A Sterling Optical franchisee—with locations in St. Croix and St. Thomas—gives a firsthand account of living through a Cat 5 hurricane + its devastating aftermath
On Sept. 19, Category 5 Hurricane Maria battered the islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas with sustained winds of 175 mph, leaving the tropical paradise in the U.S. Virgin Islands crippled, damaged, and without power. Just two weeks earlier, the region had also been hit, though not directly, by Hurricane Irma.
On St. Croix alone, more than 70% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed by Maria, and much of the island remains without power even now, almost three months later.
When Maria hit, EB had been working on a story about the newly remodeled, 3,000-square-foot St. Croix location of a Sterling Optical franchisee. And so, our story turned into one of survival and recovery for Sterling franchisee President/CEO Joel Mahepath and his wife and business partner, Lisa Adams-Mahepath, O.D.
In 1997, the couple opened Sterling Optical in St. Croix, a location that has consistently been the No. 3 or No. 4 store in the Sterling franchise system for revenue. They opened a second franchise in St. Thomas in 1999.
And, right before the epic storm, the Mahepaths had just cut the ribbon on their newly remodeled store in St. Croix, complete with a crystal chandelier they installed to light up the eyes of the kids on the island. Here, we check in with Joel, who shares his story, after the storm.
Eyecare Business: How did your stores fare in the two hurricanes?
Joel Mahepath: The St. Croix Sterling location survived two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, structurally unscathed, and so did our St. Thomas location. We were extremely blessed!
eb: Are your stores currently open for business?
jm: Our St. Croix location reopened Sept. 27 with limited hours of noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The St. Thomas location reopened Oct. 7 with limited hours of operation from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. We are providing complete service as normal, but with limited hours.
eb: Do you have electricity to run your lights, exam equipment, etc.?
jm: Doing business is very challenging. Since only 15% of St. Croix has power, we have not yet been powered up, hence the limited hours of operation. We have been operating on generator power since the storm. We do not expect to have power until late December or early January 2018.
We did not have Internet service until Oct. 11. Initially, the only form of payment we could accept was cash.
With the reconnection of the Internet through satellite, we were able to connect with our credit card processor on Oct. 13—this has greatly accelerated our business.
eb: What was it like living through the hurricane?
jm: The governor of the Virgin Islands declared a state of emergency on Sept. 18 with a 24-hour curfew imposed to commence at one minute after midnight. The next day seemed to be a normal day early in the morning and into the early evening.
At about 9 p.m. the winds seemed to be getting a bit strong, with the intensity increasing very rapidly by the minute.
By midnight it was quite intense. The winds were howling and whistling with a loud screech. The shutters were rattling.
I was keeping track of the storm speaking to my sister in New York, our older daughters in North Carolina and Florida, and our son in college at the University of Delaware. At 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 20 we lost all communication.
The winds continued howling and whistling, you could smell the scent of cut grass. Maria was destroying everything.
The water was now being forced through the shutters, windows, and wall. It would be no use trying to mop it up, so we rolled up the rugs in the living room and dining room. The rain continued to pierce its way through everything.
We could hear a tree that was close to the bedroom shutter crashing against it like a whip every two minutes. “This should stop by 3:30 a.m.,” we thought. “Only two more hours to go.” I thought, “Please, God, keep the roof in place.”
The winds grew even stronger and 3:30 a.m. finally came, but there was no letting up. Finally, at about 4:30 a.m., I fell asleep. I got up at 8 a.m. The roof was still on.
The first peek outside showed uprooted and destroyed trees, and lots of physical damage to properties—the scene was quite apocalyptic.
We started cleaning at about 8:30 a.m., and when we stopped it was 7:30 p.m.—we were exhausted. There was no power. No communication.
We cleaned the next day also and then went out to observe the rest of the island. The scene was quite devastating.
Every day immediately after the storm, one would be on a hunt for food and water, ice, gasoline for the generator, and any other items needed for survival—all of which had to be obtained in the four hours allowed by the curfew.
eb: How are you surviving in business with the after-effects of the hurricane?
jm: With the landline network destroyed, we have tried to use a cellular-based phone system. However, 70% of the cell towers were also destroyed! So even though we have a phone system, connectivity is horrible at best. This has not hampered our business, since patients just come by on their own anyway. Today (Nov. 8), we saw 17 patients in five hours of operation, including a relief linesman worker from Maine.
By being present in our new, intact facility, we are meeting the needs of our community. We continue to see patients on the Medical Assistance Program as well as our regular patients.
—Erinn Morgan + Jackie Micucci