A Bittersweet Thanksgiving for Displaced St. John Families

A Bittersweet Thanksgiving for Displaced St. John Families

Becky Ward will be home on St. John for Thanksgiving, but it’s a homecoming tinged with heartache. Though she; her partner, Patrick Rooney; and their two-year-old daughter, Hazel are returning, Patrick’s 10-year-old son, Jack, is staying behind in Virginia where he is now living with his Mom and grandparents and is enrolled in a new school.

Becky Ward
Patrick Rooney reunites Stateside with Becky Ward, 10-year-old Jack, and 2-year-old Hazel. Becky and the kids evacuated after Hurricane Irma

“We are both really happy to go home on Tuesday, but we’re really sad to be leaving a part of our family behind,” says Ward.

“Jack’s Mom,” she said, “lost her home, her car, and her job in the hurricanes. For her, coming home is not an option, and it’s totally understandable, but it’s hard.”

“After going through something like this, you really realize what’s important – it’s your family. And here we are, having to start over not having a complete family.”

More than two months after the one-two punch of Irma and Maria, St. John and its residents are in transition.

Since evacuating after Irma, Ward and her daughter have bounced all over. First Virginia with Jack’s mom, then North Carolina with her sister, then Oklahoma with her mother, then back to North Carolina.

“Nothing has solidified for us here,” she says. “Decisions on where we’re living and what we’re doing have changed ten times in ten weeks.”

Coral Bay New growth blossoms around piles of debris
New growth blossoms around piles of debris

The island itself is changing daily and is a study in contrasts. Flowers are blooming, and everywhere you look there’s green growing up and around piles of trash and debris that used to be somebody’s home. The lights are on in parts of Cruz Bay, and power is making its way up the hills, but everyone in Coral Bay is still in the dark. The beach at Hawksnest is officially open, but Maho is unrecognizable. And while some parts of the island feel almost normal, others, especially in Coral Bay and the East End, still look like the epicenter of a Category 5 storm.

“You really were in awe of the force of Mother Nature,” says Rebecca Reinbold whose family survived Irma by barricading themselves inside a concrete storage room at her mother’s house in Hart Bay.

“I can’t even describe it,” she says. “It turned from being wind to a force completely unlike anything that I’ve ever seen or imagined. And the whole time our ears are popping because of the drop in barometric pressure and just the crazy amount of wind… the wind went from a howling sound to almost a screaming.”

Among the group taking shelter was Reinbold’s four-year-old son, Hunter.

“There’s that kind of mama-bear mode that you go into where you realize you can’t be scared because you’re in charge of somebody else,” says Reinbold. “We were trying to entertain him and play games and just ignore what was happening around us. It was the longest minutes and hours. We kept checking our watches and wondering when it would be over because the longer it went on, we just knew that the destruction we were going to walk out to was going to be beyond words.”

Hawksnest 11-15St. John mom Jayme Gottschall; her husband, Robert; and their three children, 9-year-old Gianna, 6-year-old Cruz, and 3-year-old Cormac were in Albany, NY with her parents when Irma hit.

“We didn’t really get to figure out our emotions for a while because we were just super-preoccupied with – is everybody alive?” says Gottschall.

“I think a week and a half passed and then it hit us – oh, we also are affected by this. We don’t have a job anymore. I didn’t think that the kids had a school anymore. Our condo had damage to it and, you know, what are we going to do?”

What are we going to do now? Answering that question is stressful for any hurricane victim, and for many who chose to evacuate with their children before a second storm hit, the stress mixes with guilt.

“Your heart is in St. John and you want to go back, but is it viable?” says Reinbold, who describes the decisions that many residents have had to make as, “heartbreaking and financially terrifying.” Even thinking about enrolling her son in school in California made her feel like she was “deserting St. John,” she says.

Gottschall says she and her husband “basically fought for a solid month and a half” before deciding to accept the Westin’s offer to relocate the family to Orlando.

“It wasn’t out of anger,” she says. “It was more out of sadness.”

They plan to stay in Florida for a year and then, hopefully, move back when the Westin St. John reopens.

“That’s kind of keeping our faith and my motto is: you can do anything for a year,” Gottschall says. “Anything can change. I know that. That’s what the storm’s taught me. You can plan for something, but you have to readjust all the time.”

“I feel like we’re very fortunate. And I have some guilt from our good fortune that we’re together and we’re safe and we have employment.”

And the kids?

Gottschall Car
Jayme Gottschall with 9-year-old Gianna, 3-year-old Cormac, and 6-year-old Cruz in Orlando

“It depends,” Gottschall says. “If Rob and I are good and strong, they’re good. There were a lot of tears in the beginning…”

“Cruz is really obsessed with storms at this point. He asks a million questions – Is the roof really on? Are you sure?  They want to hear about the security of their home. And they want to go home. Gianna is quiet. She really keeps a lot of her emotions to her chest, and if we get some quiet time in bed at night, she’ll talk about how sad she is.”

“The kids are the resilient people,” says Ward. All in all they’re doing well, she says, but it’s difficult for 10-year-old Jack. “He’s struggling with his life being different too. He’s lost more than any of us.”

Ward says she’s excited – and anxious – about returning to St. John.

“I cannot wait to come home,” she says. “I haven’t seen it since three days after the storm. I’ve seen pictures and I’ve heard great things, but I also know that as much as things have improved, I know it’s still crazy.”

“I want to help,” she adds. “It’s been really hard to be away.”

Ward says that she, Patrick, and Hazel plan to spend part of Thanksgiving in town where the St. John Community Foundation and other organizations and businesses are hosting a free dinner for residents as well as all the volunteers, linemen, and relief workers who have been helping the island rebuild. Coral Bay is also holding its annual “Thankspigging” feast.

“It kind of stinks being away from all your friends and your community, but it is what it is,” says Gottschall, apologizing for sounding down. Her family will miss the potluck Thanksgiving they usually have with their St. John friends, she says. She’s hoping life will be a little more normal for her kids by December.

“I’m not in the mood to celebrate at this point,” she says. “Christmas is my goal. I want to give them at least a nice Christmas.”

Reinbold is back on St. John now. Her son is in school on St. Thomas and she’s working with Love City Strong. She says she’s grateful to be reunited with her family and friends.

“This wasn’t just a hurricane,” says Reinbold, “It was a life-changing event that has caused people to go down completely different paths than they ever imagined.”

Margie Smith Holt

NEW-MS-Sepia-267×300Margie spent 14 years as a television news reporter and anchor, winning a few Emmys and covering thousands of stories about every subject imaginable. Like Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, she got tired of the news business and quit, first working in non-profit communications and media relations for several years, then moving to the Caribbean where the editor of the local newspaper stalked her at her waitressing job until she agreed to write for him.  Since returning to the States, her assignments have included reporting and anchoring for CBS radio, writing about the performing arts, and teaching journalism.

For more of Margie’s work, visit her website re:Write

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