If it wasn’t for Hurricane Irma, Cindy Clayton and her husband Eric might still be living in the British Virgin Islands, running a hotel business with their six dogs and sky-blue swimming pool.
In 2017, the Category 5 storm completely demolished Clayton’s former life, shredding infrastructure and turning buildings into debris for all residents on the island.
Hurricane season is upon once again, and the National Hurricane Center predicts record high Atlantic storms this year. Pinellas County may not be an island, but residents can learn a thing or two from Cindy Clayton.
A retired flight attendant, Clayton moved to the British Virgin Islands with her husband and daughter in 2002 to live the dream of owning a hotel in paradise.
Then came Irma in 2017. Planes left the island a week before it hit, stranding many residents with nowhere to go.
“It hit in the morning, 6 a.m. I watched it come in, but I’d wish I hadn’t,” Clayton recalls. “It sounds like a freight train coming down on you, and the wind is white when it blows that hard.”
Clayton watched the white winds snap trees in half, empty swimming pools, blow furniture across the island. Then she watched the building her daughter and daughter’s fiancée were in collapse.
It wasn’t until the eye of the storm passed over them that Clayton was able to react.
“I slammed open the door. I remember screaming to my husband, ‘I want my daughter,’” Clayton said. “In a situation like that, you have Herculean strength, and we pulled the rubble out.”
Her family was alive, and while the storm temporarily quelled, the Claytons packed 22 people into two safe rooms in the hotel.
Thinking the storm was over, some people emerged onto the street.
“My daughter, my husband and I, along with six dogs, hid under mattresses in the bathroom,” Clayton said. “We stayed in the same position for about four hours. By the time the storm ended, it was night time.”
Despite an evacuation offer by the American Residency, Clayton and her family stayed for an additional five months to rehome some of their pets.
“I’m always surprised when I see hurricane pictures and there’s leaves on the trees and grass,” Clayton said. “Irma destroyed everything; there was nothing left.”
For months, they lived without power or reliable water, creating a makeshift kitchen out of the “plywood and debris, and rationing one meal a day.
“After living like that, you really realize what you need,” Clayton said. “We don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Closer to Home
Eventually, Clayton moved back to North Carolina before settling down in Gulfport.
“We never thought we’d be starting over in our 60s,” Clayton said.
Though Irma went on to cause severe destruction in Florida, particularly in the Keys, it made only a glancing blow to the Tampa Bay area, knocking down trees and zapping power to some residents for weeks. Pinellas County hasn’t suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, but it’s an event meteorologists predict as increasingly likely. The 1921 storm pushed an 11-foot surge of water into the bay, according to NOAA, reducing many structures to “rubble,” and claimed at least eight lives.
Having lived through it once, Clayton’s family prepares for the worst every summer.
In addition to stocking up on cases of water, chlorine tablets, batteries and other necessities, Clayton also thinks about the long-term aftermath of a major storm.
“One of the most important things we do is keep all documents in a waterproof container,” Clayton said.