Journey 2019: MacNealy-Gonzales talks living in the Virgin Islands, being affected by two Category 5 hurricanesBy BRYAN DAVIS PUBLISHER,
Brittany MacNealy-Gonzales always wanted to live on the beach.
More specifically, she always wanted to live on an island, but by the time she entered her late twenties, the Inverness native was living in Nashville working for a nonprofit.
It just so happened that her future husband, Robert Gonzales, was living in the Music City as well at the time, though their paths would not cross until a year-and-a-half after Brittany finally made the bold decision to leave her job and move to the United States Virgin Islands.
“My first year in Nashville, the apartment I lived in was around the corner from his condo,” she said. “So we actually lived right around the corner from each other and probably were behind each other on the way to work everyday.”
The couple would eventually meet, marry and open a vacation rental business on the island of St. John, and like most of the rest of the island, it was devastated in September 2017 by Hurricane Irma.
Two weeks after the Category 5 Irma, another Category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria brought torrential rains to St. John.
Good fortune has smiled upon the couple since those storms hit the island, and they are back in business and still living the dream, running Island Abodes, their vacation resort.
Brittany had visited beaches for most of her life. Each year, she said her mother would take her and her friends to Destin.
“I would always say, ‘I’m going to live here someday. I want to live on the beach,’” she said.
The dream lived on, but as life often goes, the reality of work and advancing a career took precedent. That is until she received a great piece of advice from her boss in Nashville.
The head of the nonprofit where Brittany worked was leaving her post, and she approached her one day about her dream.“She said, ‘Wen are you going to move to that island like you always said you were?,’” Brittany said.
Her response more or less kicked the decision down the road until her 30th birthday, but her boss was not taking no for an answer.
“She said, ‘If you don’t do it now, you may never do it,’” Brittany said.
She soon began doing research on islands and discovered that the Virgin Islands were owned by the United States, which meant that she would not have to fill out a visa application.
It came down to St. John and Maui, and she would eventually choose St. John.
She drove her car to Florida, put it on a boat and flew to the island to live.
After two weeks of job searching, she was offered the position of activities director at the Westin resort.
Over a year later, Robert, who had been a business attorney in Nashville, moved to the island and became friends with the man who was dating Brittany’s roommate at the time.
“A whole group of us went out to eat, and I met him the first week he moved here,” she said. “We just kind of hit it off and got married three years later.”
She was happily married and living on an island paradise, but Brittany had not been happy with her job for some time.
That’s when the couple began looking into starting their own business on the destination island.
“We researched different businesses, and we decided we could open up a vacation resort,” she said. “We bought our first property. It needed a little bit of work, but we turned it into a vacation home.”
They bought another property soon after that, and before long, their business was a success, and their rentals were a smash hit with guests.
Then Came Irma
Things were going well for the island couple in the weeks leading into the fall of 2017.
They had just welcomed their son RJ into the world eight weeks earlier, and business was booming at Island Abodes, when a massive storm, Hurricane Irma, was on a direct course for St. John.
Brittany’s mother was actually visiting the family on the island at the time, and they had to make the decision whether to stay and weather the storm or flee to another island to catch a flight back to the States.
“You can’t get in the car and go anywhere,” she said. “Also, you can’t drive to the airport. We don’t have an airport on our island. You have to take a ferry boat to another island to get on an airplane.”
They booked a room at the Westin, but Brittany and her mother soon made the decision to take RJ and get on a ferry and catch a flight back to Mississippi.
Robert and the family dog, Morgan, stayed behind, where they rode out the storm in a basement apartment.
At some point, she knew that communication was going to be cut, and the couple would not be able to contact one another for some time.
“I knew I wasn’t going to know whether my husband was dead or alive,” Brittany said. “I had no idea if I was going to see him again.”
While many of their friends gathered in groups to ride out the hurricane, Robert decided to stay in the apartment alone, with the dog.
“He wanted to be alone, and he wanted to be on our property,” Brittany said. “He wasn’t with anyone else. All of my friends who stayed were with groups of people. He got a book and he sat in that bathroom with our dog.”
The two Facetimed one last time before the storm hit the island.
When Robert emerged from the basement after the storm had hit, there was no greenery left on St. John, where two-thirds of the island is national park.
The Federal government did not arrivefor five days after Irma made landfall, Brittany said, and when the islands were faced with a second storm, Hurricane Maria, coming in their direction, government workers left the island.
“When they saw that another storm was coming, they all left,” she said. “They all got back on the boat, because they didn’t want to put people in danger. They were also trying to get as many people off the island as possible, so cruise ships actually came and evacuated people.”
Help From Mississippi Friends
A few days after the storm hit, Brittany said that she began getting text messages from Robert.
Relieved that he made it through the storm, she was able to contact a childhood friend, Dusty Simpson from Isola who was living on a nearby island.
She was able to wire money to him, and he loaded up a cooler of supplies for Robert and took them to St. John.
The permanent population on St. John is around 4,000, and it is made up of people of diverse backgrounds.
Brittany said there are many millionaires and billionaires on the island, so when it came time to rebuild, the more wealthy residents were able to secure most of the contractors first.
Immediately after the storm, Brittany and Robert moved their family to Inverness, and they were facing having to leave Island Abodes and their life on St. John behind.
Multiple properties they owned had sustained heavy roof damage, and initial thoughts were that it would take at least a year for power to be restored.
Thanks to the help of stateside companies like Joplin, Missouri-based BBC Electric, power was restored to Island Abodes in just three months.
The couple went back to check on the property in December, and that is when Brittany and Robert made the decision to not let the dream die and to revive Island Abodes.
“We said, ‘We can’t give up the dream,’” Brittany said. “We had to go back, and we had to put our stuff back together.”
Brittany opened the calendar on Island Abodes’ website for bookings, and within four hours, the resort was booked for several days in February.
“That’s what did it for us,” Brittany said.
With renewed motivation, they moved into the very basement apartment that Robert rode out the storm in, and they began to rebuild.
Brittany’s brother just happened to be in the National Guard with a roofer named Johnny Goodman. They brought Goodman to St. John, and he was able to determine what they needed to get the resort back in order.
They went back to the States and filled up shipping containers with supplies and shipped them from Inverness to St. John.
Goodman was on the island for two months, and his crew had the resort ready for occupants by the February bookings.
“So many people were like, “How in the world did y’all get your roof on so quickly, and how in the world did y’all get those people to come down here?,’” Brittany said. “Everyone was trying to find people to work for them. We got people from Mississippi, and it worked out great for us.”
For the Gonzales family, things are slowly getting back to normal, though life on the island has forever been changed.
Not only are the beaches a little less shaded, but the economy as a whole has changed.
Before Irma, Brittany said the biggest economic driver was tourism, but now construction is the biggest money maker.
But none of that has affected Island Abodes, which is still one of the more popular destinations on St. John.