Hurricane Hell: Local family trapped on island for Irma has made it home

Recreation oversight ordinance fails
September 20, 2017
Judgeship case moves into new territory
September 20, 2017
Recreation oversight ordinance fails
September 20, 2017
Judgeship case moves into new territory
September 20, 2017

Huddled in a Villa ‘s bathroom on the island of St. John with a mattress for protection, Melissa Hebert Delaune tried to focus on the sound of her voice and the voices of her aunt and uncle, as hell’s fury raged above their heads.

“Hail Mary full of grace …”

Wrecking-ball winds clattered and roared, spawned by the storm named Irma, clocked before strafing the island paradise at 185 mph, as the trapped trio beseeched the only powers that could be deemed greater.

“The Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women … “

A week later, finally safe at home, the Galliano Walmart clerk choked up as she recalled the fear she had felt, powerless as Irma lashed the island, and the ordeal she and loved ones endured after the storm had passed. For her troubles, Melissa was gifted with a new outlook on life, a firm belief that you should never sweat the small stuff, and cherish everyone you care about every single day.


It had all started out as a celebration of something wonderful and good.

“We flew out of New Orleans,” Melissa said, describing the trip she and other relatives made for the beachfront wedding of her charter captain cousin Joshua Bourg to Jennifer Tyler in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they both reside.

It was Melissa’s first time in the Caribbean.

The U.S. possesses three of the Virgin Islands and St. John is the smallest of them. Half of St. John is a national park, which boasts verdant forests alive with hummingbirds, cuckoos and warblers. The island’s eastern end is rich in anemones and coral. Dolphins and sea turtles are common sights.

Its residents number a little over 4,000, just slightly higher than the population of Chauvin.

“The view from our balcony, at the villa where we stayed, was spectacular,” Melissa said. “There were hills all around us with houses built into them, it was breath-taking.”

The villa had two king-sized bedrooms, one for Melissa and one for her aunt and uncle, attorneys Lynn and Joel Terrebonne. With them and other relatives who had gathered for the joyful event, Melissa boated and snorkeled, caught the sights and marveled.

“The water was the clearest, prettiest blue you have ever seen in your life,” she said. “You could just look down and see what was going on down there, these beautiful, different colored fish swimming.”

Snorkeling was a new experience, something Melissa had certainly never done in Bayou Lafourche. She relished every minute.

There was, in the beginning, general knowledge of troubled waters far to the east. Irma was tropical storm on the day Melissa and family members arrived on St. John’s. As the first day melted into the second, the understanding was that Irma would be jogging north at some point. The wedding was scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 7 and there was much to do before then. But by Sept. 2, a Saturday, family members were having second thoughts. Irma had strengthened rapidly to a Category 2 storm with a westward track. Forecasters began to predict a Category 4 storm by the coming Wednesday, and that it would end up by that time at the Caribbean’s doorstep.

“We got together and thought it was best we moved the wedding from Thursday to the coming Monday,” said Melissa. “We were trying to get them to do it on the weekend but a lot of things were already set and scheduled.”


Changes were made, and changes were made for the well-wishers as well. A sunset cruise set for the Monday was canceled. Saturday also saw the alerts on family members’ cell phones that confirmed the worst – no northward turn for Irma, and the potential of St. John being in the bull’s eye.

The wedding was set for 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 4, but family members were on the phone early that day scheduling departures for as soon as possible after.

“We were trying to get flights out at 6 in the morning, but we couldn’t,” said Melissa, who was beginning to experience a sickly feeling. “We were told if we had called at 5 o’clock we could have booked a flight.”

Joel Terrebonne did his very best to schedule his wife and Melissa to no avail.

“We realized we were stuck,” said Melissa, who along with other family members tried not to let apprehension over the planned hasty exit overshadow the joy of the wedding. “The wedding was beautiful. Her father walked her down the pathway from a beach house to the ocean.”

Melissa wore her favorite perfume, White Point, a gift from a dear friend.

The happy couple exchanged vows they had written themselves, and afterward – with the ability to get flights out before the storm rendered impossible – everyone tried to enjoy themselves.

It wasn’t a difficult task. The skies gave no evidence that a monster lurked ever loser. At night the family members romped in pools. The next day, Tuesday, therewere few initial signs.

“You couldn’t fathom something big was coming,” Melissa said. “the waters were so calm and clear and blue.”

As cell phones blew up with storm messages the family joined others on the island making preparations. Joel boarded up the villa with help from others. He drove into town to get batteries, flashlights and other essentials. By 6 p.m. Tuesday the electricity was shut off, and then the wait began, during a night-long calm before the storm.

“The winds didn’t pick up until 9 o’clock Wednesday morning, and when they picked up they really started picking up,” said Melissa. Although she was a child of the bayous, Melissa had not stayed for local hurricanes. She and her family had always evacuated. While versed in the inconveniences of preparation, fleeing and the indignities sometimes associated with returning, Melissa had never experienced a storm’s wrath full-on.


The views were gone from the villa windows, covered as they were with plywood. But one window was not boarded up – an oversight, it was believed – and as the storm strengthened Melissa watched a large flower pot overturn and enter a skittering roll. The rain hammered hard and wind whistled and howled.

As Melissa experienced the storm’s calling card, the islands of St. Martin and St. Bart’s, to the east, were already being savaged by the Category 5 wind and rain. By nightfall the storm was full on St. John and the family scrambled into the bathroom during the worst of it, shielded by a mattress in case the roof blew off, certain that it might, with prayer their only other shield. The Hail Mary, the Our Father, all of the prayers learned as children and carried into adulthood.

“It is the most horrible feeling in the world, it’s feeling you are not going to live, that you are going to die, the scariest night of my entire life,” said Melissa, who cried for days after.

After daybreak, on an island whose skies were still gray from Irma’s drizzly raiment, the family ventured outside.

All parts of their villa were intact. The same could not be said for other structures. Houses were battered and their rooftops crushed. Some, between a mountainside and the villa, had sacrificed themselves, it appeared, to keep the worst from the villa. A smell of sulphur was everywhere.

Biting, stinging insects – imperceptible before the storm – were everywhere outside, as if the devil had left tiny friends behind while passing over the paradise now laid waste.

The family struggled on as best they could, waiting for word of evacuation. But no clear word came for days.

Water had to be fetched for flushing, usually from the pool which had been a place for frolicking days before, now so long in the past. With no cell phone service and electricity out, Melissa wondered and worried about her 22-year-old son Chance, back in Louisiana. Now that she knew she would see her loved ones again, the nagging question was when.

On Saturday, Sept. 9, word came that rescue was imminent. The family made for an appointed dock where, Melissa said, crews from the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard were asssitig.

A short ferry ride later and Melissa, with her aunt and uncle, was at the St. Croix, another of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The people on St. Croix were nice and gracious and helping,” Melissa said. There was some confusion over assigned rooms and the trio was split up, with assignments being made into three rooms for a total of 19 people. The first real food in days awaited Melissa. The hosts had provided a steaming tray of lasagna, which she determined was the best she ever had.

On St. Croix the cell service was spotty, and many people all gathered in one spot deemed particularly good for a signal. Like believers reaching out to their god, the people held phones high over their heads, reading bars. Melissa watched television, horrified by the grousing she heard from people fleeing Irma in Florida, complaining about the length of time it took to drive north from the Keys.

“They were able to evacuate,” she said. “At least they were able to get off of their islands. We had no choice like that. We had no evacuation route. I lost it. They were sitting in line. They had days of notice so they could pack, and they were fussing.”


On Monday the family was whisked to San Juan, as Joel – ever the problem solver – made final arrangements for flights. Normally the route would have been from San Juan to Miami, but with the destruction Irma had brought to Florida that was ot of the question. First came a flight to Houston.

There was a small wrinkle as Melissa readied to board. She only had carry-on luggage; her big suitcase was still at the villa on St. John. A TSA agent asked about a bottle inside the carry-on, and she surmised it was her beloved perfume.

“I seriously don’t know why it’s in the carry-on bag,” she said “We just grabbed everything when we evacuated.”

The TSA man said he might have to seize the bottle.

“It’s fine, really it is,” Melissa said. “You have a job to do and it’s okay.”

When she boarded the plane she felt something strange in the bag. It was the perfume. There was a brief moment of relief, perhaps joy.

“If I had to leave it I wouldn’t have been bothered,” she said. “Nothing would have bothered me, I was not going to allow little things to get to me.”

Met by her grandparents at New Orleans, Melissa was enveloped in a haze of joy and gratitude. After a night relating her experience to relatives and plenty of sleep, she headed back to Galliano in her Ford Explorer the next day, eager for the embrace of her son, happy to be reunited with the dog left at her grandparents’ and awaiting the other little dog who was with him at her home.

“That was the longest ride home ever,” she said.

By the time she was home, the full story of Irma was still being told. As of September 18, Irma was blamed for at least 84 deaths, including 45 in the Caribbean and 39 in the U.S. The newlywed couple on St. John reported that their new home – still being completed on the day they were wed – suffered only minor, mostly cosmetic damage, which was seen as a great blessing by Melissa.

Melissa’s bosses at Walmart were understanding even though she had to take an extra week off, and she was grateful for that.

“I think when I walk in Monday morning I am going to fall down and kiss the ground,” she said, then related all that her experience has taught her.

“Life is just precious, value every minute of it,” she said. “The things that used to bother me don’t bother me anymore. Life is just so fragile. Don’t take any moments with family, with friends, with co-workers for granted. Be nice and treat each other with respect. You could be here one second and then all of a sudden not be here.”

Locals survive Irma