TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Three months after devastating hurricanes, USVI residents want power for Christmas

in Crisis & Natural Disasters by

The winding, steep roads coursing throughout the mountainous terrain of the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) is the only landscape recognizable—everything else is different.

Debris and downed trees dot the narrow highways. At points, bald patches and mounds of stacked timber ripped from its roots, disrupt the sidelines of the curvaceous pathway. When you reach residences, a sea of blue tarps serves as temporary roofs to homes revealing various levels of devastation.

Driving through the small enclaves of residences perched on volcanic hills, a home without a roof was decorated with Christmas lights.

A woman sitting on the porch said that she was praying for power by Christmas so that she could give a sense of normalcy to her children. Like most residents, power has not been restored; and generators have become a rich person’s luxury because gas is sold at a premium.

Since two successive hurricanes hit USVI in September of this year, residents in USVI struggle in their recovery. Yet and still, they work to rebuild. Although their homes are demolished, the residents refuse any photos to be taken of their damaged homes, but speak of their experiences.

Food shortages, mold infested housing, grave economic strain and limited power make up the daily lives of islanders who feel that the federal government treats them as third-class citizens—behind their neighbors in Puerto Rico, who come after mainland citizens.

USVI St. Thomas Port. Photo Credit: Cassandra Loftlin

Most Americans are unaware of the dire conditions in which residents live. Partly, this is due to much attention on Puerto Rico. Another reason that existed before the hurricanes is the tenuous citizenship of those living in US territories.

Virgin Islanders do not have an elected Congressional official representing their interest; therefore, leaving that responsibility solely on the governor.

With the recent natural disaster and the limited assistance to a country with years of restoration ahead of them, residents wonder if they will ever get the help needed.

Season of Hurricanes

On September 6, Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm with 185 mph winds tore through the Caribbean.

St. Thomas and St. John, two of the three main islands that make up USVI, were devastated.

Just as Governor Kenneth Mapp and emergency workers began to assess damages and debris removal, two weeks later, another category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria barreled across the Caribbean. This time, St. Croix, the third island, took a direct hit, causing more destruction.

To add insult to injury, Tropical Storm Jose saturated St. Thomas with 12 inches of rain, soon after.

USVI after Hurricane Irma

After the ferocious winds died and Caribbean waters stilled, USVI remained a shelf of the jewel it is celebrated to be by residents and the millions of annual visitors.

Gone were power and all forms of communication such as phone and internet. Boats smashed against the shorelines, while the structure of homes seemed as if bombs blew out windows, doors and siding. Wildlife were barely visible and it seemed that there was not one leaf remaining on a tree.

The small sustainable farms ran by residents were totally uprooted, leaving the land stripped of produce. Strewn across the island, people’s belongings sat in trees or heaped into indistinguishable piles. USVI was in distress, but the resilience of the residents prompted them to begin to compile the lists of needs as they once again, cleaned up debris.

Third Class Citizens

Unlike previous major storms, the response by the federal government was uncharacteristically slow.

The islanders discovered that they were not the only territory in distress. Following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico, a much larger and more populated island pleaded for assistance. To worsen matters, USVI depended on Puerto Rico for much of its shipments of supplies. Often, boats cleared in San Juan’s port then traveled south to St. Thomas’ port, Charlotte Amalie.

At the beginning of recovery, the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US Army and Navy, all scrambled to create a comprehensive plan for recovery efforts. Local Puerto Rican officials voiced disappointment at their underwhelming response.

Most notably, San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz pointed out the failures of the Trump Administration in adequately responding to the needs of citizens. Between the pleas of Yulín Cruz for help, a tête-à-tête with the Trump Administration ensued.

Yulín Cruz’s criticism were voiced by many. Most notably, retired Lt. General Russell Honoré who oversaw recovery efforts in New Orleans in 2005. In a CNN interview, he opined that the government was highly disorganized. Turning his critique towards Trump, Honoré quipped, “[Trump] don’t give a damn about poor people … people of color … [he is] an S.O.B. that rides around in Airforce One [airplane] denying services that’s needed by the people … ”

In the shadows of the chaos sat a distressed USVI; and has been there since. However, residents started bringing in aid through private planes and boats. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped bring supplies along with Tim Duncan, a St. Thomas native and retired NBA championship winner.

Governor Mapp, a former Republican-turned-Independent began calling in assistance from old and new allies. Although assistance trickled in, it addressed critical issues such as transporting hospital patients from Schneider Regional Medical Center to the US mainland. To date, USVI does not have hospital because of hurricane damage.

Slow Recovery

The major ports for commercial ships and cruise liners were cleaned almost immediately.

Right now, it is the high season for cruises and USVI, frankly, needs all the revenue it can generate.

While USVI is still on the itinerary of cruise stops, the ports seem to be the only thing completely restored. At the port, there is very little debris, but the structural damage is evident.

Senior Frogs at St. Thomas Port, USVI. Photo credit: Cassandra Loftlin

The popular Caribbean dive, Senior Frogs sits empty and a few shops are open, but after you leave the port, the bleak reality sets in.

About 30 percent of the shops right outside the ports have reopened, as the need to cycle money through the island is critical in a tourist-driven economy. St. Thomas holds a reputation for its duty-free shopping and specialty boutiques; and works to get more shops up-and-running. For shopowners, it is difficult because power outages make them rely on generators—a costly option.

Last week, a pair of merchants said it was their first day back since the storm. As they worked to remove trash and merchandise damaged by water, their power went out. The wife of one of the owners, dropped to her knees and began to cry. Recovery is not for the weak or weary.

A Costly Journey

In October, US Congress passed a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill to provide assistance for areas affected by hurricanes and California wildfires.

Hurricanes also affected Texas, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia; including the ongoing wildfires raging in California. The USVI received $800 million in relief money; however, the damage is in the billions.

To restore power, companies from the mainland assisted in laying lines, but there still is limited power because USVI officials wait for transformers. As of December, a little over 30,000 customers have power on an island with a population of about 100,000.

The waiting game is the same issue with mobile communications and internet service. While there is connectivity, the signals on most of the island are weak, if present at all, which is the responsibility of big telecom company, AT&T, to restore. Currently, AT&T is offering unlimited plans.

Around the island, strategic debris removal continues. Volunteers who live on ships come weekly to offer clean up assistance and bring supplies. Carnival Cruises has been working with USVI, too.

After two direct hits from major storms, there are parts of the USVI infrastructure that must be built from scratch. In earnest, rebuilding will take years, though the government works non-stop to restore an island with city funding, but requires the resources to that of a state.

Many estimates show that the hurricanes caused more damage in USVI than Puerto Rico. Even so, the USVI infrastructure fared better before the storms and proved to help prevent a crisis like the one occurring with its neighbors in the post-hurricane aftermath.

Nevertheless, the daily living in USVI is not easy.

This article was co-written with Kaia Shivers.

Chef Cassandra Loftlin travels around the world digging into sumptuous dishes.

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