Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history, has affected several members of the Loyola community.
Before Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10, bringing with it up to 142 mph winds, it passed over the Caribbean islands as a Category 5, leaving devastation in its wake. Close to 60 people were reported dead in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and across the islands. The only airport on St. Thomas was severely damaged and nearly 2,000 tourists were evacuated as Irma ripped through the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Camren Bunn, a 19-year-old sophomore, said his home on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands survived Irma, but the hurricane left an emotional impact.
“It’s surreal,” the biology major said. “The home that I know, where I’m comfortable, where I have so many memories growing up, all these happy memories, it’s destroyed. A lot of these places I once loved … cease to exist.”
Lavita Totwani’s St. Thomas home weathered the storm, sustaining only minor damages. Her parents’ duty-free jewelry shop — which she said draws in customers from across the continental United States — is now essentially useless because tourists cannot reach the island via plane. Tourism accounts for more than half of the Virgin Islands’ gross domestic product, according to a 2016 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Without a job or livelihood for the foreseeable few months, the 19-year-old Loyola junior is worried about her parents’ ability to afford tuition for her and her sister.
“Last time [a hurricane] happened … [my parents] didn’t have three kids to worry about,” the finance and accounting double major said.
Bunn said the lack of tourists means his parents will also be without work for a few months. Bunn’s father owns a museum and his mother sells advertisements for a local radio station.
After Irma decimated telephone lines and cell phone towers on St. Thomas, Totwani was cut off from contact with her parents — plus her other three dozen family members on the island — for three days, leaving her anxious and unable to focus on her schoolwork.
“The first few days it was really, really hard just to talk to [my family] … my phone calls just weren’t going through,” Totwani said. “Which is really hard when you’re so far away. You just want to make sure people are okay.”
After looting and violence erupted on the Virgin Islands as food and water became scarce, a curfew was implemented by local officials on Sept. 8.
To address her financial worries, Totwani said she contacted Loyola’s Office of the Bursar, which she said offered her various resources.
Totwani said she’s more concerned, however, with the help her hometown will need.
“Everything’s destroyed,” Totwani said. “We don’t have anything anymore, and right now what we need is everybody’s help. We need it really badly.”
Loyola professor Stephen Mitten, S.J., lived in the small, Central American nation of Belize for nearly seven years and experienced five hurricanes during his time there. Although the aftermath in Belize wasn’t nearly as severe as Irma’s, he said he could foresee the same issues there concerning relief efforts as in Belize.
“They have all these people who are willing and able to work, they just don’t have the money to start rebuilding,” Mitten said. “If you don’t have anything to offer them … all these people coming down to help put a lot more of a burden on the country itself.”
While Florida seems to have been spared the brunt of Irma’s original Category 5 landfall forecast, the storm still packed a punch.
Irma collapsed three construction cranes in the Miami area, Jacksonville, Florida, has been inundated with floodwaters since Sept. 11 and an estimated 25 percent of Florida Keys homes are gone, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Michael Martínez, S.J., a third-year graduate student in Loyola’s Jesuit First Studies program, is from Miami and a member of the Jesuit Antilles province, which covers Miami, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Martínez said he has not only been worried about his parents back home, but also for his cousins in Cuba.
Irma struck Havana, Cuba on Sept. 9 as a Category 5 storm and left 10 people dead.
Martínez said his parents in Miami were without power, but they were better off than his Cuban cousins.
“My family in Cuba … part of their roof flew off,” Martínez said. “Part of their bed was completely filled with water, but, thankfully, they’re okay.”
Martínez said the aftermath in Florida left him with mixed feelings.
“There is a sense of gratitude the damages weren’t as bad as were expected for Miami,” Martínez said. “Unfortunately, that meant that someone else was going to get the brunt of the storm, which was the west coast of Florida.”
Irma made a second landfall near Marco Island on Florida’s west coast as a Category 3 hurricane Sunday evening, bringing with it a three to four foot storm surge, according to local officials.
By Sept. 12, Irma — having downgraded to a tropical depression — brought massive storm surge to coastal communities such as Charleston, South Carolina and parts of Georgia.
More than five million Florida residents were without power by Tuesday — half the state — after an estimated seven million people evacuated the state ahead of the storm.
Residents who couldn’t afford to drive out of Florida or leave their workplace for a span of days stayed behind despite warnings from state officials.
Junior Erna Roth, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, said her parents were one of the millions who ignored evacuation warnings. They operate a small newspaper business, and she said they couldn’t afford to shut down even for a day and evacuate.
Roth said her parents left their home to go five miles inland on Sunday. They spent the night in their newspaper office until they returned home Monday to find everything okay.
With friends all over the state, however, Roth said she’s concerned about their safety.
“Right now, I’m kind of in a state of shock,” the 21-year-old advocacy and social change major said. “I’m getting notifications of people on Facebook marking themselves safe.”
Donation boxes for Irma relief efforts in the Virgin Islands are set up inside Sullivan Center and in the Hindu Students’ Organization Puja Room in Damen Student Center Room 238.
A letter of care and concern from the university was also sent out to students affected by Irma from the Caribbean and Florida, according to Lisa Reiter, director of campus ministry.