Paradise turned to hell when Hurricane Irma came calling. Brianna Hirsch will never forget the sound. “Before it happened, I couldn’t picture total devastation,” she explains. “I couldn’t imagine what 200-mile-an-hour winds would sound and look like. It was definitely one of the scariest days of my life.” She rode out the Cat-5 blaster inside Sir Richard Branson’s wine cellar on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. “We went outside in the still of the eye of the storm. There was almost nothing left, and we knew only half of it had passed—there was still more to come. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Brianna had lived on Necker for several years while teaching water sports. Five harrowing days after Irma passed, rescue crews evacuated the instructor and the rest of the staff. The 27-year-old eventually landed in The Abacos, where she again worked with guests on the ocean . . . until Hurricane Dorian delivered a punch that left her reeling. “It was just as strong as Irma,” the adventurer recalls. “It had found my new little island and flattened it. Losing your job and friends that have become family, in a matter of a few hours—it’s life-changing.”

The native New Yorker is well-versed in unexpected change and challenge, if not simple survival. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during her junior year of high school. For two years, she went head-to-head against the cancer with chemo, steroids, and stubbornness.  During her battle, Make-A-Wish sent her to Greece, where she discovered kiteboarding. “After two years of being out of control of everything that was happening to my body, here I was in control again,” she reveals. The sport became a passion she perfected in Spain, the Dominican Republic, and the Outer Banks. After she graduated from Salve Regina University, she went to Necker Island to share the exotic elixir of adrenaline and water.

Two record-breaking hurricanes later, she looked for a job inland. The outdoorswoman started as The Cliffs new director of outdoor pursuits in February. “The program is getting bigger,” she shares. “We want to take advantage of the environment and the natural area we are in.” From her office near the Beach Club at Keowee Springs, she’s getting more residents out on the lake to wakeboard, tube, and explore, while simultaneously leading hikes across the region. “We want to get people to do new things they didn’t know existed, or that they didn’t think to try. People would be surprised at how much they are capable of. From personal experience, I’ve seen how finding a new passion and a new sport can give you a different drive for life and help bring you back to life in so many ways.”

Photograph by Will Crooks