Surviving a Semester Abroad

USC Student Weathered Hurricane Irma’s Wrath on St. Thomas

By Deena C. Bouknight

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When USC sophomore Brittany Carter learned earlier this year she would have a chance to study abroad, she was thrilled. The Blythewood native is a Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism major, so spending the 2017 fall semester at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas was a dream. She spent the summer working various jobs to pay for travel expenses and looked forward to experiencing aspects of her college major first hand.

However, Brittany barely settled in and made friends with other islanders as well as some foreign students before Hurricane Irma threatened on September 6th.

In a travel log September 14, she shares: “Just a little over a week ago, I was sitting on the beach with my friends, gazing at the bright sun reflecting off of the clear Caribbean water. We sat there talking about how amazing it was that we got to live in paradise. It was hard to believe and too good to be true. Then of course life comes by and changes everything. Now I sit in the shelter that I have been stuck in for a week, and when I look out the window I see an island stripped of its green trees and covered in debris.”

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A wall at the Univeristy of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas impaled with a shard of debris.

When Irma’s force hit the 32-square-mile island, Brittany and 149 others were locked in a concrete shelter on campus – 15 to a room. They huddled together all day feeling the building shake and watching through small spaces of boarded windows trees toppling and fragments whipping past. Miraculously, the shelter sustained minor damage, and no students were seriously injured.

Brittany and the others were not allowed to leave the shelter until the next day, and then only to venture 20 feet from the open door. She and the others were immediately struck by how the once beautiful campus was now littered with car parts, glass, trees, and even roofs. Some of the students’ cars were flipped, others missing parts. Classrooms were filled with water, glass, and other debris. Some were missing parts of roofs. A few days later, Brittany was able to venture a little farther and she says that what she saw cannot be conveyed on the television news or in photographs– from the collapsed homes to much, much worse.

For days, she and others tried to find enough cell service to text home. Brittany’s parents, Kelly and Steven, were – understandably – frantic. Brittany says her mother was trying to figure out how to get her daughter off the island.

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Classrooms were filled with water and other debris.

At the same time, fellow St. Thomas native students were distraught about the well-being of family members on other parts of the island. Brittany had to help calm one island student who experienced a panic attack because she was so worried about her family.

Brittany stayed at the shelter for 10 days, relying – like others stranded – on deliveries of water and supplies by volunteer cruise ships. Then a rescue boat took her to St. Croix, which was relatively undamaged by Irma. From there she flew to Puerto Rico, which took a hit from Irma but was yet to be further damaged by Hurricane Maria. At 4 a.m. the next day, she boarded a plane to New York City, and then another to Atlanta, before arriving in Columbia the evening of September 17, missing Hurricane Maria’s destruction of Puerto Rico by three days.

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Brittany, far right, was relieved to finally land at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and hug her brother, Blake, and sister, Allie. 

Even though recovery of her class credits for the fall semester is tenuous because of the devastation at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas, Brittany counts herself fortunate to be safe at home in Blythewood. Surviving Irma’s wrath gave her a new perspective, “I remember watching the news about hurricane damage in the past. I would simply think, “Wow, that’s so sad,” then continue drinking my Starbucks in the comfort of my intact home. Being without power and running water for a period of time definitely helped me realize how victims of natural disasters that I see in the news felt.”

She adds that the hurricane bonded her with fellow students in a way a normal college experience might not have. Some friends plan to return for visits together. She wants to encourage people to visit St. Thomas and support tourism there.

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