“What tipped the scales,” said the 2001 Collegiate graduate, “was one day I was stopped on the GW Parkway, and I realized I had lost an entire week sitting in traffic: four hours a day, six days in a row. I decided to make a move. I ended up here.”
“Here” is Cruz Bay, a town of 2,700 on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was her family’s favorite vacation spot when she was young. It’s been her home since she took that leap of faith back in the fall of 2005.
Today, firmly entrenched and, though she might argue otherwise, a local icon, she can’t see herself living anywhere else. Ever.
Once she arrived for good on St. John (nicknamed Love City) on November 1, Meaghan began a brief gig selling cigars and sunglasses. For five years, she worked as a marketer and bartender for a microbrewery. The next three, she managed a retail shop. Since 2014, she’s headed Writtenright Consulting, which provides marketing solutions for local small businesses.
“I committed for a year,” she said. “The longer I stayed, the clearer it became that I wouldn’t function very well moving back to the states. Certainly, when I moved here, I was looking for something I didn’t have yet. I definitely found it here. This community is special. The people are part of what makes St. John beautiful. People take care of each other…in the best of times and the worst of times.”
Little could she have imagined.
You see, six weeks ago – Wednesday, September 6 – Meaghan and her fellow Islanders fell victim to the unfathomable fury of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 monster that wreaked havoc on the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and points north.
For most of that day and well into the night, sustained winds of 200 miles per hour that gusted to as high as 285 hammered the island.
From her house – basically a concrete bunker with windows on the west wall that she boarded in anticipation of the onslaught – she, her boyfriend Matt Mooney, and her mutt Finnegan holed up and hoped for the best.
“It felt like the walls would disintegrate,” she said. “The storm was deafening. A lot of people compared the sound to a freight train. To me, it was like the really loud roar when a plane comes to a stop after it lands. That’s what it sounded like for eight hours.
“What really struck me was my home, my community would never be the same. We didn’t know who or what would survive. Everything in our world would be completely different and likely completely destroyed. The uncertainty of the future was almost scarier than the sound.”
The forecast called for the storm’s intensity to peak around mid-afternoon.
“We were first affected by the western eyewall,” she said. “Right about the time we were expecting to go into the eye, the storm wobbled to the north, and we got the southern eyewall. Instead of maybe two hours and then a break, we spent five or six hours in various parts of the eyewall of the storm.”
As the winds diminished – relatively speaking – Meaghan and Matt ventured into the night with flashlights to check on neighbors. It was only when Thursday dawned that they witnessed the terrible destruction.
“It was like an alternate reality,” she said. “Everything is like it is, but it’s just wrong. The island looked so small because of all the leaves being off the trees. It was just like the whole island was naked. Every once in a while, we’d come upon something that was worse than what we’d seen, and it was a shock to the system. For days, it was like that. The other side of the island, Coral Bay, got hit even harder than we did. It looked like a bomb went off. Everything looked like a war zone.”
On Friday, she was able to connect to Wi-Fi and notify her family that she was safe. She also found a message from Nils Erickson, a friend from St. John who was traveling in Rhode Island on business. He explained that he’d contacted East Island Excursions in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, and a 40-passenger Power Catamaran was en route with supplies.
The relief and rescue effort was underway.
Meaghan, along with Tenesha Keyes and Siobhan Mulvey, would spearhead it from the Cruz Bay side. They call their disaster aid group Love City Strong. They were the right people at the right time. The trio brought energy, passion, compassion, and organizational skills to a daunting challenge born from catastrophe. What had the makings of a logistical nightmare became a Good Samaritan endeavor. In 12 days, using savvy and instinct, ignoring fatigue, and surmounting myriad obstacles, they facilitated the evacuation of 1,200 people from the island.
“We did this because somebody had to,” Meaghan said. “I was put in a situation where things needed to be done, and I did them.”
When help arrived, the plan was to remove the staples, then put 40 people on the Power Cat and shuttle them to safety. Their first order of business was transporting their friend Tessa Louis, who was eight months pregnant, to safety. Mission accomplished.
“We got everything offloaded,” Meaghan said. “Then we started loading people, our priority (including the elderly and infirm) first. At the same time, I’m hearing from friends in St. Croix that they’re sending boats. We were at the National Park dock every morning from 7 until sundown unloading supplies and evacuating people. People would start showing up at 9. We’d put them on the list. Sometimes, they waited for six or seven hours. Sometimes, the boat wouldn’t come, and we’d tell them, ‘I’m sorry. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.’”
All told, six private boats from St. Croix and three from Puerto Rico shared in the effort. A cruise line sent a ship, and the U.S. Coast Guard assisted in the task of ferrying 300 passengers from the dock to safety on its deck.
, Global DIRT
, NBA superstar Tim Duncan (a St. Croix native), the Bloomberg Foundation, and the Kenny Chesney Love for Love City Foundation, among others, played – and continue to play – important roles in the recovery and reclamation effort.
“Without the help of our neighboring islands, I don’t know what we would have done,” Meaghan said. “It gave us hope. It was four or five days before federal relief got here. That’s just a function of logistics. The public-private cooperation has been incredible. When we knew (Hurricane) Maria (another Category 5 storm) would hit St. Croix and Puerto Rico, people who had helped us, that were family now, said, ‘We don’t mind. We’re happy it’s not going to hit you guys again. We’d rather take the brunt.’ That was incredibly moving.”
The Virgin Islands continue to struggle. Power has not been restored. Reliable drinking water is scarce. Amenities are minimal. Maria brought torrential rain to a devastated landscape. A tropical storm rolled through this week. Flooding and landslides remain serious problems. The rebuilding process will last indefinitely. All is not lost, however.
“We’ve rediscovered the core of who we are,” Meaghan said. “This place is about community. It’s about love. It’s about taking care of one another. We still don’t have so much of what we rely on as a regular part of life. It’s startling just how comfortable we’ve all become with consumption. I think about all the things I’ve seen destroyed or thrown away or ruined by water and mold, and I think, Why did I ever need that stuff? It’s a paradigm shift in how you look at what’s a necessity. It brings you back to a much simpler perspective.”
Perspective. Yes. An elusive concept, at best. Through upbringing and experience, Meaghan was conditioned to organize, plan, and execute. Getting her head around this Herculean task thrust upon her without notice, though, has been very challenging.
“When I see a friend with two babies, I want to get them to safety,” she said. “Of course, I’ll do everything in my power to make that happen. I was fortunate that I could. I’m grateful for all the people who made it possible. It feels like everything in my life led to this moment and prepared me to be useful. I’m grateful for that.”
Was she heroic? She scoffs at the notion.
“I don’t feel different,” she said, “but people are different toward me. I’ve gained their trust. They might say, ‘You evacuated my wife and children. You saved my family,’ but I’m still Meaghan. The experience doesn’t feel defining, but it’s certainly life-changing.”