As Hurricane Irma raged outside, Dr. Bridget Freeman and her adult son Cameron crouched under a kitchen table with a mattress balanced on top, placed there to provide some semblance of protection. The ceilings in both bedrooms had collapsed already under the pressure of the wind and rain, and the cushions under the table soaked up the water that was now pouring in. It was 6 a.m. and the pair tried to get some sleep while Bridget’s husband Frederick stood next to the table, keeping watch.
The Freemans had been through hurricanes before but never anything quite like this.
“It didn’t matter how many times you sat there and said ‘all right let’s do some deep breathing, try to relax’ your heart felt like it was going to beat out of your chest,” Bridget Freeman said. “You just sit there and think ‘hmmm, now what’s next.’”
The family was visiting their home in Saint Martin, an island in the Caribbean about 190 miles east of Puerto Rico. About five months earlier, Bridget worked in Great Falls as a pediatric hospitalist at Benefis Health Systems. She also serves on the Red Cross of Montana’s board of directors, an organization she was now seeing from a much different perspective as she and her family faced the wrath of Hurricane Irma.
Finally at 10:30 a.m., six hours after it all began, the wind stopped and all was silent. They were in the eye of the hurricane. That’s when the Freemans got their first views of the storm’s destruction.
“It was like an apocalypse,” Freeman said. “Most of the roofs were gone, cars piled on top of each other, boats on land, trees with no leaves and water up to the first floor of the apartments.”
The Freemans realized their ordeal was far from over, however, as they waited for the winds to return, only in reverse, as it continued its path across the island. Thankfully, Irma’s second assault was not nearly as terrifying as its first.
By midafternoon people made their way out of their apartments, calling to each other in French to make sure their neighbors were all right. One couple created a cook stove out of dried wood and a metal grill, boiling water for coffee and cooking eggs and potatoes. People began to share stories and develop connections while others searched for cell service.
The next day was hot and noisy, the road full of people, cars and mopeds, most assessing the damage, others taking advantage of the chaos to loot whatever they could find. Few buildings were intact and the dry docks were a mess of tangled boats, wires, masts and engines. Cell service was still sparse. Freeman and her family wondered what to do next. Irma was bound for Cuba now but Hurricane Jose, a category 4, was headed their way and expected to make landfall within 48 hours.
The Gendarme visited the hotel complex, recommending civilians prepare themselves for looting and violence. The Freemans gathered whatever makeshift “weapons” they could piece together – kitchen knives, boat flares, fire extinguishers, WD40 and a box of matches. The day before vandals had set cars on fire in front of the apartment where they were staying, leaving the lingering stench of burning plastic and rubber.
At the recommendation of the gendarme, civilians began to use car batteries to recharge cell phones, redistribute gasoline from smashed cars to fuel dinghies, gather fishing gear and search for water.
Hurricane Jose never arrived.
Finally, word came that military flights were leaving Saturday and Sunday from Princess Juliana International Airport, on the Dutch side of the island.
Sunday, the Freemans took a dinghy to Juliana. There they stood in line in blistering heat with others from the U.S. and Europe waiting to be taken to Puerto Rico or Curacel. Dutch soldiers handed out water and snacks while the Dutch Red Cross provided medical services to those in need.
Freeman was overcome by their compassion and kindness.
“You could see people who were professionals – the military is one thing -- but when you see volunteers with the Red Cross you know that you have a level of competency and a way of conduct you can trust,” she said. “It was very reassuring and very comforting that their presence is there. It was surprising to me how much we as humans really need that reassurance and authenticity at a time like that.”
Three hours later, the Freemans were loaded on a U.S. Air Force plane bound for Puerto Rico. A welcoming party of armed forces, border patrol and Red Cross volunteers awaited, and with them more warmth and generosity.
“It almost shocks you because you’ve been in this do-whatever-it-takes-to get-it-done mode,” she said. “The gentleness, compassion and stamina of the volunteers is impressive.”
A month after she and her family huddled under a kitchen table as the ceiling collapsed around them, Freeman has finally been able to begin processing what they went through, and the kindness they experienced along the way.
“I think we’re all feeling a little bit lucky to be completely safe during that period of time,” she said. “On some level it was an amazing experience, not that I would be willing to volunteer for another one. One was enough.”