By Steve Gilbert, Sentinel Staff - September 30, 2017
They thought they were in the clear. Hurricane Irma skipped just north of St. Croix in early September, plowing instead into St. John and St. Thomas.
"There was some nervousness," says Kristene Kelly, the athletic director at Keene State College and a native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where her family still lives. "Luckily, it shifted north. There was relief."
And then, two weeks later, St. Croix got creamed.
Right behind Irma came Maria, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. It barreled into St. Croix with 160 mph winds, a day before it pummeled Puerto Rico. The house Kelly grew up in was wrecked.
"We knew Mom's house wasn't strong enough to withstand such a powerful hurricane," Kelly says. "Seeing a picture of my house just broke me down."
Her mom's beloved garden — carefully tended and adorned with mango, lime, cherry and coconut trees — was decimated.
The challenges weren't only structural. Her 75-year-old mother was diagnosed with pneumonia and an enlarged heart the day before the hurricane hit.
Her two older sisters remain in St. Croix, where the power grid was shattered.
Generators, food and other emergency supplies are virtually nonexistent because of the islanders' own generosity. In the 14 days between hurricanes, the residents of St. Croix, population 50,000, mobilized a drive to help their Irma-struck neighbors to the north. They had no chance to restock before Maria came calling. "Everything was given to St. Thomas and St. John," Kelly says.
But everyone is safe, Kelly's mother was evacuated to Florida earlier this week for treatment, and her two sisters are helping with relief efforts on the island. Her oldest is principal of the high school, where 600 people, including her family, took shelter during the hurricane.
Kelly, 38, can only watch and listen from afar, having moved to Keene with her husband and son last year when she was named the college's athletic director.
She took over in April 2016 after turmoil in the department led to several firings and resignations, including longtime AD John Ratliff. Many Keene State coaches have raved about Kelly's oversight and enthusiasm, saying she has steadied what had been turbulent times.
As an 18-year-old, Kelly never expected to leave St. Croix. She was working at a Caribbean beach resort, making decent money. Her mother, Christine Braithwaite, confronted her one December morning in her senior year of high school.
"Where are you going to college?" Christine asked.
"I'm going to work at the resort," Kristene answered.
"No, you're not," Christine replied. "You're going to college."
And that was that. Kelly chuckles as she recalls the process that led her to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. A friend went there, so Kelly decided, "If I can get in, if it's not too far, and not too cold, I'll go."
She never stopped learning, earning two bachelor's degrees, a Master of Science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in performance and sport studies, and a doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala.
An outstanding athlete, she was captain of the softball team at Johnson C. Smith, and today is training to run the Richmond Marathon in Virginia, her first, on Nov. 11.
Kelly has been on a host of NCAA councils and has spoken at several leadership conferences. Her husband, Jonathan Kelly, is a full-time tutor at Keene Middle School; he played quarterback for Savannah State University in Georgia in the early 1990s. Her son, Jonathan Jr., is a freshman at Keene High.
She came to Keene State from St. Augustine University in Raleigh, N.C., where she was associate athletic director and senior woman administrator. She chuckles about the steady moves north from her native tropical climate. She even embraces snow.
"One thing I believe in is don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, go broaden your horizons," she says. "Vermont, California, I would have taken a job anywhere if it felt right. I'm not afraid to try different things."
As Hurricane Maria churned toward St. Croix, Kelly was in constant communication with her family. The island is in the path of the giants that form off Cape Verde in Africa, though the last major direct hit was Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Still, Maria was different. It was the third-most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded.
Kelly mailed her family four care packages ahead of the hurricane, which still haven't arrived.
Her mother lives alone — it's been rough on her since her father, Neville, died seven years ago, she says — but her sisters have houses nearby on the same plot. Genitta Richards, principal of the St. Croix Educational Complex high school, is oldest, and Andrea Brathwaite is the middle child.
They constantly texted and sent Facebook messages as the wind started to increase on the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 19. The day before, her sisters had rushed around the island to obtain medicine for their mother.
The hurricane's full fury hit about 11 p.m., the last time Kelly was able to make contact. She couldn't sleep the rest of the night, with the worst of it lasting until about 6 a.m. Kelly says she knew her loved ones were in the shelter and had heard the governor announce there had been no fatalities. They finally made contact about 36 hours later, her family walking around with their cellphones, seeking one measly bar.
Her mother was devastated, "in absolute shock," Kelly says, upon returning home. The roof was blown off the house, and though the walls are standing, it's a total loss. They lived in it for 42 years. One of her sister's houses suffered heavy flood damage; the other's may be OK.
And then there's the mangled garden, her mother's sanctuary. "That was her peace. It's gone, obliterated," Kelly says.
Because of her mother's illness, she was deemed an evacuation priority. On Monday, they finally got her on a flight to Atlanta, and she's since made it to Orlando, where a niece, who's a nurse practitioner, lives. Kelly says her mother is doing much better now that she's there.
It's too early to know what their next moves will be. The island still doesn't have power. Like Puerto Rico, with a crippled seaport and airport, help has been slow to arrive. The physical loss is compounded by the mental strain. Kelly doesn't know if her mother will be able to return.
Hurricane Hugo whacked St. Croix in 1989, when Kelly was still a child. Her parents were younger, stronger, determined to fix the damage and stay. Now, she says, "It's just really hard."