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West Michigan family experiences Hurricane Maria on St. Thomas, Puerto Rico

By Sarah Heth/The Holland Sentinel • Sep 27, 2017 at 4:00 PM

They watched it roll in, and with hurricane shutters in place and condos on either side of the one they were in, they were as prepared as they could be.

But when the winds came — “It was horrific,” said John Hoogeveen, originally from Hamilton, who was on the island of St. Thomas with his son, Blake, and a team of five more people when Hurricane Maria hit.

“If I wanted to use the word ‘scared,’ which I don’t — but it would have been the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he said.

“When that wind picked up, it sounded like there was a freight train going in the house. ... The whole house was shaking. The building was shaking,” he went on. “The roof sounded like it got ripped off. It sounded like there was a monster truck driving across the roof.”

Hoogeveen said he spent time laying on a bed, clutching his Bible, praying. His son, Blake, meanwhile, was sleeping on the floor.

“The kid slept through most of the hurricane. I don’t know how he did that, because it was loudest in the living room, and he was laying on the floor,” he said. “He woke up because he got wet. Water was coming in the house. Then he went to bed and fell back asleep again. That’s a 16-year-old kid for you.”

The group was in St. Thomas to help in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The place had been destroyed from that hurricane, and their group was helping with clean-up and handing out supplies with public safety officials.

They weren’t planning to get stranded on the island in the wake of a second hurricane, but that’s what happened.

The group is currently trying to find out any way to get off the island, while Hoogeveen’s wife, Jennifer, and two other children are in Puerto Rico, where the family lives and where they weathered Hurricane Maria in a closet.

“We spent 13 hours inside a walk-in closet with three dogs to ride out the storm,” she wrote to The Sentinel via Facebook message. “It was loud! We passed the time by playing card games, reading the Bible, Dallas (their daughter) played her guitar, etc.”

In the days following the storm, the two were unable to communicate, not knowing how the other had fared. Sunday, they were able to touch base for a few minutes, which was a relief.

“When I heard from Jennifer yesterday, it took a lot of relief off, because she was able to tell me everything that was going on on her end,” Hoogeveen said. “She’s good, she strong. I’m glad I have her.”

Power lines are down and cell service is minimal on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, and both islands have been heavily damaged by the hurricanes.

“There are people, they have been told to evacuate, but there’s nowhere for them to go. So a lot of them are literally still in their homes with the walls blown out (in St. Thomas),” John Hoogeveen said. “It looks like a nuclear bomb went off. There’s stuff everywhere. There’s no leaves on any of the trees. There’s no beauty here right now.”

The family is in Puerto Rico doing mission work, and he said Jennifer told him the community they often minister to is destroyed.

“According to Jennifer, what she told me is they went through there, and if there was anything wooden structure, it’s not there,” he said. “That whole community, everything is just torn up. Those were all poor people. They don’t have money.”

He said that means they won’t have the resources to bounce back like the rest of the island.

“The areas that we minister to are the areas that aren’t going to get help,” he said. “People are going to come down and get the infrastructure reset. They’re going to get power back. I’m not worried about any of that.”

John and Blake Hoogeveen have tickets to fly back to Michigan on Thursday, while Jennifer, Dallas and Bridger Hoogeveen have tickets to fly out Oct. 2.

However, nothing is certain, John Hoogeveen said.

“Right now, in these kinds of situations, everything is hearsay. It’s like from second and third parties,” he said. “We’re really unsure what is happening.”

So even though they have tickets, they’re not sure planes will even be flying, he said.

However they get back home to Michigan, though, he said this is not the end. They will return — and they plan to bring help.

“These people here are resilient. They are just hunkered down. They’re not leaving. They’re hurting,” he said. “The last thing that they need to see is the church leaving and not coming back. They need to see those of the church that are leaving that they’re coming back to bring help, and we’re not leaving you.”

He plans to organize trips to come back with skilled workers.

“We need help down here. The islands are broken. We’re gonna need help,” he added.

He said he sees hope in the catastrophe.

“I heard a song this morning, and the song was talking about — this isn’t the end of the story. It’s a new beginning, but it’s not the end of the story,” he said. “As hard as this has been and as emotional as it’s been, it’s really refreshing. God’s gonna do some cool stuff. I believe that his church is going raise up, and his church is going to bring God glory through their people.”

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