Meriam Avades

Gratitude in the Eye of Hurricane Irma

On August 31st, I moved to the island of St. Maarten to start medical school at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. Six days later, St. Maarten was directly hit by a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane: Irma.

Growing up in Michigan and Arizona, I never experienced a hurricane and had no idea what to expect. I stayed in a friend's room on the second floor with five other people, including my sister, Sali. Aside from those in the dorms, everyone was encouraged to take shelter in Building 2—the school's newest, built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. By Tuesday evening, we "bunkered down" in room 211 and anticipated Irma's arrival early the next morning.

At 4:30 am, we woke up to the sound of cars flipping, glass shattering, and palm trees breaking in half outside our front door. We spent the next few hours watching the door rattle as the noise intensified … then, the eye of the storm covered St. Maarten. For about an hour, it was completely calm outside—no rain, no wind. That’s when we took the opportunity to sprint across campus to the shelter of Building 2.

We spent the next four days in Building 2 with more than 600 people. While each day was filled with exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty, it was also transformative. The experience was emotional, but through it all, I was grateful. Grateful for the people who, in the midst of devastation and destruction, put others before themselves. Grateful for the administration and staff who worked tirelessly in the most unconventional situation. Grateful to be evacuated off the island to Puerto Rico (in an Air Force C130). And, mostly, grateful for life.

Today, the people of St. Maarten continue to live under challenging conditions, but what they do not lack is hope. Their resilience and tenacity will rebuild the island and I have no doubt it will be back, stronger than ever.