Every now and then, storms crash into peoples’ lives.
For Natalie Luksan, the 86th Airlift Wing’s Airman Ministry Center director, one storm came into her life quite literally.
Luksan is in charge of Club 7, the 86th AW’s brand name for the Airman Ministry Center. She comes up with many creative ideas to support the morale of Ramstein’s Airmen and teaches them a variety of resiliency tools when for life gets tough.
Last year, however, it was Luksan who needed these tools to survive one of the most trying chapters of her life.
The chapel employee was enjoying a holiday in the U.S. Virgin Islands with her mother and friend. Before the trio knew it, Hurricane Irma barreled toward the island and darkened skies above them.
Luksan recalled that all the weather reports she saw forecasted Irma going north — away from her group’s destination of St. Thomas Island. The storm however dove south and slammed the exact location where they were staying. “The magnitude of Hurricane Irma’s power was astounding,” Luksan added.
“St. Thomas took a direct hit from a Category five hurricane just outside of the eye wall, which is the last place you want to be,” she said. “One reporter said that it was a Category 5 storm only because Category 6 does not exist.”
The three vacationers hunkered down as Hurricane Irma unleashed its wrath on the small island.
Luksan described what she witnessed in vivid detail: trees bending and snapping in half, debris flying all over and slamming into buildings, the endless flow of waves smashing onto the shore, and the incessant howls of the roaring wind.
“The worst sound was when the storm tripped the fire alarm,” Luksan said. “For approximately six hours we had the alarm blaring in our villa at top volume. There was no escape from that horrible, painful noise. A couple of us used ear plugs and another held a pillow over her head.”
The storm seemed to isolate Luksan, her mother, and her friend from the outside world. The three huddled together and did their best to keep their spirits up by talking, laughing, and praying. Whenever there was Wi-Fi signal, Luksan checked her social media feed for news and posted status updates for her friends.
That was when Luksan and her group knew they weren’t alone, even in the midst of a violent tempest.
“I was posting updates for as long as I could before the power and internet went out,” Luksan said. “You would not believe the incredible outpouring of kind words and prayers from my Club 7 Airmen. It is so wonderful to have such a great family atmosphere here at Club 7!”
One of the Airmen who sent her messages of encouragement was Airman 1st Class Christian Ayala, who served as Club 7 President at the time.
“I told Natalie we were praying for her and that we couldn’t wait to have her back safe,” Ayala said. “I promised her that I had Club 7 taken care of while she’s on leave.”
Ayala expressed his gratitude for having Luksan as a mentor. He said that because of Luksan, Club 7 is not simply another military-funded organization — it is a true family where Airmen can express themselves, take care of each other, and grow together.
“The mentorship she provides for us is amazing,” Ayala said. “She shares with us plenty of learning experiences, and shows us how to overcome our challenges in life. Most of all, she teaches us to support and care for each other. Since being at Club 7, I witnessed many new Airmen grow and build their networks. Natalie brings great joy and character to the club. It wouldn’t be the same without her.”
Back at St. Thomas, the storm finally passed — leaving a stunning trail of destruction in its wake. Luksan recalled seeing the island littered with debris, trees and parts of trees lying everywhere, windows blown out, poles toppled, and vehicles scattered all over the place.
Luksan and the others went out to buy supplies and discovered that even just searching for an open business was an expedition in itself. They eventually found a store which was still boarded up but open.
“The sheer amount of devastation that we saw driving around was heart-wrenching,” Luksan recounted. “We had to drive slowly and carefully as we had to drive over, under, and around endless amounts of downed telephone poles and power lines. Every building we passed in town had major damage … even stone trash cans were blown over.”
The three knew they had to find a way to leave St. Thomas, which would be a challenge since the island’s transportation infrastructure suffered significant damage.
“The airport received such severe damage that they did not expect to be able to reopen it for at least six months, which meant that flying guests out was not an option,” Luksan explained.
News reports from the U.S. concurred with Luksan’s account of the destruction on St. Thomas. According to the reports, Irma damaged structures which were already up to building standards and rendered the island’s 911 emergency system inoperable.
The executives for the hotel where Luksan and her group stayed contacted government officials who arranged for a ship to transport them from St. Thomas to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They made it out of Puerto Rico in time to escape Hurricane Maria. Luksan and her mother spent a few more days in the U.S. before Luksan said goodbye to her mother and returned to Germany.
It has been more than one year since her odyssey, but Luksan said she will never forget her experience and uses her memories to train the Airmen she mentors.
Luksan said out of the misadventure, she gained tools she uses to stay strong every day and shares them with others. She helps people find new ways to bounce back when times get rough.
“They key is to stay resilient,” she said. “Practice positive thinking, remain calm, find logical solutions to your problems, and be flexible. Resilient people do not dwell on failure, but rather acknowledge the situation, learn from mistakes, and move forward.”