September - Hurricanes & Homelessness
Hurricanes & Homelessness: U.S. Virgin Islands
To Evacuate OR Not? Saving Our 2-Month-Old Baby
Recounted By: Dan Stevens, St. Thomas
Originally published in October 2017 One Step Away
My wife Jennifer and I decided to leave The Island a few days before Hurricane Irma hit. We had received some tips about the intensity of the storms and had gut feelings watching the storms. Since storms form really fast, and the Category 3 came in real fast, we made the decision to leave. On the islands, the community tracks storms as soon as they come up from Africa, and locally we spread the word.
There’s no formal evacuation plan. You have your hurricane emergency kits. The government usually says prepare for the worst and remember to hide in your bathroom. Every time a storm begins to form, people prepare, but nothing really happens.
Jennifer has lived in St. Thomas all of her life, and her mom and grandma lived through 1989’s Hugo and 1995’s Marilyn, the two most powerful hurricanes to hit St. Thomas in recent years.
Her mom and grandma stayed. Her grandma resisted leaving; she didn’t want to leave her cat. But we just had a baby, a 2-month-old, so we didn’t want to risk it.
I booked our tickets to The States five days before Hurricane Irma hit. We figured we were protecting our family, and if nothing happened, then it was a fun trip to go see grandma & grandpa in Indianapolis.
The next day my mom called me to tell me that American Airlines’ one-way tickets out of St. Thomas were now $300-$400. The Tuesday before it hit, tickets skyrocketed to $1,000-$3,000 each; and the last ticket sold out three days later at $5,000.
On September 5, Category 5 Irma Hits
From Indianapolis, we watched the storm hit St. Thomas. We saw Bluebeard’s [hotel] roof fly off. We were watching everything, and I was talking to my friend who was there. There was good cell service until the eyewall hit St. Thomas. My friend said he just saw a washing machine fly into his car, then his cell dropped. One person’s phone went off, then everything – phones, internet, livestream, Facebook – dropped.
The eyewall hit the north side of The Island the worst. The winds came around, and some places were fine, but others were completely destroyed. The hospital roof flew off, destroying the top two floors. Workers spent the next two weeks evacuating all of the patients to Puerto Rico, only to be hit two weeks later by Hurricane Maria.
During the storm, concrete walls were exploding. I had friends who were getting in the bathtub with a mattress—because that’s what they tell you to do during a hurricane—and heard the storm passing. When they got out, everything was destroyed: All the walls, the roof, everything.
Hurricane Irma caused more damage than expected, destroying St. Thomas’ airport, hospital, infrastructure, and many homes. Irma’s damage was structural, with high winds blowing over trees, power lines, and houses.
St. John, our smaller island, got hit the worst during Irma. They lost all form of communications. Car ferry service stopped from St. Thomas, which is how they get all of their supplies. It was very traumatic for the people there.
Evacuating to Safety: Boating to St. Croix & Puerto Rico
After Irma hit, we were playing phone tag to communicate with people and see if they were safe. From The States, it was hard to communicate to The Island because no one had data, but on the island people could text, call, and message each other. We texted everyone we could – and have pretty much been playing that game since.
People weren’t prepared to evacuate, but after Irma left, many people on St. John and St. Thomas were left with nowhere to live and no electricity. Overwhelmingly the community came together to help. People who got out connected with others, chartered boats, coordinated supplies, and evacuated people. Speedboats were running back and forth from the islands, bringing people to St. Croix, which was untouched from the storm, and Puerto Rico. Other people in the community were in the streets with chainsaws cleaning up the debris so rescue trucks could come in.
On The Island, we are pretty prepared for storms and hurricanes, but we couldn’t prepare for two Category 5 hurricanes to hit a week apart.
On September 16, Category 5 Maria Hits All of the Islands
Many people evacuated to Puerto Rico and St. Croix, only to get stuck again by Maria.
On September 16, Hurricane Maria hit the islands again as a Category 5, this time destroying St. Croix and Puerto Rico in her path.
Maria brought less wind but a ton more rain. With no trees or grass to soak up the water, Maria damaged what infrastructure remained after Irma, including most of the roads which are built on hills.
Overall, the damage left by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in St. Thomas was pretty massive. Although, it depends where you were and how you were getting hit. Our apartment complex sustained minimal damage, but further down a whole row of apartments crumbled. More houses were completely destroyed than I expected.
Rebuilding our Islands, and our Lives
Jennifer’s mom and grandma are still shaken up: “Life is gonna be different for a long time.”
As of September 27, people are still on the island trying to get off. Others have generators but need diesel to keep them running. Charlotte Amelia, the main port city has power, but other areas, especially in the north, might take six months to one year to get power.
The community has helped The Island more than the government: Community members get things to people who really need it in a way the government hasn’t. Local restaurants are open and are giving away food for free, or as cheap as they can make it. Local hotels are housing relief workers, visitors, or locals waiting to get out. Communication is spotty with some providers, but AT&T has been great and has mostly restored service.
Aid workers are there, but supplies are not being distributed efficiently because of the lack of information and communication. The community is banding together to rebuild, but most people are out of a job or a place to live. Our motto is: “Do what you can, as soon as you can, to get life back.” We want to get back to our lives — the sooner the better.
You Can Help the Virgin Islands
Spread Awareness: Any attention to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is good. We have 3-4 million Americans living here who have to deal with no roofs, water, and mosquitos.
Use Your Skills: The Island will need skilled workers: electricians, service workers, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
Volunteer: U.S. Virgin Islands Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster: usvivoad.communityos.org.
Donate: To the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands: http://www.cfvi.net/.
Tourism is our Livelihood: Come Vacation!
We are rebuilding as fast as we can, rushing to get the island ready for tourists. This effort is being led by the community, not the government. Tourism is our livelihood, so if you are able, book a trip and spend money. Our busy season is October and November, and if we miss this tourist season, it will be twice as hard to rebuild.
The beaches will be just as beautiful, and the services will come back. Community is strong in The Islands. It’s still paradise.
Photo Credits: Houses and roads collapsed in St. Thomas during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Photo courtesy of Mel Wills. St. Thomas house destroyed during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Photo courtesy of Mel Wills. Rainbow over St. Thomas. Photo courtesy of Rob Kunkle. State maps courtesy of freevectormaps.com.