Houston helps Irma survivors evacuate Sint Maarten

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On Sept. 12, CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon interviewed Trinity Houston about her ordeal on Sint Maarten during Hurricane Irma, less than a week earlier. Photo courtesy Trinity Houston

Editor’s note: Late August through early October 2017 will be a time period that is never forgotten. While we may not recall details or even trends during September 2015 or September 1995, September and October 2017 saw two major earthquakes in Mexico, several category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Caribbean, which landed onshore, major wildfires in Northern California and a mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Trinity Houston, executive producer of the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, experienced and endured Hurricane Irma as it pummeled Sint Maarten, the Dutch side of the island. More importantly, not only did she live through it, but thousands of others survived because of her actions before, during and after the Category 5 hurricane passed over the tiny Caribbean island.

This is the third of three parts describing the ordeal Houston encountered, and the actions she took that helped so many. Part 1, which describes the days up to the arrival Hurricane Irma, appeared in the Oct. 12 edition of the Town Crier. Part 2, which describes the events during the hurricane, appeared in the Oct. 19 paper. This final part describes how the survivors got off the island and returned to the United States.

As Hurricane Irma moved west and while the rains continued, Trinity Houston was able to contact her friend Tami in Hemet. While Houston was glad the worst of the storm had passed, she knew efforts to find safety and recovery were about to begin.

She explained to her friend the magnitude of the humanitarian relief efforts that would be needed just to restore the island. But before that began, there were hundreds of Americans and others who needed to get off the island and begin their trips home.

“There’s at least 350 people in our resort, and between 350 and 6,000 on the island. I don’t know how many,” she told her friend. “We need planes.” From Thursday through Saturday, time just slowed down. Unlike the ticking clock while they prepared for the storm, time seemed to be taking forever to secure help.

“My Hemet friend Tami is an amazing woman,” Houston pronounced. Tami called another friend, Lori, and together they began calling — Congressional offices and news desks. “They were trying to let them know about these isolated U.S. citizens. They needed to send planes.” Of course, the runway was damaged and repairs began immediately Thursday.

After the hurricane, the island’s electricity was gone; consequently, there was no Internet access from the resort. So, resourceful Houston placed a different telephone chip in her phone. Now she was able to get sporadic service from Verizon.

The living conditions had deteriorated substantially. Even her fifth-floor room was flooded. The winds’ strength had forced rain and water through the concrete walls and along the window joints.

While the fear of the natural disaster was abating and efforts to evacuate accelerated, looting and more aggressive robbing began to occur. Now she and her team had to try to collect all of the guests together and reduce the chance that an isolated or single family might become a victim of another event.

Then her friend back home told her that the White House news conference reported that planes were being sent to St. Martins and Sint Maarten to help “350 to 6,000 U.S. citizens.” She knew her comments had made their way to Washington’s top levels. “[That] confirmed that my message got through.”

But the urgency began to grow when news of Hurricane José was heard and its path would cross the island sometime over the weekend.

Since Simpson Bay Resort is directly across the bay from the airport, on Friday, she saw the first plane arriving. However, one problem was that the Netherlands government controls the airport and Dutch is its language. The government wanted to close the airport at 6 p.m., for the night.

But they needed transportation to the airport. Also, luggage and bags had to be limited. These were not commercial customer airplanes.

By 6 p.m., the message was only that a couple of planes would land and depart Friday evening. Now the urgency was collecting and organizing all the guests for leaving. Families with small children, elderly and injuries were given priority.

Finally, confusion and miscommunication took place. Some messages were stating that the aircraft would continue the evacuation until 7 or 8 p.m., but others said it would stop and resume Saturday morning.

“One bus at the airport was turned around,” she said. “It was miscommunication between their government and ours — very disheartening.” The fear and stress magnified when it was learned that Hurricane José would arrive Saturday morning.

Then the word was that evacuation would resume at 8 a.m. The people had to be to the airport by 6 a.m. So, she and her team “tried to be orderly and let people sleep until 4:30 a.m.” In the dark, she had to waken them and collect them in the lobby.

With only two buses that could transport 24 people at a time, they began sending them to the airport. The team arranged to get the full complement to the airport, but the planes were late. “Around 11, we’re seeing huge black clouds surround us,” she said. “And told there were no more planes. We’re sitting ducks,” she feared.

Quietly, she slipped away from the crowd and tried to determine how they would return to the resort for safety during the next hurricane. But first, she called her friend. “The next and last flight was 35 to 40 minutes away.” But she couldn’t rely on that promise.

Houston had to be sure the remaining guests would survive José, so she returned to the resort to get the buses back to the airport. And then, there it was — a C130 was landing. Two C130s landed, each with a capacity to carry 88 passengers. The planes were part of New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing.

Now her phone died. She couldn’t call anyone, because she relied on the stored phone numbers in her phone. “It was just insane,” she said.

Houston was the last to board, and the plane took off. “That’s when I realized I was not doing well,” she admitted. “But we were in a C130. That’s kind of cool, in a weird way.”

The Air Force interviewed some of the U.S. citizens whom they flew off of Sint Maarten. One was Kathleen McFarland of Wolcott, Connecticut. Among her comments of those scary and dangerous days was, “Trinity Houston, I love you! I love you! She was amazing. Trinity the constant communicator. … [it was] like her job [was with] the U.S. government. … there as a consultant … [she] took charge [and] she got in touch with the U.S. government as soon as she could [and] she organized all of us.”

They landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to a “Welcome to the U.S.” sign. “The people there were so amazing and wonderful,” said Houston.

Everyone got home. Medical needs, including Houston’s, were provided. As she got off the plane, the staff kept asking if she needed a wheelchair. In the terminal, she fainted and blacked out. Later, she awoke in the hospital’s Red Cross infirmary. She suffered an infection, high blood pressure, absence of her allergy medicine and more.

But on Monday, with the long-distance help of her Hemet friend, she was on another plane to the mainland. She got to Southern California Tuesday and the next day was doing an interview on CNN.

Steve Savage, IIFC founder, met Houston in the fall of 2011. They’ve worked together since then. When he learned about the Sint Maarten adventure, he said, “I wasn’t surprised in the least, about all she did. That’s Trinity!

“She forgets to take care of herself,” he added. “It always about everyone else. Yet, she still gets things done. The film festival wouldn’t be going without her.”

After her ordeal weeks later, Houston commented, “Now I’m more sympathetic to people who suffer PTSD. It’s still so emotional.

“We can make a difference,” was her summary of the week with Hurricane Irma in Sint Maarten.

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