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LaSalle couple lives through eye of hurricane, then devastation

Windsor Star logo Windsor Star 2017-09-13 Craig Pearson
091217-no_object-237218231-20170907_101108.jpeg-W.jpg: This photo shows the devastation at the four-star Oyster Bay Beach Resort on the Dutch side of St. Maarten after hurricane Irma struck last week. © Courtesy of Debby Sheppy, Windsor Star This photo shows the devastation at the four-star Oyster Bay Beach Resort on the Dutch side of St. Maarten after hurricane Irma struck last week.

A number of Canadian students taking refuge at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, including at least three Windsorites, managed to board flights off of St. Maarten en route to Chicago Monday.

“It’s great,” said Windsor native Alec Raniwsky, who helped publicize his fellow students’ plight. “Our voice was heard. All that matters is that we got everybody home safely.”

At the height of the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded, a piece of boat deck smashed through a LaSalle couple’s hotel balcony doors — and in whipped Irma.

But Darrell and Debby Sheppy didn’t even hear it.

Holed up in pitch-blackness — Darrell forced his back against the bathroom door in the second-floor room of a four-star resort on St. Maarten — the Category 5 hurricane was so loud they could not hear each other yelling.

“There was a tremendous banging,” Darrell recalled by phone Tuesday from Toronto, where he felt lucky to be alive. “Everything was moving. Walls were shaking. Doors were banging. Air pressure was oscillating.

“It was very, very nerve-racking.”

091217-no_object-237217031-20170908_151249_resized.jpeg-W.jpg: Darrell Sheppy from LaSalle shores up the broken glass doors on his resort balcony after hurricane Irma and before hurricane Jose struck St. Maarten last week. © Courtesy of Debby Sheppy, Windsor Star Darrell Sheppy from LaSalle shores up the broken glass doors on his resort balcony after hurricane Irma and before hurricane Jose struck St. Maarten last week. The eye of hurricane Irma barrelled through like a supercharged monster, ransacking the Oyster Bay Beach Resort and pretty much everything around it.

“The length of time had a lot to do with it,” Darrell said about the storm that struck St. Martin/St. Maarten last Tuesday and overnight Wednesday. “It just seemed like it was never going to end.

“It started to die down a bit when the eye of the storm came. It didn’t go deadly quiet like you hear about sometimes. It still seemed like one of the worst thunderstorms you have ever been in.”

Yet he just had to see.

“So I took a moment to peek out and see what was going on outside,” he said. “Boats from the marina were being tossed around. It was just devastation.”

He didn’t watch for long. The wind direction changed, meaning the back half of the storm would take its turn.

“We actually felt the bathroom ceiling coming down when the trailing edge of the eye came through,” he said. “You could tell because the wind started coming from the opposite direction.”

They rushed to the soaked bedroom, which had less physical damage — save for the ripped-off closet doors.

This photo shows the devastation at the four-star Oyster Bay Beach Resort on the Dutch side of St. Maarten after hurricane Irma struck last week.

Finally, after a sleepless night, the hurricane passed about five hours after it arrived.

They escaped without injury but the worst part of the Sheppys’ ordeal was only beginning.

“The resort itself was destroyed,” he said. “People started to come out of their hiding places, looking around dumbfounded at all the devastation and realizing that (Category) 5 is not just a number. That’s a serious hurricane. There were big boats tossed around, catamarans flipped over on the road, cabin cruisers inland.”

The island was left without power or running water. Guests and staff alike started cleaning up, removing the most dangerous loose objects, since Category 4 hurricane Jose wasn’t far behind. Thankfully, the second hurricane didn’t make a direct strike and caused much less damage.

Hotel staff made three meals a day for everyone, then two, then even that stopped. But Darrell made a point of stressing how much staff did their best to help.

Meanwhile, looting had begun. Some guests took turns arming themselves with machetes and axes and guarding the resort gates, along with staffers.

“The hurricane was the easy part,” said Darrell, recalling how nearby gunshots made even the hotel a dangerous prospect. “Looting and violence started but there wasn’t enough law enforcement to maintain control. Then it became martial law with curfews (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and military checkpoints.”

Princess Juliana International Airport was closed, controlled by the Dutch military. Tourists and ex-pats tried to to book flights but virtually none existed.

Word came that some planes would arrive Saturday, so hotel staff and guests formed a convoy and headed to the airport, a scary ride through lawlessness.

The Sheppys formed a line with others from the hotel. But when a Dutch policewoman came along asking for passports, she pulled them out of the queue. The Canadian Sheppys were the only two of 148 not allowed on the U.S. military flight.

They thought they would be put in another line. Instead the officer told them to leave. Not just the line, but the airport. They had nowhere to go, except the airport parking lot, though the military planned on closing the gates at 6 p.m.

For the first time, the Sheppys started fearing for their lives.

“I thought my biggest fear was going through the hurricane,” Debby said. “But when the Dutch police officer took us out of the line and told us we had to leave, I just lost it. I started crying.”

They formed a friendship with six other Canadians castaways.

“I felt like my country abandoned me,” said Debby, who hopes to one day hear from a Canadian official on why the government did not send a plane. “It was the first time in my life I was not proud of being Canadian.”

Luckily, some of the Canadians lived on the island. One of them invited everyone back to their damaged residential tower. They all ended up there, and tried the airport again Monday.

WestJet sent a rescue flight and they made it aboard — with enough room to take some stranded Americans.

After not showering for a week, and eating virtually nothing the last two days, the Sheppys landed in Toronto Monday amid a sense of gratitude.

“You know when you see people get off a plane and kiss the ground,” said Debby, who felt a love of her country return. “I felt like doing that.

“That’s how happy I was to be home.”

cpearson@postmedia.com

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