Scott Jones said on Friday morning that he is happy to be alive — and he’s not joking.
The Columbus man rode out Hurricane Irma on St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, weathering winds of 220 miles per hour that left the paradise in total destruction.
Jones, the city of Columbus’ Urban Forestry and Beautification manager and city arborist, just returned home after a two-week ordeal that started as a vacation visiting his cousin, Terri Hogg, a Columbus native who has lived on St. John for about 10 years.
“It is a life-changing situation,” Jones said of the last 14 days. “It makes you a lot more thankful for everything you have. As soon as I was out of the rubble I was thankful. It puts things into perspective as to how close you were to not being here. It is a life-changing experience.”
It is not being overly dramatic to call it a near-death experience.
Just listen to his story.
Trapped on an island
Jones left Columbus on Friday, Sept. 2 for a vacation on St. John and arrived on the island Saturday. He had been there about 10 hours when he realized he was in the path of the strongest recorded hurricane in the Caribbean.
“The storm was supposed to head way north,” Jones said. “On Saturday afternoon it started to shift. Once I realized it had shifted, I said, ‘We have to get out of here.’”
He began trying to book flights out of nearby St. Thomas, but planes weren’t leaving.
“I booked nine tickets —Sunday, Monday, even up to Tuesday,” Jones said. They were all canceled.
On Tuesday, the island’s port — the final escape route — was closed.
“Once they closed the port, I knew it was a done deal,” he said. “I would have paid a chopper to come in and get me. You just don’t know your fate.”
He turned his attention to survival.
“At some point, you start putting on storm shutters,” Jones said. “You start doing all that prep work, taking stuff to the basement and laundry room.”
Jones went to the second-floor bedroom on Tuesday night, Sept. 6, knowing the massive storm was about to strike the tiny island.
“I didn’t sleep, I was just laying there,” Jones said. “About 1 o’clock in the morning we started getting 60 miles per hour winds. Then about 2, there were 70 mph winds. I said, ‘I think I am going to the basement right now.’”
By 10 a.m., the winds reached 100 mph, and Jones and his cousin moved from the basement into the laundry room, the most secure place in the house. Three people and three dogs were hunkered down for the wild ride.
“From 10 in the morning to close to 5 in the afternoon — seven hours — we were in the laundry room,” Jones said. “It is a safe structure, but the sustained winds were about 190 mph for five hours and the gusts were upward of 220 mph.”
The home’s concrete walls were vibrating in the high winds, and the windows blew out. At about 2 p.m., the roof took sail.
“I think that was our salvation,” Jones said. “It was built so well, it was holding all that pressure.”
He thought he might die.
“When the concrete structure started vibrating and you could see it and feel it and then the crack in the ceiling and water started seeping through from upstairs, then you’ve got a cistern — which purifies the water — on the side of you, and if that wall failed you would drown,” Jones said. “Before the roof went, I thought we were going to be buried in the ruble. You are talking about tons and tons of concrete that would have fallen on us. Luckily, it took the roof.”
Even after the storm passed and they were able to venture out of the laundry room about 5 p.m., they had to use extreme caution because the wind was gusting at 100 mph into the next morning.
“There was still stuff hitting the house — tin,” Jones said. “The roof was on top of cars. I peeked out to see what was around us, but we did not go out to access the damage until the next day.”
They remained hunkered down.
“Even when it went down to 100 mph, it was like a sigh of relief because it had been up to 220 mph,” Jones said. “You were having whole trees tossed at the house.”
When they finally did get out, they found debris everywhere. The house next door was gone.
“It just picked it up and threw it over the mountain,” Jones said.
Jones has made many trips to the Caribbean islands over the years, and what he found after the storm was hard to put into words.
“The islands are basically green and lush,” he said. “I was astonished. The whole island there was not a green leaf left on anything. It was like an atomic bomb went off. No trees. No nothing. It was just a barren hillside.”
On Thursday, Sept. 7, with the storm gone, Jones spent much of the day in waist-deep water in the kitchen, trying to salvage non-perishable food items.
His cousin’s home was about a mile off the main road and they didn’t think rescuers could easily reach them.
On Friday, Sept. 8, Jones started thinking about how he could get off the island. First, he had to hike about 10 miles through the storm damage from what was left of his cousin’s house to Cruz Bay.
“Over rooftops and power lines,” Jones said of the hike. “They said they were dead, but there wasn’t a pole standing.”
Jones got into Cruz Bay, which looked like a “war zone.” Sixty-foot boats littered the roadways. He went to help some of his friends who were elderly.
He was now in the middle of an uncertain situation on an island that was all but destroyed.
“The ports were closed and there was no way out,” he said. “At that point, it becomes survival mode. You get to the store and get what’s left of the one store in town. You are stuffing your bag with peanut butter and crackers and whatever you’ve got to eat.”
He went to a Cruz Bay town meeting.
“They said, ‘If you are tourist, you are local now, because you are stuck,’” Jones said. “You began figuring out what you can do to help people.”
He found a condominium with a generator. He knew the owners and they allowed him to stay there. To return the favor, he helped clear debris from the complex.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, he was told that a ferry was evacuating people from St. John to nearby St. Croix.
He wanted off the island because Hurricane Jose was still in the Caribbean.
“That was a big fear,” Jones said. “Any kind of hit on that island, where there was nothing but debris, it would have been catastrophic. If I do not get out of here, I thought, I was going to be stuck there for months. If I didn’t get a seat, at least I tried.”
He decided to try to get a spot on the ferry, which was originally reserved for women and children.
“I ran to the ferry and it was supposed to leave at 9 o’clock, then 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock,” Jones said.
There were less than 60 spots on the ferry and Jones’ number was over 100, but some locals decided to stay, clearing a spot for him.
“At the last minute, they gave me a ticket and said, ‘You are one of the 57 that are going to St. Croix,’” Jones said.
He considered himself lucky to have escaped St. John.
“One boat went to San Juan with 40 people and one went to St. Croix,” Jones said. “That was the only people who got off that day out of thousands.”
Then he struck up a conversation with the ferry boat captain’s wife.
“That is when it got real,” Jones said. “The ferry got in around 7 p.m. She was saying the next morning they were carrying the whole ferry full of body bags to St. Thomas. ... I may be in a hotel and I may be showering, but in St. Thomas there were whole apartment buildings that had collapsed. There were people in there and they just had to get to them.”
Two people died on St. John and more in St. Thomas.
Jones was now stuck in St. Croix, but at least he had a hotel room, running water and air conditioning.
“But at least St. Croix wasn’t destroyed,” Jones said. “I realized you weren’t going to get a flight out of there because that is where they were basing the evacuation and all the military aircraft carriers. They basically closed the airport down.”
While on St. Croix, he was able to get a text message out late Sunday to his father telling him he had survived the storm.
They were allowing smaller planes into St. Croix, Jones said. He was able to get on a nine-seater on Tuesday from St. Croix to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He was able to communicate with family via phone from San Juan late Tuesday to reassure them he was OK and trying to get home.
Eight or nine plane tickets later, he was able to book a United Airlines flight out of San Juan to New York City on Thursday.
But at that point, Jones did not care. He just wanted to get out of the Caribbean and back to the continental United States.
“I would have gone to Seattle at that point,” Jones said. “I was just trying to get back into the U.S. where I could rent a car and get home.”
He took a flight from New York back to Atlanta Thursday night and got home to Columbus about 1 a.m. Friday. He talked to his cousin on Thursday and she told him she was coming back to Georgia for a few weeks.
The experience has left a mark on Jones.
“I have heard tornadoes, but this was nothing like I have ever heard in my life,” he said. “I don’t know how Satan would sound but ... you do a lot of praying. And I know there were a lot of prayers out there because people knew we were stuck down there.”