Local couple survives Irma’s worst

Drift In bartender Chase Purtill and doorman Shawn Wall were back on the job Friday night. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

BRADENTON BEACH – Chase Purtill and Shawn Wall returned to work last week at the Drift In after a harrowing vacation experience in St. John, where Hurricane Irma rampaged the island with Category 5 force winds.

Purtill has been vacationing in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, since she was 7 years old, but the northwest Bradenton couple’s recent trip was unlike any other.

This hotel Chase Purtill and Shawn Wall stayed in was missing most of its roof after Hurricane Irma passed through St. John. – Chase Purtill | Submitted

They arrived on Sept. 3.

“We knew there was a storm out there, but we didn’t know where it was going. We were hoping it wouldn’t build up that fast, but it did. There was no way to evacuate,” Wall said.

“We were supposed to stay in Coral Bay but the lady said we couldn’t, so we stayed at an inn in Cruz Bay we thought was safe because it was made of concrete and we stockpiled food and water,” Purtill said.

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma’s howling winds arrived around 10 a.m., and they didn’t let up until four that afternoon.

After the storm, this business was the only place that provided even limited cell phone reception. – Chase Purtill | Submitted

“You could hear the roofs being ripped off and 45 minutes into the storm our roof went,” Purtill said.

They planned on using the bathroom as a safe room, but that roof went too.

“The back bedroom was our only option. Shawn held that door for three hours. If that door flies open, that roof goes. After about two hours, I thought if the rest of the roof comes off we’re screwed. That’s when I started to get really scared,” Purtill recalled.

“It was insane. I saw the whole roof lifting off and I grabbed the futon mattress out of the living room,” Wall said.

The storm ends

The end of the storm was the beginning of a long journey home.

“We had to figure out how to get out. I heard the airport was gone, so where’s the next route? You might get a five-minute cell phone call, but it took 20 or 30 tries,” Wall said.

This was the view outside Chase and Shawn’s front door after Hurricane Irma left. –
Chase Purtill | Submitted

“There was no electricity, and there won’t be for months. Shawn and another guy went out and picked up pieces to make another roof. Two days after the storm, the military started dropping MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and canned water,” Purtill said.

“When we lost communication, the last thing we heard was the Category 5 storm was coming to Florida. I was fully prepared to come back to no house and no job. When you’re sitting with people who now have nothing, you come to terms with what that is,” she said.

“There were town meetings every day, and people were sharing information. The restaurants were running off generators and supplying free breakfast, lunch and dinner before the food went bad. The town worked together,” Wall said.

Headed home

“On the 10th or 11th, boats began evacuating women, children and the elderly to St. Croix or Puerto Rico,” Purtill said.

They saw children being put on boats while their parents stayed behind.

A military helicopter takes off after delivering food and water. – Chase Purtill | Submitted

“When you’re not going to have food and water, and there are no schools anymore, it’s easier for a mother to take care of herself than a whole family,” Purtill said.

Some children were headed for friends or relatives in the United States; others were headed into the arms of strangers.

“St. Croix people took their own boats over there with supplies and brought people back, and we knew we had to hop on one,” Wall said.

“It took us until the 13th to get to St. Croix, and the earliest flight out was the 18th. You had to find your own rooms, but we were downtown, so we had power,” Purtill said.

“We flew out of St. Croix, had a 30-minute layover in Puerto Rico and hopped on a plane to Tampa. We didn’t know how bad Florida was going to get destroyed, and we were glad to see it wasn’t destroyed here,” Wall said.

The Drift In held a welcome home celebration last Friday afternoon and evening while Purtill tended bar and Wall later manned the door.

Purtill said their experience changed her view on life.

“Material possessions that used mean something to me don’t, and you realize how many people truly care about you.” she said.