What Irma felt like: 4 harrowing tales of storm survival

Updated 4:21 AM EDT, Thu September 14, 2017
This image released by the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners shows debris along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Recovery along the island chain continues after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane then. (Sammy Clark/Monroe County Board of County Commission via AP)
This image released by the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners shows debris along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Recovery along the island chain continues after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane then. (Sammy Clark/Monroe County Board of County Commission via AP)
PHOTO: Cammy Clark/AP
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This image released by the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners shows debris along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Recovery along the island chain continues after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane then. (Sammy Clark/Monroe County Board of County Commission via AP)
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Sheltering during Hurricane Irma was a harrowing experience

"It was the scariest thing," one storm witness says

(CNN) —  

Fear. Panic. Heartbreak.

Those were the feelings going through the minds of those who hunkered down during Hurricane Irma over the past weekend.

For Jennifer Cooper, that fear came into focus when she watched the storm rip the roof off her home in St. Thomas, and as water flooded into the apartment where she was sheltering.

“When I saw the roof fly off and then the water started pouring down, that’s the first time I started to really think that we weren’t going to make it,” Cooper said. “That’s when I almost started to panic. It was the scariest thing.”

Hurricane Irma rampaged through the Caribbean and parts of Florida, leaving a trail of destruction and a years-long recovery in its wake.

But even with Harvey and Irma in the rear-view mirror, the hurricane season remains in full swing. For those considering staying at home through a future hurricane, here’s a sense of what that’s like in a intense hurricane – according to those who made it out alive.

’We could feel the wind’

Dr. Lachlan Macleay and his wife Kaiann Macleay hunkered down in a St. Martin resort when Irma hit.

When they first felt the rising pressure in the room, they moved a mattress up against the large sliding glass windows and put a dresser behind that. They sheltered in the bathroom away from the gusting winds, a decision that quickly proved wise.

“We were in the bathroom for probably about 45 minutes, and the windows exploded in the bedroom,” Lachlan Macleay told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “We could feel the wind coming down the hallway through the kitchen.”

But soon, the bathroom roof started to flex and water began coming through the cracks in the ceiling. So they moved between the refrigerator and the front door and stood in the door frame for the next three to four hours, even as water slowly flooded the room.

“At that point, there was about 5 inches of water on the floor where we were standing,” Kaiann Macleay said. “The whole room was filled with water because the roof was leaking, and there was glass everywhere from the sliding glass doors. But the door frame against the metal door was really the safest spot.”

The couple survived through the storm. In the immediate aftermath, Dr. Macleay helped those injured on the Caribbean island.

But the chaotic period after the storm, in which they watched people begin looting and stealing, was even more frightening. Wary of looters, Dr. Macleay and others at the resort decided to stay up through the night on patrol with a machete on hand, just in case.

“I was terrified. I was obviously totally relieved and grateful to be alive,” Kaiann Macleay said. “But when I saw the devastation, then I was faced with the reality that we were in a really, really bad situation, and it was terrifying.”

’The last tooth in the mouth of a bum’

Michael Benson, 65, had prepared for a hurricane like Irma years ago.

Benson, a resident of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, told Reuters that after Hurricane Marilyn hit the islands in 1995, he and his wife decided to reinforce their shower. The shower was not attached to the rest of the house, making it an ideal hurricane shelter in case another major storm tore into their home.

“I told (the man who installed the shower), ‘If the hurricane takes the rest of my house, I want this shower sticking up out of that slab like the last tooth in the mouth of a bum,’” Benson said. “And sure enough, that’s what’s left. That one shower sticking up.”

He told Reuters he felt like he’s been “fired” by Hurricane Irma. His house, his business, and both his vehicles were destroyed, strewn up and down a nearby hill. But he was thankful that he was still alive.

“We listened to 200 mile an hour winds, with gusts to 225 mph,” he said. “It’s the most frightening thing I ever saw in my life, bar none.”

’It was a badass hurricane’

Rick Freedman checks his neighbor
Rick Freedman checks his neighbor's damage from Hurricane Irma on Marco Island, Florida.
PHOTO: David Goldman/AP

Not everyone was quite as fearful, though.

Zack Forrest, 26, and his roommate Krock Indigo, 22, live on Marco Island, a barrier island off southwest Florida near Naples. They decided to ignore a mandatory evacuation order and stay in their apartment for Hurricane Irma, and afterward, Forrest said he expected more out of the storm.

“It was not a nuclear hurricane,” Forrest told CNN. “But it was a badass hurricane.”

Forrest came to Marco Island from Tulsa, Oklahoma, so he was familiar with tornadoes. The hurricane winds were similar, but lasted longer, he said.

“It was loud. It was scary,” Forrest said. “The storm was really intense, it was like a tornado that lasted for an hour and a half.”

’That’s when fear set in’

Jennifer Cooper had an up-close view of the destruction of her life in the Caribbean’s St. Thomas.

She had sheltered in a bottom apartment for the storm, and when the eyewall hit, the roof of her home flew off and landed on her car. About 30 minutes later, the roof blew off of the car and went down the hill.

“That’s when fear set in,” she said. “That and when the roof blew off, that’s when the bottom apartment started to flood, and we had water up to our ankles. And that’s when I got really scared.”

Cooper, a nurse working at a hospital in the US Virgin Islands, said she plans to move back to Washington, D.C. with her family now that the storm destroyed everything.

“There is nothing left of my home right now. We have one wall left. The roof is gone. All of the furniture is gone. The car is gone,” she said. “So at this time, it’s just the kids and the dogs and my husband.”

CNN’s Erin Burnett, Jason Morris, Ed Lavandera and Thom Patterson contributed to this report.