Boise State student safe after surviving Hurricane Irma in Caribbean

Posted at 5:31 PM, Sep 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-11 19:31:50-04

Boise State University nursing student Mattie Gortat is safely back in Boise, after weathering Hurricane Irma as a Category 5 storm in the Caribbean islands, participating in a study abroad program in St. Thomas.

"It was just loud, scary, everything you think it would be - it was that," Mattie Gortat said with a laugh of relief. "It was a lot worse than we expected it to be. I don't think I've ever been more scared for my life."

Gortat found shelter with friends on the island, hiding out in a bathroom for most of the storm. After the worst passed, they ventured outside to find pure devastation. 

"Everything was just a mess, there were telephone poles on the ground, there were cars that were flipped over, animals running around," Gortat recalled.

And despite preparing for the storm by boarding up all windows, Mattie says several boards flew free during the storm.

To make matters worse, while surveying the damage outside, Mattie's friend Alex, a fellow exchange student from Canada, slipped and severely injured her face, requiring medical attention.

Since the hospital on the island was destroyed in the storm, the United States Coast Guard stepped in, flying the girls to safety in Puerto Rico. There, they met with reporters and producers from national news outlets who served as translators with hospital staff, lent the girls cell phones to contact their families and even offered Mattie a pair of shoes to put on her bare feet.

The whole ordeal - something Mattie calls a "life-changing experience".

"There were houses around us, all of their roofs came off," she said. "We were actually the only house in that area that kept our roof, so we're pretty thankful for that."