After years living on an idyllic island in the Caribbean, Riah Kuenzi, Gina Wellner and her daughter, Ella, are giving up their snorkeling gear for sweatshirts and snow shovels — at least temporarily.
That’s because Kuenzi, a Madison native, Wellner, his partner, and her daughter fled the tiny island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands — like another family with Madison ties — after it was battered and severely damaged by powerful back-to-back hurricanes.
The small island, which has no airport and is mostly a national park, attracts many tourists to it’s turquoise-colored waters and white sand beaches. The two Category 5 hurricanes last month damaged or destroyed many buildings, sunk transportation ferries and barges, closed schools and knocked out power as they swept across the island.
“It’s gorgeous and beautiful and I have a home there,” said Wellner, who has lived on the island for about 20 years. “If we stayed, we would be taking food from other people and we were able to leave.”
Joining the blended family is Erica Miner and her son Elijah. Miner, a Michigan native and UW-Madison graduate, and her husband, Robin, a Madison native, have lived for 14 years on St. John, where they own a restaurant.
Miner said she and her son have settled in Madison while her husband is down on St. John helping with the cleanup.
While Miner and her son came to Madison before Irma slammed the island, Kuenzi, Wellner, her daughter and dog and cat decided to ride out the storm in her house. Before the storm, they boarded up windows, stocked up on batteries, gas and drinking water and cut down coconuts from their coconut tree.
For hours during the storm, wind howled around their house, but it held up.
“It was wild,” Wellner said.
After the storm passed, the family surveyed the damage on the island. While Wellner’s home was mostly spared, many homes were not.
With spotty phone signals, fuel running out, little access to clean drinking water and no power for up to several months, they decided to leave the island, taking a boat to Puerto Rico and catching one of the last flights off of the island before Hurricane Maria struck.
Kuenzi, who helped clear the main road of obstructions after Irma, said that the community is resilient and has come together, despite the destruction.
Hurricane Irma hit the 20-square-mile island in early September. More wind and rain from Hurricane Maria only weeks later — just before the start of the tourist season — battered the island with more wind and rain, worsening previous damage.
Pictures sent to or taken by Kuenzi showed the island’s trees completely stripped of leaves from the wind, downed power lines and trees, and buildings reduced to rubble.
“Whatever Irma didn’t do, Maria finished up,” he said.
Damage to Wellner’s house was minimal, although she said she was waiting to hear if Maria flooded it. The building where she worked was destroyed, as was Kuenzi’s rental home, he said.
Miner said damage to their restaurant wasn’t major and that they hope to reopen in a couple of months.
“It’s all about perspective. We’re very fortunate. Some people lost their businesses, their homes,” she said. “We’re going to be able to go back and reopen. While yes, we’re technically refugees ... we’re doing all right.”
Both families said they chose to stay in Madison while the island recovers to allow their children to attend school. Wellner and Kuenzi are staying with his parents, while Miner and her son are living with Robin’s parents, she said.
For both Ella and Elijah, it will be their first time seeing snow.
But as aid groups and residents work to repair the island, Madison has treated both displaced families well.
“It really has been a comfortable transition,” Miner said. “As comfortable as a transition as it can be in this position.”
Madisonians are down-to-earth, warm and authentic, Wellner said, much like residents of St. John.
Kuenzi, a chef, and Wellner, a dance instructor and fire performer, said they don’t have a timetable to return, but could stay in Madison for up to a few years.
Despite the damage, the island and its approximately 4,000 people will recover, she said, adding that help, like donations, are needed.
While both families said they were unsure of when they’ll return, they both said they will move back to the tropical island.
“While it’s a really long road ahead of us, the island is still there,” Miner said. “It’s going to take a while to get things back to normal ... but we will get back there eventually.”