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Coast native who survived Katrina was in the eye of Hurricane Irma, friends say

This Sept. 6 photo shows storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in St. Martin. Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving thousands homeless and tourists stranded. Significant damage was reported on the island known as St. Martin in English which is divided between French Saint-Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten. Gulfport native Jason Hill rode through the storm with 100 guests and 50 employees at Casino Royale, and he was rescued from the island on Tuesday, a week after the storm.
This Sept. 6 photo shows storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in St. Martin. Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving thousands homeless and tourists stranded. Significant damage was reported on the island known as St. Martin in English which is divided between French Saint-Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten. Gulfport native Jason Hill rode through the storm with 100 guests and 50 employees at Casino Royale, and he was rescued from the island on Tuesday, a week after the storm. AP

Justin Hill made it through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now, the Gulfport native is on his way back to the states after surviving near deadly winds as Hurricane Irma destroyed the casino resort where he was working on the island of St. Maarten.

Hill posted on social media Tuesday that he was just rescued by the Kentucky National Guard on a C-130 military plane. Last week the hurricane came right over the Caribbean island where Hill and about 100 guests and 50 staff members were holed up in the ballroom of the Casino Royale: St. Martin/St. Maarten, said his friend Kevin Parker.

“I've been so concerned about him,” Parker said.

Media reports say most of the island is destroyed and all the food and water were gone.

Hill posted on social media after he and the others landed safely in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A banker in Puerto Rico met Hill, Parker said, and took him to his office so he could get a shower and food.

Hill thanked everyone for the thoughts and prayers that helped him through the ordeal via Facebook.

Hill said he was thankful to be alive and well and was headed to Colorado to visit his brother, Ryan Hill, and get some rest.

The brothers grew up in Gulfport and their parents, Royce and Barbara Hill, live in the city.

Before and after pictures show the casino resort before and after Irma tore through. “It totally devastated their property,” Parker said.

The company posted on its website that due to the damages, all three Sonesta resorts in St. Maarten are closed until further notice.

Rich Westfall, now vice president of business development and marketing at Charter Bank, hadn’t heard about Hill being in the eye of the storm and his rescue.

“Justin has to be one of the greatest guys I know,” said Westfall, who hired Hill at the Isle of Capri Resort Biloxi in 1995 as a regional sales manager. Hill had been director of sales and catering at two Holiday Inn properties in Gulfport, according to a report in the Sun Herald, before joining the Isle. In 2005, the year Katrina hit Biloxi, Hill was named director of marketing at the Isle of Capri.

He went on to be the marketing director of Sandestin Resort in Florida, Westfall said, before returning to South Mississippi as director of player development at Hard Rock Casino Biloxi.

Parker said Hill was offered the job of director of casino marketing and player development at Casino Royale about two years ago. He and others in management at Sonesta were responsible for the casino guests and staff surviving the hurricane.

Westfall said his friend is a clear thinker and doesn’t overreact to a situation. “That’s kind of hero stuff there,” Westfall said. “Justin is a guy who could do that.”

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_

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