LAUGHLIN — “It’s been an adventure that we never want to repeat,” said Debbie Dauenhauer. “We’ve had more excitement in 30 days than we need in a lifetime.”
Dauenhauer, Silver Rider executive director, and her husband, Darryl Dauenhauer, Colorado River Food Bank treasurer, survived Hurricane Irma’s Sept. 6 landfall on the tiny island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the aftermath of that storm, they escaped to Puerto Rico, where they then faced the power of category 5 Hurricane Maria.
The couple rode out Irma at their planned retirement home, a condominium on white-sand Sapphire Beach, on the eastern edge of St. Thomas, the territorial capital of the unincorporated U.S. Virgin Islands and home to about 50,000 U.S. citizens.
“We didn’t see the property until the morning after,” Debbie said. “It was heartbreaking when we went to see the landscape; it looks like a nuclear bomb went off and I am not a drama queen at all.
“Irma hit us so hard, it peeled the paint from the outside of the buildings. We were very blessed everyone was safe — that’s the main thing. But it’s heartbreaking when you see a place that’s the most beautiful thing in the whole world to you and it is completely decimated.”
The power went out when the storm hit, Dauenhauer said. After the storm, they had no running water for three days.
“We were prepared with cases of bottled water and all that, but after a while, sanitation becomes an issue,” she said. “The airport in St. Thomas was closed because of damage, so we took a FEMA paid-for ferry to St. Croix, where we helped unload relief supplies.”
After three days in St. Croix, the Dauenhauers took the FEMA ferry back to St. Thomas, again helping to unload relief supplies such as U.S. military Meals Ready to Eat and bottled water.
“We were there while Red Cross was doing the same thing,” Dauenhauer said.
The couple stayed at their home in St. Thomas for another week, coping with an increasingly unreliable water supply and no power or reliable cell phone service.
“At that point you learn how you take things for granted — running water is probably the biggest thing,” Dauenhauer said. “One day we would have it in the morning at full pressure — we would be so excited. Then by the end of the day it would be back to just a drip.
“It was like that for days. Finally we had enough and we decided we should get to the mainland. The airport in St. Thomas was closed, so we decided the best thing was to get to Puerto Rico. They have a bigger airport and more flights getting in and out. But again the ferries going from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico, were closed.”
Their property manager arranged for the couple to leave the island on a private boat.
“We went 45 miles across the Atlantic to Puerto Rico in 3- to 5-foot swells, thinking we could get a flight out,” Debbie said.
After arriving in San Juan on Sept. 17, the Dauenhauers immediately booked a flight for Sept. 20.
“Unfortunately, that was the day Maria was going to hit Puerto Rico,” Dauenhauer said. “We knew that flight
wasn’t going to go, so we holed up in the hotel in San Juan. Our airline booked us another flight for the 21st. Two days before it was to go, it was cancelled. This happened four times.
“I don’t know if it was because I was numb at that point, but I wasn’t really scared during Maria. It was just more of ‘here we go again, we’re not going to be able to get off the island to the mainland.’ ”
After 10 days of worsening circumstances in Puerto Rico, the Dauenhauers and a few other stranded people decided to charter a private jet, splitting the $25,000 cost.
“We got out of there on a nine-passenger Cessna from Puerto Rico to Miami,” Dauenhauer said. “We stayed five days with my best friend from elementary school to get something of a grip back.”
The couple then flew into Las Vegas, landing one hour before the airport was closed because of the mass shooting at the nearby Route 91 Harvest Festival.
“We collapsed when we got home that night and woke up to news of the shooting,” Debbie said. “I thought we had a black cloud over us. They say things happen in threes and that was our third — Irma, Maria and the shooting. We should not have any more bad news for a while.”
Several people have asked why the couple didn’t evacuate before Irma, Dauenhauer said.
“I said, well, we’re on an island,” she explained. “There are 50,000 people on St. Thomas and there’s one little airport with only a few planes coming in per day. By the time we could figure out that we needed to get out, just like with everyone else, it was too late.”
The Dauenhauers also didn’t leave because their guests were unable to go as well.
“The condominium we live in is rented part of the year and the other is available for rent 100 percent of the time,” she said. “We had this wonderful couple there, they actually got married on Sapphire Beach two days before Hurricane Irma. We were not going to leave until we were sure they were out — we wouldn’t strand our guests in the condo.”
The couple does intend to return to St. Thomas.
“The second they have power, we’re heading back,” Dauenhauer said. “The island itself has taken an enormous hit — it’s horrible. The cleanup will take years. But we want to be there. It’s our home.”
FEMA reported that as of Oct. 2, only 15 percent of customers on St. Thomas have had their power restored.