IN THE SPAN OF ONE BREATHLESS WEEK, residents of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands experienced three cataclysmic hurricanes that left its residents hanging on for dear life. For Meredith Riester ’05, a ranger with the Virgin Islands National Park, stepping up to salvage her adopted home was more than just duty — it was about survival.
“We heard about Irma making landfall about 3 days before,” said Meredith Riester ’05. “My friend Kristine Brunsman came in on September 2nd to visit because she already had a ticket. I told her the night before, ‘make sure you want to do this,’ because we knew we were going to feel something, but everyone was saying ‘it’s not going to be that bad.’ I said “we might have one day of rain, come hang out.”
Riester picked up Brunsman on St. Thomas, the most developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands archipelago and home to
its only airport and largest hospital. Just to be on the safe side, they bought some snacks and water from a supermarket before returning to St. John via ferry to Cruz Bay, the largest town on the island. They spent every day leading up to September 6th at the beach, Riester says.
“It really was the calm before the storm.”
“I originally wanted to do Field Biology, which is not what I’m doing at all now,” said Riester, laughing from the safety of her parent’s home in Jacksonville, Fla.
Evacuated from Puerto Rico under the shadow of Hurricane Maria just days earlier, the sheer exhaustion has begun to wear off at long last. A sense of normalcy — and humor — begins to return.
“I switched to Wildlife Management my first semester, then I did my internship in Yellowstone National Park doing backcountry work, where my supervisors were all law enforcement. By my sophomore year, I knew [this was for me].”
As part of national park law enforcement, Riester describes her job as almost like a game warden, patrolling boundaries for illegal hunting and rule-breaking, but also requires occasional work as a firefighter and EMT when necessary. Drawn to the action as well as the outdoors, Riester followed work opportunities through the National Park Service around the country after graduation.
She spent four years working and living at Yellowstone after completing her undergrad, then moved to Mount Rushmore National Park, followed by Everglades National Park in Florida and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas.
“I was in San Antonio for about two years, and after the Everglades I missed being on the water,” said Riester. “The water is really what drew me to St. John. They had an opening, so I went for it.”
An island barely more than 20 square miles, more than half of which is national park, a workday for Riester included protecting the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument from illegal fishing or anchoring, keeping the island’s beaches pristine, or managing unruly guests.
“Most people move there because they want to get away from rules, so I wouldn’t say I was a favorite. But people were very nice.”
A Florida native, Riester was no stranger to inclement weather and, like many, thought Hurricane Irma was just another storm. “Weather-wise, St. John is usually fine,” she said. “When it rains, its floods there a little bit, but nothing like what is happening now.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 5th, Despite being on vacation, Riester and Brunsman — also a national park ranger — assisted residents closing up buildings around town and securing their belongings. Riester’s home inside Virgin Island National Park, built to withstand a category 4 hurricane, made for an ideal place to ride out the storm. That night, one of Riester’s coworker who lived down the road came over with her dog to share asylum.
Wednesday morning, the generator kicked in after the power went out, keeping the refrigerator running and spirits high. They gauged the storm by a coconut tree out front. When the coconuts fell, they would know the danger was real. “So eventually the coconuts fell, then the tree fell,” said Riester. “I was like ‘oh, it’s real now’.”
The last text message she received from her mother came around 3 p.m. — “the eye is coming.” They were in the den making lunch when her back door, straining against the wind, finally gave out. Riester shoved everyone into the bedroom, pushing one mattress up against a tree-cracked window and pulling another over herself, her friends and their three dogs.
“My bedroom door started to bend because the front door had blown, then the window blew out,” she said. “I looked out my bedroom door and the hurricane was in my house.”
Under the eyewall of the category 5 storm, rain poured down until more than three inches of water flooded Riester’s home. The door to her bedroom bent with the wind, then broke. They pushed her dresser against its fractured remains and pulled the mattress into the bathroom. Minutes later, they watched the wood-paneled roof shift in and out as the wind pulled it apart.
“By then I knew we had nowhere else to go. I told them ‘this is where we’re gonna ride it out’.”
The storm blew through her house for hours, tearing the doors and then the doorframes clear off the wall. Next morning, the St. John they knew — lush, green — was gone, stripped to the raw bark in every direction. Power lines were down, cell service was gone, even the radio towers used by the park were disabled. So many trees had fallen on the two main roads they were rendered useless. Though St. John suffered no causalities during Hurricane Irma, no one emerged unscathed.
Unable to communicate, FEMA and the Red Cross couldn’t arrive until Friday to coordinate the relief effort. Until then, relief came from the rangers and able-bodied locals.
They went to work immediately, clearing the roads, distributing supplies and delivering stranded victims to medical stations
in Riester’s patrol car. One woman they found had glass in her leg down to the bone, while another, six months pregnant and cramping from dehydration, was miles from her home. Those who didn’t have to dig themselves out of their homes helped dig out their neighbors.
Riester sat on the docks of Cruz Bay for hours with children waiting to be evacuated, fighting tears as they left the only home they’d ever known. It was tough on everyone, she said, but at least they could start to rebuild. By Saturday, a brief interlude of sunshine helped dry the island and raise spirits. Brunsman was able to leave on one of the first helicopters not prioritized for medical evacuations and return stateside.
Peace had returned — briefly.
Then Hurricane Jose — a passing category 5 — soaked the island and shut down generators. What’s more, that Sunday,
Hurricane Maria was first projected to make landfall on St. John.
Everybody wanted to believe it would turn north and miss them, but knew better, Riester said. “Our superintendent in Puerto Rico decided everyone who had been through the first storm needed to get off the island. He knew our park housing wasn’t going to survive another storm.”
Riester was on board a ferry to Puerto Rico when they got the news: Maria was headed straight for them. The entire boat, she recalls, went silent with shock.
After several tense days in San Juan, Riester was able to secure air travel for her dogs, but not herself. With her friends, dogs and possessions gone, the humor that had carried her throughout the past week faded quickly.
“When I got to Puerto Rico it finally hit me,” she said. “My superintendent told me ‘why don’t you go back [stateside] and get your life together.’ I just looked at him and said ‘I don’t even have any pants. All I have are the shorts I’m wearing.’ I looked at him and I just started crying.”
Unbeknownst to her, a flight-attendant friend with Delta alerted her mother that the airline was running nonstop evacuation flights back to the states. Riester made it out on the last one. Hurricane Maria made landfall that night.
“The stuff that I have there, if I don’t get it back, it can be replaced,” Riester said from Jacksonville. “There isn’t that much left.”
She had already accepted a position at Lowell National Park in Massachusetts when Irma hit. Riester says the less down time, the better, and plans on moving to Lowell National Park sooner than expected. Coworkers at her new park have already found uniforms, boots and a place to stay. She donated her car on the island to a friend with the animal care center who lost hers.
As much as she misses St. John, Riester says she’s not ready to go back and take resources away from people in need. If memories of Irma weren’t vivid enough, she and Brunsman took plenty of videos to look back and laugh at.
“I have a video of Kristine I filmed while we were under the mattress — I asked her ‘what do you think about traveling during hurricanes?’ She was screaming ‘don’t do it. Don’t do it’.”