When Peter Richardson and his wife, Beth, bought a second home facing the ocean on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques two years ago, the prospect of confronting a hurricane seemed theoretical, at best.

But on Wednesday, as the Portland couple sat in a hotel room in San Juan, slowly losing utility services as winds driven by Hurricane Irma bore down on them, they wondered how their little property will fare – and when they will be able to leave Puerto Rico and return to Maine.

“We just came down for what was supposed to be a routine check on the house,” Peter Richardson, an investment adviser in Portland, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We’re pretty worried about it. The house is supposedly well built, and when they build things down here, they build them with hurricanes in mind. But we didn’t plan on one of the biggest hurricanes ever. It was all very theoretical until now.”

The couple spent some time in Vieques battening down their two-story rental property with the help of a management company, before taking on the next challenge: Finding transportation back to San Juan.

But leaving the tiny island eight miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland via commercial airlines proved impossible. The cramped, propeller-driven commuter planes that typically fly the short distances between Caribbean islands were all grounded by noon Tuesday.

“We were kind of stuck,” Richardson said. “We managed to get a chartered helicopter to come get us. My wife’s brother’s is a private pilot and fortunately he knew someone.”

Once in San Juan, the couple booked a room in the Vanderbilt Hotel, a designated FEMA site with a parking structure that doubles as a hurricane shelter.

Richardson said he could see the winds, rain and surf intensify from his hotel window.

The couple still had Wi-Fi internet service by about 3 p.m. Wednesday, but their cable had already gone out, and they expected more services to go soon as the winds pick up and Irma moves closer.

The city also has largely been shuttered as people evacuate or board up windows in preparation.

“Everything was shut down,” Richardson said. “I can look out the window and see boarded-up storefronts and windows. A number of other hotels have actually been shut down and evacuated. So we may actually tomorrow get people coming in from other hotels or people who need to be evacuated.”

Hotel staff told Richardson that they would be moved to the shelter by about 6 p.m., and that the storm will likely pass by Thursday morning. The couple’s flight out of Puerto Rico on Thursday already has been canceled, and he said it’s not clear when planes will be allowed to fly again.

Luckily, he said, the storm’s track seems to be turning north, which would mean San Juan – and Richardson’s rental property on Vieques – will not see a direct hit from the powerful, Category 5 winds near the center of the storm that have already reached 180 mph.

“They’re still talking about Category 3 or Category 4 level winds, which would be a significant storm anywhere,” he said.

Getting home will be the next challenge.

Carrye Gaulin is hoping she’ll have a home to return to.

Gaulin, 39, grew up in Brewer and lived in Freeport and Portland before moving to Islamorada in the Florida Keys about four years ago, working as a bartender in the popular vacation destination.

Tourists were ordered to leave Islamorada on Wednesday, with mandatory evacuations for residents scheduled to take effect Thursday. Gaulin and a friend decided not to wait, departing Key West on Wednesday to get to the mainland before Hurricane Irma arrived.

Gaulin, who lives over a gas station, gassed up her Kia SUV, packed her belongings and raced across the Overseas Highway, a mostly two-lane, 113-mile highway that connects the Keys with mainland Florida.

When she arrived on the mainland, she encountered traffic backups as thousands of Floridians evacuated in hopes of avoiding the storm.

“We’re going about 4 miles an hour,” Gaulin said Wednesday afternoon while stuck in traffic on the Florida Turnpike in Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale. “I’m really glad we left a little early. There is traffic, but it’s not a big deal.”

Before leaving her home, Gaulin said she went bar hopping. It gave her the opportunity to say goodbye to her friends.

“The people who live down here, they don’t leave for any reason, but this storm is different. They are leaving,” she said. “My greatest fear, to be honest, is this place going to be here when we come back?”

Gaulin planned to spend the night in Orlando. From there, she will monitor the direction of Irma before deciding whether to implement Plan B, heading north to Maine to stay with relatives.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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