once the storm passed, she and her group took a walk down the street, shocked at the damage they saw. Roofs had been ripped from buildings, cars were flipped upside down with bumpers torn off, and buildings were flattened. The devastation was total; at least four deaths have been reported.
"Our hearts are breaking for the families who are now homeless," Mayo says. "This picturesque island is now an absolute disaster."
And Mayo's adventure didn't end when the storm did: because of the damage to the island and the airport, flights have been suspended indefinitely. She and her group were stranded for five days before help arrived on the island in the form of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.
"It has been five days since Hurricane Irma hit us. Five days since we had running water. Five days since we have taken a shower that doesn't consist of baby wipes. It is currently 87 degrees inside our room. Last night I fell asleep with a water bottle full of ice on my back," Mayo wrote on Facebook. "But they've just called American hotel guests to load buses that will take us to the airport. There's no certainty that we'll make it on a plane, but we'll damn well try. We're only allowed one small bag and everything else will be donated to the St. Martin Red Cross. We have absolutely no idea where we'll end up. But the bus has air conditioning!"
Even after she arrived at the Princesse Juliana Airport, for a nerve-wracking few hours Mayo wasn't sure if she'd be able to get on the military plane that landed there. Hundreds of people queued up at the airport, all as storm-weary and emotionally battered as she was. To make matters worse, Hurricane Jose loomed in the background, threatening St. Martin with even more devastation.
"José is coming for us and we are stuck outside. No filter. This is real. Someone get us to the front of the line quick so we can get the hell out of here!" Mayo wrote on Facebook.
Then, good news: Mayo and her group were able to board the C130 plane and were transported to San Juan, Puerto Rico. After five days in the heat, without water or air conditioning, real food, hot water and cool air never felt so good. "Is it considered wasting water if I missed five days of showers and take three today?" Mayo wondered on social media.
On Sept. 13, Mayo was finally able to fly from Puerto Rico to Fort Lauderdale, but her car is still at the Miami Airport, which suffered damaged in the wake of Irma's path of destruction through south Florida. Her story's not over just yet—but right now, she's grateful to be alive.