A fundraising event will be held this weekend for a Durango family whose family business in the U.S. Virgin Islands was nearly destroyed in September by Hurricane Irma, one of the most intense storms in recorded history.
Longtime Durango resident Priscilla Sherman said her two son’s livelihoods are temporarily halted by the Category 5 hurricane, which wiped out infrastructure on the U.S. territory in the Caribbean and was responsible for at least 130 deaths.
“It’s not an easy place to recover,” Sherman said. “And the damage was extensive.”
Sherman’s sons – Jamison and Ryan Witbeck – started a private charter business in 2009, offering snorkeling, sailing and other trips around the scenic islands, after the pair spent two years building a 50-foot wooden catamaran.
But in early September, Hurricane Irma, carrying sustained winds of more than 200 miles per hour, moved into the Caribbean. St. John, the smallest of the three Virgin Islands and the home base for the business, was in the eye of the storm.
“When I saw that coming, I just had a really bad feeling,” said Ryan Witbeck, calling from St. John’s on Sunday. “And it proved to be an accurate one.”
Witbeck, who has lived in Durango and attended Fort Lewis College in the 1990s, said he and his brother did they best they could to store their boat, called Kekoa, in a safe place. But not much escaped Irma’s path of destruction.
When all was said and done, the storm had caused a half-million dollars in damages to Kekoa. Most damaging was when another boat fell off its anchor and smashed into Kekoa, ripping a 12-foot hole inside its hull.
The boat was insured, Witbeck said, but the brothers will be without income until they can make the necessary repairs, which he expects will take at least a year. Even if they complete that time schedule, it’ll be hurricane season again.
“I don’t even know if we’re through the worst of it,” he said. “In four hours, the storm turned a paradise and playground for people and knocked it into stone age.”
Jamison lives in St. John’s year-round, Witbeck said. When news of the storm broke, Witbeck said he flew down from his home in Lyons to help his brother prepare and take precautions.
The two weathered the storm hunkered down in an apartment. When winds ripped the roof of the apartment, the brothers moved into the bathroom, which they jokingly called “The Alamo,” with the last of their supplies.
The eye of the storm reached St. John around 2 p.m. Sept. 6, leaving the 20-square mile island in tatters.
“We knew things were going to be bad,” Witbeck said. “But as the storm progressed, we realized it was far worse than anything we imagined.”
The storm had knocked out the island’s power, destroyed homes and businesses and turned the lush picturesque landscape into what many reports described as a wasteland.
Recovery efforts to the already isolated island chain were further exacerbated when Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 hurricane, wiped out resupply routes in Puerto Rico.
Witbeck said he and his brother had no other option than to stick out the storm. As business owners with families dependent on the boat, they had to be there to starting putting their lives back together.
“I think the storm is only the beginning of an event like this for a boat owner,” he said.
Witbeck’s sister, Ashleigh Diaz, who helped build the boat, said she will hold a fundraising event at her place of work, 4Corners Riversports, from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 9, with a silent auction and beer donated by Ska Brewing Co.
Diaz said all proceeds will go to help her brothers repair Kekoa.
4Corners will host a “Photos with Santa!” event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, with proceeds going to hurricane relief on St. John.
“We’re hoping to pull together the boating community from one boating community to help another,” Diaz said.