St. John Mom Who Survived Hurricane Irma Speaks Out: ‘The Smell of Death Is Overwhelming’

As Hurricane Irma rolled through some U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday, Sept. 6, one mom is sharing her terrifying experience — and it’s worse than you expect.

St. John resident Mary Anne Steele, her husband Karl Pytlik and their sons Arlo, 4, and Ezra, 2, checked into a local inn to ride out the storm after all flights off the island were booked.

Steele says they were in their room when a woman came to tell them guests were seeing rays of light coming in between the top of the concrete walls and the wooden roof. Moments after, the roof of their room blew completely off.

“It was the loudest, most terrifying noise I’ve ever heard. Wind and water were immediately swirling around the room,” the mom told PEOPLE. The parents grabbed their children and ran to the woman’s neighboring room, which still had a room.

“We threw the mattress and box springs against the wall. My husband threw the armoire on top of that, and we huddled underneath for the next two hours,” she said.

As the wind picked up and water began filling the room, Steele and Pytlik could tell the room was soon to break away. Pytlik ran out into the eyewall of the storm to find a safer place for the family to take cover. When he found a lower-level storage room, they grabbed the kids and ran until they reached the concrete-roofed space.

When the storm passed, the family grouped with other guests into the rooms that still had roofs for shelter. From here, Steele says the conditions only worsened.

hurricane irma family mary anne steele us virgin islands
(Photo: Mary Anne Steele / PEOPLE)

“The second night I thought I saw flashlights in the room next to me around 4 a.m. I found out the next day that it had been people starting to loot, who’d been run off the property,” she explained.

With fear of the conditions and the possibility of Hurricane Jose making its way toward them, the family headed to a friend’s house in Coral Bay that had a concrete bunker.

On the way, Steele recalls that “the smell of dead animals was already permeating the air.” She also says she didn’t see a single police officer or National Guard member on their travel to the house, despite it being past curfew.

When they arrived at the friend’s house, “we were met by our friends with crossbows in their hands, because we got there after dark and they didn’t know who we were,” she said. “But that is why we wanted to be there with them. There was protection.” Steele’s friends said they had witnessed cars being set on fire to distract police while others looted a neighboring area. “There is no cash available. Resources are the goal of looters, not assets like TVs or computers.”

Pitlyk revisited the family’s home, which Steele says “was completely destroyed.” Of the surrounding damage, she says, “We saw dead donkeys, chickens and turtles. The smell of death is overwhelming. Walking down centerline street you can’t recognize it — you don’t know where you are because there is no identifiable point of reference. Telephone poles were lifted out of ground and didn’t break but left holes in the ground. Many — if not most — wooden structures are gone or severally damaged. Tornados within the storm seem to be what did most of the destruction.”

On Saturday, Steele says she was able to climb to the top of a building to get enough cell reception to call her parents. They told her that her friend has come to St. John from St. Croix to find her and bring her to safety. She then called her friend and was able to take a boat that had come to deliver supplies back to St. Croix the following day. Steele fled the island with her two children, but her husband stayed behind to help clean up their neighborhood.

hurricane irma us virgin islands family mary anne steele
(Photo: Mary Anne Steele / People)

“When we arrived on St. Croix I was moved to tears at the efforts the Crucians are putting forth to help,” she said. “They are raising money, purchasing supplies and sending them over on private boats. The boats are bringing people back to St. Croix. The Virgin Islands family is amazing!”

As for federal assistance, Steele says, “There is aid coming in but all eyes are focused on Florida. We are Americans, too, and our islands are completely devastated.”

Still, Steele is confident in her homeland’s ability to push forward. “We will survive,” she said.