When more than 700 students and staff from an American university in the Caribbean were unexpectedly relocated to the small English city of Preston in October, they may as well have been moving to another planet.
St Martin, a small Caribbean island just south of Antigua, is about as far from Preston, Lancashire, as you could imagine, and not just because 4,000 miles of ocean lies between them.
The American University of the Caribbean is based in the south of the island, in the Dutch territory Sint Maarten. It’s a tropical beach paradise where the sea glistens with year-round sunshine by day and the streets sparkle with frenzied nightlife after dark. Fresh fish fill the hundreds of restaurants scattered around its beachy edges.
Preston, once the heart of the UK’s now largely defunct textile industry, lies in the North West of England. It regularly sees a handful of tourists with a taste for brutalist architecture mingle with the pensioners and schoolkids at the city’s concrete bus station, although you'd be wise to bring an umbrella there since around a metre of rain falls on the city every year. Its best-known dish is “butter pie”, a potato, onion, and pastry concoction originally cooked up to feed Catholics on a Friday when they were avoiding meat.
St Martin was one of the hardest-hit islands when the 185 mph winds of Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean in September, flattening communities and killing 134 people. As a result, hundreds of trainee doctors who were studying there ended up in Preston, where they are continuing their studies at the University of Central Lancashire, or UCLan.
Grey, drizzling clouds hung over the grand Victorian railway station, where a traditional pie stall stands alongside a more recently introduced Starbucks, when BuzzFeed News arrived in Preston for a Thanksgiving dinner put on by UCLan for displaced students. We spoke to some of the trainee doctors settling into life in the old industrial north over a traditional American feast of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and pecan pie.
Back in September, when AUC students prepared to return to school after the summer break, hurricanes were the last thing on their minds. They were more concerned with settling into their apartments and soaking up as much sun as they could before another gruelling stint of studies than they were about the possibility of a deadly storm.
“I had to take two flights to get there, so I was already exhausted and my hair was frizzing up in the humidity,” Madhura Mahapatra, a first-year medical student at AUC from Chicago, told BuzzFeed News. She was wearing a thick wool tartan scarf and heavy boots, and said she loves St Martin’s sticky climate. “The fact that we could go to the beach to tan or celebrate post exams was one of the coolest things.”
She had been aware of the risks of hurricane season, but as Irma began to make its initial approach, she shrugged off her parents’ concerns about her returning to the island. “I kept telling them, 'No, it’s fine, others are overreacting by cancelling their tickets. I’m just going to fly out, I don’t want to miss class.'”
She speaks with a calm confidence that will no doubt prove invaluable to her as a doctor one day. “My parents know that I have a good head on my shoulders and don’t tend to panic, so they were like, ‘If you say so, we trust you,’” she said.
Even when she found out before setting off from Chicago that the first couple of days of classes would be cancelled, Mahapatra was unperturbed.
“I ended up flying, and the stewardess was like, ‘Oh, you’re flying in? You guys are brave souls,’” she said.
When the university summoned students and staff to shelter for a few days in AUC’s auditorium, built to withstand a category 5 hurricane, many still saw it as little more than a precaution.
“I thought, ‘How do you pack for a hurricane?’” Mahapatra said. “I have a Keurig machine – I was thinking, Do I bring that if I want coffee? Do I pack sandwiches?
“The weather was still fine, it was beautiful sunny skies, so we were like, ‘Eh, it’s probably not even going to happen.’”
Mahapatra wondered if mentally dissociating herself from danger was her way of coping. “I like to downplay a lot of things,” she said. “I guess I just didn’t understand the reality of it.”
Rahul Patel, who grew up in Illinois and studied in San Diego before arriving at AUC two semesters ago, had felt equally detached from the possibility of danger. “When I originally started at AUC, people told me, ‘Watch out for the hurricanes!’, but you never really processed it,” he said.
Despite his parents’ protestations, Patel “didn’t think twice” about returning to the island for school, especially as the hurricane was initially predicted to be far less severe than it ended up being. “I just thought if it comes we’ll all leave, or it won’t be that bad,” he said, later noting that the students at AUC were in a much more privileged position than those who live on the island permanently. “You never think it will be that bad until you see what it can do.”
When warnings emerged on the Sunday before the hurricane hit that it was likely to be a category 5, Patel and his friends were among the many who tried and failed to get off the island. “Immediately we all went to the airport and were looking online to get flights – we didn’t think we’d make it through the hurricane,” he said. “It was too late. Everything was booked, and then everything got cancelled, and anyway, if you wanted to fly to New York it was several thousand dollars. You can’t just pay that.”
Rushing back to AUC’s shelter, Patel began to understand the severity of the situation. “It was scary. At this point they were saying it was going to be the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic that they’d ever seen, and we’re in one building that’s supposed to be safe for category 5, but they also said that the strongest it had ever experienced was category 4 so they were kind of testing it.”
Mahapatra described the shelter, where hundreds of students, AUC staff, and some local residents took cover, as a “huge chaos of humans and pets” when she arrived. Many brought their families and friends along with them, and AUC also offered shelter to a few local residents who arrived as the storm began to draw closer, gaining strength. But it was only when Irma fully descended on the island in the early hours of the Wednesday morning, whirring at the windows almost two days after they initially shuttered in, that fear finally kicked in for her.
“It started raining and the clouds were an ominous purply black colour,” Mahapatra remembered. “At 4.15am the storm hit. I was sleeping and there was this quiet mumbling.”
As the torrential rain and thundering wind swirled outside the reinforced auditorium, before suddenly quieting as the eye of the storm passed over, a sense of panic began to spread. “I went to the door and took a video of the actual eye and it was silent,” Mahapatra said. “It was almost too eerie of a silence, where you’re just sitting there waiting for it to hit us again.”
Outside the window Mahapatra remembers seeing the usually manicured grounds of AUC shrouded in thick wet darkness. “It was like this unwavering fog that sits and looms over you,” she said. Some students had decided to stay in their accommodation during the hurricane and ran to the auditorium in fear when the eye of the storm arrived.
“Their ceilings were sunk in, water was everywhere, and they were just panicking. There was a girl who came in who was just hyperventilating and having a panic attack.”
As the storm started up again, the shelter was tested to its limits. “There was water that started seeping in from one of the doors, and they said, 'This is the only door that’s not going to last very long, so it might blow and we might get sucked into 225 mph wind,'” Mahapatra said. “I was just like, I’m 10 feet away from this door, am I going to be OK?”
She said the experience was a reminder that even if her Sint Maarten apartment was damaged, she was lucky to have another home in the US. “You really had to sit there and think about all the things you take for granted on a daily basis.”
“This building was built for a category 5 so it gave us confidence of it holding out,” said Jacob Kulyn, a Californian second-year medical student at AUC. “But people on that island were in normal homes that have just vanished, gone.”
While at the shelter, Kulyn, keen to use his expertise in the aftermath of the storm, joined a group of people with practical medical experience, including parents who were physicians and had not yet returned home after dropping students back after summer break, as they coordinated efforts to help the injured when the storm passed.
“I knew if the hurricane hit I wanted to stay on the island to help out in whatever capacity I could,” he said, adding that he’d worked as emergency medical technician before beginning his training to be a doctor at AUC.
“As soon as we saw the path coming towards us directly the night before, we knew it was going to be bad and we knew people were probably going to be injured. You could hear trees and cars flying by because the wind speed was 185 mph, with gusts up to 220."
After the storm the team of volunteers went outside and helped whoever they could.
“Some people had mangled, broken hands and needed sutures, so we assisted with that,” Kulyn said. “On one particular night we dragged a 300-pound unconscious lady out of a hotel that had lost power. She was a diabetic and had no drugs, so we ended up dragging her back to the school and the doctors there took care of her."
Many people who weren’t harmed by the storm itself were injured by the wreckage. “People were stepping on a nail or touching glass,” Kulyn said. “When you’ve got one power generator, and the water’s not running, there’s risk of infection. You get a splinter and all of a sudden it becomes a big deal.”
There were around 700 people in AUC’s shelter after those who had lost homes, or needed treatment for injuries, began to arrive, joining the students and staff who were already there with friends and family. “We eventually became a big welfare operation in the course of the four days we were there.”
After the hurricane, most of St Martin was devastated, and many who lived there have lost everything, including their homes.
“There were palm trees, and then there weren’t,” Mahapatra said. “There were lampposts and then there weren’t. There were buildings and then there weren’t. Cars had smashed upside down into other cars. It just looked like a zombie apocalypse.”
Two people died on the Dutch side of the island, according to the government of Sint Maarten, and the damage is estimated to be $1,8 billion.
Soldiers patrolled the streets of Sint Maarten to help counter the possibility of lawlessness as food supplies rapidly dwindled.
“In a state of panic and martial law, people can change,” Kulyn said. “People were looking to defend themselves if they needed to. It was a little bit scary, but as long as everyone went along their own way it was OK.”
The students joined tourists and foreign nationals who were evacuated in the days immediately after the storm on military planes via nearby Puerto Rico.
Again, they had been fortunate. Following the storm, commercial flights were limited and often expensive, plus the cost of relocating forced many local people to stay, regardless of whether their home survived the storm. Patel recalled a sense of guilt at knowing he was in a much better position than those who had lived on the island for much longer than him and his fellow students.
“We knew we were going to be rescued, and we’re spoiled, so we think, OK, when,” he said. “But the people on the island knew they were never going to be rescued.”
Emmalexis Velasquez, a press officer for the local government in Sint Maarten, told the New Yorker magazine of her frustration as she watched foreign nationals be evacuated by their home countries, while local waited for help.
“By day two or day three, after the storm, [the radio said] all this aid was coming, but then night comes, and days go by, but there is still no aid,” she said. “You can hear the helicopter, and you saw the helicopters, and maybe you saw one or two marine ships, but you’re not seeing any soldiers coming to your door, like, ‘Hello, hello! Is anyone here?’”
The AUC students either travelled to Chicago, where the university also has a base, or returned to family homes across the country while they awaited news of what would happen next.
“The first thing I did was just shower and just go to my bed and just lay there,” Mahapatra said. “I have never been more grateful to just sleep in my own bed.”
Much of their university was intact, having been built to withstand even a hurricane as severe as Irma, but with communication, electricity, water, and travel still highly restricted on the island, staff decided returning immediately wasn’t an option.
“I said to Dr Julie Taylor, who’s my second in command, 'Go find us somewhere else to have medical school!'” Dr Heidi Chumley, executive dean of AUC, told us. “We started looking to the entire world.”
AUC has many connections with health services globally, and works with eight hospital trusts in the UK, including the East Lancashire Hospital Trust – a clinical partner of UCLan.
“Very quickly UCLan raised their hand and said they would like to help us, which was unbelievably amazing,” Chumley said.
Lisa Banks, director of student services at UCLan, had just finished welcoming thousands of new permanent undergraduates when she received word that she would need to find emergency housing and transport to 700 AUC students and staff as well as their accompanying families in some cases.
“I got an email on our welcome Sunday saying, 'Do you think you could find room for 900 people in Preston next week?'” Banks told us. “I think I laughed – like, no, someone’s kidding, you’re joking.”
When Banks realised the request was entirely serious, her project management skills went into full swing. “My first thought was, Right, let’s get a pen out and do a to-do list,” she said.
Her already exhausted staff were more than happy to help with the task of transporting and housing students, as well as making any specialist arrangements for the health conditions some had, or finding local school places for those bringing kids.
Banks managed to broker a deal with a local property developer with newly built, unfilled private student accommodation available, allowing the university to offer the students an affordable place where they could all live together. This was a relief to many students who had feared high rental costs in London when the UK was originally mooted as a temporary location for their studies, Chumley said.
For students and staff who brought families with them, and for whom student accommodation would have been unsuitable, Banks was able to find individual houses near the university in Preston city centre.
Chumley said students cheered when they were told they would be going to the UK, despite only having a few days' notice.
“For me I felt like they could take me anywhere as long as I can continue my education, because if you take a semester off, that can look really bad years down the road,” Patel said.
Nine days after UCLan offered itself as a temporary home to AUC’s medical school, the students flew over.
“It was a big challenge, but UCLan staff are just fantastic, they’re so friendly – and if you give them a challenge like that, rescuing people who’ve been displaced in a hurricane, they just all stepped up,” Banks said. “I think that’s why so many people stepped up to help, because it was something they could actually do rather than watch it on the telly wondering what they could do.”
AUC now shares Preston’s teaching rooms and equipment, running its own timetable during evenings and weekends when UCLan facilities are not already being used.
AUC had worked to secure temporary working visas for its staff, but many of them initially had to teach their new classes in Lancashire over a video link as they waited for them to come through.
Students told us they were immensely grateful for the way UCLan and AUC handled the transition, especially after such a traumatic experience.
“We were really shocked that there was a university out there so far through the semester who would take us,” said Stanley Tsui, who had just entered his first semester at AUC. “We’re super thankful we’re even given this opportunity.”
But Banks admitted it hadn’t always felt as though things would run so smoothly. “Security made me a badge at the time that said ‘Lisa Banks winging it’,” she laughed.
A relatively smooth transition or otherwise, moving from the Caribbean to the damp North West of England would likely prove a shock to the system for anyone.
Many had to buy thick winter coats when they arrived. “Coming from a sunny Caribbean island to all of a sudden maybe only getting a peek of the sun every day struck us most,” Tsui said. Originally from San Francisco, he completed his undergraduate degree in Los Angeles prior to arriving at AUC. “We’re just not used to it,” he laughed. “It’s dark here!”
Mahapatra said she had travelled around much of Europe before, but not to the UK, and expected to find “yellow wellies, grey skies, and umbrellas” when she arrived at UCLan. Nonetheless she’s found Preston charming, 4.30pm sunsets and all. “I think it has a sort of bleak romance,” she said. “It’s a little bit dirtier than I expected, but it’s got a strange sort of quaint character to it.”
Kulyn imagined to be something like he’d seen onscreen in Sherlock Holmes films. “That’s what I was picturing, I just didn’t know,” he said. Preston hasn’t been quite what he expected, but he’s found the locals “super welcoming” and has even begun to adapt to the nuances of Britain. “I’ve started saying 'pub' and ‘bloody hell'!”
Patel was a little more clued up on the UK, having visited family in London most Christmases and spent some of his undergraduate years at the University of Edinburgh. Still, Preston wasn’t without its surprises, in particular Brits’ penchant for curry. “There’s so much Indian food here – I saw it on pizza, I saw it in Subway,” he said. “I’m like, that’s awesome!”
The students spoke of their deep gratitude to the people of Preston who had made them feel welcome since they arrived, not least at a civic reception put on for them at Preston Guild Hall. “We hope they enjoy their time in our city,” said Preston's mayor, Councillor Brian Rollo. The AUC and UCLan student unions have teamed up to fundraise for school supplies to be sent to Sint Maarten. The Thanksgiving dinner BuzzFeed News visited was a tradition at the university in Sint Maarten that staff were determined to hold in the UK too.
All AUC’s students are scheduled to return to Sint Maarten in 2018, in either January or May. Some are nervous: “I used to study in the auditorium where we sheltered because it’s open 24 hours,” Mahapatra said. “Just sitting there, and the sights, the smells, the sounds – I don’t know if I’ll be able to sit there and fully concentrate and study the same way.”
Patel also admitted to feeling a little anxious. “It’s like, is there going to be another hurricane? You just don’t want to be around water so soon, you know?”
But all four students we met were eager to return. Almost three months after Irma, some businesses are beginning to reopen, although the island’s infrastructure remains fractured despite local efforts to rebuild a place that previously attracted around 2 million tourists a year.
Having made the island their home before being uprooted to England, they feel they owe it to the community that had welcomed them to return and help with relief efforts.
“They’ve done everything, they’ve fed us, provided discounts for us with their businesses, they’ve allowed us to stay in their apartments – now it’s like, we can’t just leave them,” Tsui said. “You have to go home. They’re like our family now, so I think it’s a good thing that we get to go back now, because we can help as much as possible while we study.”
A sense of helplessness as he left Sint Maarten also factors strongly in Tsui’s keenness to return. “Even if you did help, there wasn’t much that you could do,” he said. “We donated all our food as we left, and whatever we had in our houses, but that was the extent of the help we could offer as students.
“I know that when we go back we’ll do as much as we can to help the community. Now they need us more than ever, so it’s our duty.”