The wind howled with an otherworldly intensity, as storm shutters rattled and debris pelted the walls.
Josh Klutzke waited in a dorm room, huddled with eight other friends as they listened to the Category 5 hurricane outside. The Greenwood native had come to St. Kitts, a Caribbean island 200 miles east of Puerto Rico, to attend veterinary school.
Now, he found himself in the path of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms of the past 10 years.
“It was the constant pounding of wind, wind like I’d never heard before in my entire life. It was loud and everything was shaking, you could feel it in the walls,” Klutzke said.
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Despite the long hours stuck in the shelter, as well as the lack of electricity and water, Klutzke and his fellow students emerged from the storm unscathed. St. Kitts missed being hit head-on by Irma, and though heavy rains and wind buffeted the island, damage has been minimal.
Students have been given the all-clear to leave their shelters, but with the power still off and classes canceled through the rest of the week, Klutzke has been focused on letting people back home know that he’s safe.
“We got really lucky,” he said. “The island did really well, and everyone seems to be OK.”
Hurricane Irma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane in the past decade. The massive storm has reported winds as high as 185 mph, and had obliterated islands such as St. Martin and Barbuda. As of Thursday afternoon, the storm had been responsible for 13 deaths.
Early on, it appeared that St. Kitts was going to bear a direct hit from the hurricane. But the storm tracked further north than expected, which helped the island avoid more serious damage.
Past experience with hurricanes had led island officials to be better prepared as well, including Hurricane Hugo, a similarly strong storm that all but leveled St. Kitts in 1989. When they rebuilt, all buildings were constructed to better withstand hurricanes, Klutzke said.
Klutzke, 28, had just arrived in St. Kitts in late August for orientation as a new student at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, located in the island’s largest city, Basseterre. The orientation process helps students acclimate to the island and the school, before a “white coat” ceremony signifies the start of the veterinary coursework.
That ceremony, conducted Monday afternoon, was immediately followed by a hurricane preparedness tutorial.
“They told us what to expect and where to go. Everything on campus is a Category 5 hurricane shelter, and luckily I live on campus, so I was already good there,” Klutzke said. “The island preemptively shuts out power, to prevent electrocutions, so they warned us about that, and to stock up on food and water.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the rain started on and off. Klutzke’s parents, Robin and Dennis Klutzke, had traveled to the island to help him move in and attend the ceremony. With the hurricane bearing down, they were forced to depart early that morning on a flight back to the U.S.
“I had to say a tearful goodbye to them. Everything in my body was like, ‘Hey, can I come with you?'” he said.
Later that afternoon, people were told to have their supplies and stay in their rooms. To help students cope with the storm and long hours stuck in one place, school officials had encouraged people to find friends and spend the storm hunkered down together.
Klutzke was one of nine people packed into a single-occupancy dorm room. They had food and water, and otherwise tried to entertain themselves with stories and talking as they waited for the storm to hit.
“People were pretty nervous. You could feel it around campus,” Klutzke said. “There were people who had been in hurricanes before, and they were the voice of calmness. But there was a prepared nervousness.”
Family members and others with weather reports relayed information to the group, so they had an idea when the storm would be at its most intense. Even as the wind grew stronger and rain continued to fall, the hurricane had an eeriness to it.
“At one point, I went out on a balcony to look around. You could see the moon outside. It’d be really windy and rainy, then all of the sudden clear. I didn’t know what was going on,” Klutzke said.
The worst of the storm hit in the early hours of Wednesday morning, as Klutzke and their group listened through the walls. Some people were able to get some sleep, but most of them stayed awake.
By around 9 a.m. Wednesday, the worst of the hurricane was past. Originally, they were mistakenly told that everything was calm because they were in the eye of the storm, which sent a wave of despair through the room.
“You could tell, any optimism that anyone had before that was gone. We’d gone through that for 12 hours, we didn’t know if we could do it for 12 more,” Klutzke said. “Thankfully, that wasn’t true and they cleared the air on it.”
As the all-clear was given and students emerged from their shelter, they found that the island had withstood the storm fairly well. Trees and limbs were down all over, but no buildings had fallen, and flooding was at a minimum.
“People are walking around like it’s just another day. They’re cleaning up, but everyone we’ve talked to said the island did well,” Klutzke said.
Water came back on Thursday morning, though power was still out throughout the school, Klutzke said. With cell phones and tablets dead, and no wireless internet access, he and few classmates decided to venture out in search of a way to communicate.
They set up at a resort on the other side of the island to charge their phones and contact friends and family.
“We haven’t been doing anything, just hanging out waiting for the power to come on,” he said. “A bunch of us took a cab over here so we have cell service, and we’ll probably hang out here until they kick us out.”