It is a story of terror and survival. Registered Nurse Julie Tomlinson is back in San Antonio after enduring the blast when Hurricane Irma roared across the Island of St. Thomas as a Category 5 storm.
Tomlinson said that she accepted a temporary three-month assignment, thinking it would be fun to spend time in a beautiful tropical setting.
She says that her time on the island was delightful until Irma came to call.
“We were having a good time and everything was fine," she said. "And then September 6 came."
Tomlinson said that she and her friends knew to prepare and stockpiled water and food.
“It was like, 'How do we prepare?' because nobody had ever had a Cat 5 before,” Tomlinson recalled.
She said the night before the storm, a small group went swimming in the calm ocean, thinking it would be good to relax before the rigors of the hurricane arrived.
Reviewing cell phone video she recorded as the storm approached, she watched as a tall tree snapped in the face of the oncoming tempest.
Tomlinson said that as the winds grew stronger, chaos ensued.
“The hurricane came in and the roof came off. The ceiling came in and the water was coming through the ceiling. The electrical lines were snapping. The patients were yelling. I was yelling," she recalled. “I only screamed one time because I realized if nurses are screaming, who is going to be feeling safe? Nurses and doctors can't be screaming.”
Tomlinson described how she saw windows shattering and flying glass coming in the building along with insulation being ripped from the ceiling and electrical wires that went flying as the roof was lifted away.
Reviewing the video of the moment, Tomlinson says that her heart still races.
“The building was shaking, like in an earthquake. So we were doing this and dealing with all these surreal things happening at one time, so I didn't know what to feel,” she said.
Tomlinson said that when the ceiling started to fail, she and her co-workers used mattresses to drag patients to stairwells and down into the building for safety’s sake.
“We pulled them out one by one and put them on lined-up mattresses” Tomlinson described. "Packing up their chest tubes and their Foley bags and their things that they needed and dragging them down the stairs."
Tomlinson called it a life or death moment, waiting to see how bad it would get.
“The scariest part was after the hurricane when we didn't know if we could leave. We didn't know if the building was still going to collapse,” Tomlinson said. “We didn't know if we would have a place to sleep. We didn't know if we would have food. All the machines were broken, so we couldn't take care of the patients the way we needed to.”
Tomlinson said that the hospital building is a total loss.
“The hospital is condemned. It's got $4 million in damages. The cat scan machine got wet and had radiation coming out. The roof, from the fifth floor to the fourth floor, everything caved in,” Tomlinson explained.
Tomlinson said that she stayed in the hospital building while the storm raged, but when she finally made it back to her apartment, she found destruction there as well.
“The hurricane came in and destroyed everything I had,” Tomlinson said.
After the storm passed, Tomlinson said that the situation became even more tense on the streets.
"It went south fast," said Tomlinson said as she recalled people being attacked by robbers with machetes. “People had rocks and they were banging on their car windows trying to rob them saying, 'Give me all your money, your water, your food' and the airport was crushed. There were no cars. There were no cabs and we were running out of food. We don't have internet. We can't go to the ATM. We have no money. There's nothing.
“There had been fighting on the streets down where you have to go get water, so I thought 'I'm going to get this boat.'”
The traveling nurse said that she jumped on a supply boat with one suitcase and told the captain she would not get off. She was relieved when the captain took her and a few others to Puerto Rico, where they were eventually able to catch flights home.
Her advice to anyone traveling in the region for vacation is to get out or be prepared when there is a hurricane threat.
“I would definitely say, leave before the hurricane. Get out if you can. I should have left,” Tomlinson said. “Also, stock up on water, food, canned food, and have a weapon. I hate to say it but, have a weapon for your family, and keep it inside because people are coming out with weapons and it can be terrible."
As for her own future, Tomlinson says that the experience changed her outlook.
“I wouldn't do it again. I would go and I would be a nurse again, but I would never stay if I knew a big Cat 5 was coming. It was life and death.” Tomlinson said. “I helped people and I got to use my training and I got to suffer a little bit, and that always makes you humble.”
Tomlinson says that being back home, comfortable and safe, she is especially grateful for her blessings.
“When I came back I thought 'I get to drive my car. I can go to the grocery store and get food,’" she said. "I have an appreciation for life. I feel it now. I want other people to feel that way."
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