Frostburg Student Camden Nichols Endures Hurricane Irma While Studying Abroad in the Virgin Islands

Frostburg State University (FSU) sophomore Camden Nichols participated in the National Student Exchange for the Fall 2017 semester at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), located in St. Thomas. Nichols was a student at UVI for one month before his exchange was suddenly cut short. On Aug. 30, 2017, Hurricane Irma struck the island with devastating winds and torrential rain. Hurricane Irma was labeled as a Category-5 hurricane, which is the strongest categorization a hurricane can receive.

Nichols received word that Hurricane Irma was going to hit St. Thomas two days before the hurricane struck the island. UVI’s hurricane protocol was to keep students in a hurricane shelter on campus equipped with minimum amenities, including cots for rest and generators exclusively to be used for cooking. While in the shelter, Nichols heard that Irma was upgraded from a Category-4 hurricane to a Category-5. At that moment, he knew he had to find a better option, some way to get off the island.

A friend Nichols made at the university, Sergei, had connections on the island and made contact with friends living on the island, Ralph and Liz, and made arrangements for himself, Nichols, and another friend, Charles, to go their home for shelter. Nichols and company arrived at the house at sunset and settled in for the night.

The home was located inside a bay, protected from the strong waves coming off the Atlantic Ocean and was made from concrete. Nichols described the home as a “bunker,” equipped with amenities to brave the storm. The day before the hurricane struck, Nichols got the sense that it was coming. The air got extremely humid and the impending storm lingered in the air. Nichols was in good hands as Ralph was actually an ex-Army Ranger and a survival expert.

The day of the storm, the wind began to pick up, reaching 25 miles per hour at 8 a.m., and increased in strength every 15 minutes or so. At 11 a.m., the storm began to become intense. The wind was roaring and the rain resembled a sheet of water, rather than traditional rain. Nichols said it was like he was taking bath. Nichols stepped outside about 30 minutes later to record the storm on his Go-Pro. As he was recording, he held onto a railing for stability but a particularly strong gust of wind floated him off of his feet, like he had no weight. At that point, the debris became a problem. Trees and sheet metal from the building flew through the air at fatal speeds.

The storm raged for 11 hours in total from start to finish. The next morning, Nichols went outside to see the damage the storm had done. Nichols described the state of the island as winter time in Maryland. The trees were stripped bare, and no green was in sight. Trees had fallen onto their shelter and the roads were treacherous. Nichols and his friends participated in the clean-up effort, cutting fallen trees and removing power lines from the roads. Four days after the storm, the U.S. military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency contributed to the disaster relief.

At that point, Nichols was still trying to find a way off of the island to get home. The airport at St. Thomas was not looking like it would be operable anytime soon. A cruise ship from Royal Caribbean arrived ten days after the storm to take survivors to Puerto Rico under the condition that they could provide proof that they had a flight out of Puerto Rico upon arrival. Naturally, all of the flights were booked, yet Nichols managed to get the last seat on a flight out of Puerto Rico back to the U.S. Nichols waited 10 hours in the street for the boat to arrive, sweltering under the heat of the Caribbean sun. The only belongings he managed to retain from his time on the island were his computer and a few changes of clothes, all crammed into a backpack.

Finally, the next morning, the boat departed St. Thomas and headed to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, Nichols stayed overnight at a hotel before he could fly back home. The flight flew into Newark, N.J. for a brief layover before he could board another flight back to Western Maryland. Finally home, Nichols was incredibly relieved to be out of harm’s way and to see his friends and family.

Hurricane Irma was the most intense storm to strike the Atlantic since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. Reaching 185 mile per hour winds and devastating much of the Caribbean, Nichols was lucky to have made it out of St. Thomas safe and sound.

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