Wednesday evening found Brian Poe hunkered down in a commercial kitchen, which in some ways was not unusual, as he is a chef by trade. But this particular kitchen was nearly 2,000 miles from his home in Boston, at a resort on the island of St. Maarten.
Moreover, at that moment, the kitchen and Poe and 100-some other terrified guests were all in the eye of Hurricane Irma.
The kitchen was flooding, Poe recalled. The ballroom had already started to cave in. The resort’s general manager, suddenly transformed into a shepherd of terrified souls, used the eye’s brief calm to lead his flock to higher ground.
“He said, ‘We have to do this,’ ” Poe recalled. “Don’t stop moving.’ ”
They didn’t. Poe and his wife, who had been celebrating their anniversary, scrambled up the stairs of the howling, shaking, soaking Sonesta resort. One floor, then another. On the fifth floor, they paused and held on to whatever they could, as floors six and seven went into the sky.
For the next 48 hours, they’d keep moving — from one uncertain shelter to another, across an obliterated country, and finally to a half-flattened airport where they hoped against all odds a plane might come and take them home.
Irma damaged or destroyed nearly three quarters of the homes in St. Maarten, a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands that lies in a chain of Caribbean islands ravaged by the hurricane’s march toward Florida. The airport was devastated and unreachable. St. Martin, a French territory that covers the small island’s northern half, fared no better.
Such was the ruin Poe witnessed through the fifth-story window of the resort when daylight broke on Thursday.
“There was one point I thought I was gone — me and my wife were gone,” Poe told The Washington Post, his recollections occasionally interrupted by long silences when memories got the better of him.
The Poes weren’t dead, but they were in trouble. Irma appeared to have wiped out the island’s entire infrastructure. The State Department warned U.S. citizens trapped there all ports were closed; there was no consulate; and anyone in trouble should simply try 911.
The prime minister of St. Maarten had last updated his website before the storm hit, and signed off: “God be with all of us.”
All the while, Hurricane Jose was rolling toward them in Irma’s wake, threatening to hit the island with a second blow.
The staff at the ruined Sonesta managed to rig up a landline, which Poe used to let friends and family in Boston know they’d survived, even if he wasn’t sure how he’d get back to the city and two restaurants he co-owns there.
Worried what was left of the resort might collapse, the manager led the guests inland, to a shelter run by the Dutch military.
As darkness fell on his first night since the hurricane, Poe said, he looked out over the hills and saw flashlights signal distress.
The supply crisis became quickly apparent the next day.
“We used the last of the flour this morning to ration 120 pancakes I cooked for the shelter,” Poe told the Boston Herald, using sporadic cellphone service to communicate with the newspaper through texts.
He and his wife were showering with hoses. The shelter was crowded with stranded visitors like them and locals, some of whom looked badly injured. Information passed largely by word of mouth, with reports often hard to determine from rumor.
At some point on Friday, a bus arrived at the shelter. The Poes were told to board along with dozens of others.
They drove for several miles along the ravaged coastline to Princess Juliana International Airport — “destroyed,” Poe said, though the parking lot was nevertheless pressed with people trying to get off the island.
A plane was landing to evacuate the Americans, Poe remembered being told. Then: “We’re so sorry. The plane can’t get out. It’s not coming.”
They went back to the shelter. Tried to reclaim their beds. Then another bus trip was announced, and they returned to the airport, only to be told once again the plane couldn’t make it.
By then, Poe said, “everyone was in tears.”
Likewise, people were in despair across the island. Stranded students at the Caribbean School of Medicine scavenged through the rubble for food and water, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
A spokesman for the State Department told The Post it helped evacuate more than 500 Americans off the island, then suspended operations until Hurricane Jose passed.
Hundreds of Americans “are knocking on every door we can find to get them off the island,” a U.S.-based lawyer for the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort — a few miles from where Poe stayed — wrote to The Post.
“It’s very difficult to be in an emergency situation and just feel like nothing’s happening,” said the lawyer, Lewis Stanford.
But help was at hand for some of those stuck on St. Maarten — even if they couldn’t yet see it.
When Hurricane Harvey flooded huge swaths of the United States last month, volunteers with the New York Air National Guard flew down to join the rescue effort. Members of the 105th Airlift Wing and 106th Rescue Wing spent long days plucking trapped Texans out of the water, then flew back to New York last weekend.
Days later, they loaded up again and flew out into Irma’s wake.
“Our business is specialized rescue. That’s what we do,” said Capt. Mike O’Hagan, a spokesman for the pararescue unit, speaking from its present base in Puerto Rico.
Members of his team had flown over St. Thomas with helicopters — rescuing a pregnant woman and men in cardiac arrest from an island no less flattened and mangled as the one Poe was stuck on.
They weren’t an evacuation squad. There were far too many stranded people for nearly 130 military personnel to help.
But on Friday, as the New Yorkers were preparing to hunker down for Hurricane Jose, a late request came in from headquarters: a diabetic woman was stranded on St. Maarten.
Poe didn’t know who the woman was. He had heard of her at the shelter, through the same chain of uncertain reports that were now his news source. But he and his wife had other things on their mind as they headed back from the airport for the second time since the hurricane — wondering when, how and if they’d ever get home.
Then, from behind, Poe heard someone yell: “Turn around! Turn around! We might have something for you.”
So he and his wife and two dozen other Americans turned and went back to the ruined airport a third time.
This time, they were met by half a dozen men from the 105th and 106th.
They had come to the island to pick up the diabetic patient, not the stranded resort guests. But they had brought with them an HC-130 plane with plenty of seats to spare.
Poe chatted with the airmen — mostly young men from New York, who had already been flying missions over a hurricane zone for hours.
The chef now speaks of those he met in St. Maarten in terms that transcend their professions. The resort manager who led him out of the hurricane's eye is a “hero.” The military personnel who escorted him and his wife to safety are saviors.
But as he spoke to the U.S. airmen that night on an isolated runway in the Caribbean, before finally leaving the island, they described their own work in modest terms.
“They said, ‘We heard a bunch of guys were down here,’ ” Poe said.
Then the back of the plane opened up, and Poe and his wife strapped in, and hours later called The Post from an airport in Puerto Rico — homeward bound.
“Some of the best airline service I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Poe said.
This story has been updated. An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the New York airmen as soldiers.