Irma Leaves Virgin Islanders Torn Between Fight and Flight

Updated on
  • President Trump expected to visit the Islands within a week
  • Recovery to take years, Virgin Islands Governor Mapp says

U.S. Virgin Islands Grapple With Irma Aftermath

The lush greenery has been stripped bare, homes have lost their roofs and cars lie crushed under utility poles. St. John, part of the Virgin Islands struck by Hurricane Irma last week, couldn’t look less like a tourist destination.

Many local residents are giving up and getting out after losing everything to the category 5 storm, even as the local authorities in the U.S. territory say they are determined to rebuild the islands.

Damaged buildings and trees in St. John on Sept. 12.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

"I have no job, I have no house, I have no money," said Miriam Martinez, who works as a housekeeper and chef on St. John. "I can’t stay here."

The US Coast Guard arrived Tuesday to help transport evacuees and some tourists off the island. Many people are heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for medical care, or to reunite with their families and find out where they can go next. Martinez waited on the dock for hours to see her daughter, son and two grandchildren off as she planned to stay another month on the island. She couldn’t afford to leave herself. 

U.S. Coast Guard evacuation efforts in St. John on Sept. 12.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Many of the islands’ 100,000 population have come from the U.S. and are now going back to their families on the mainland, said Ian Samuel, a volunteer and resident of St. John, who was helping evacuees this week. Some are comparing Irma to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which cost the territory about $3.6 billion.

Fighting Back

"Our main staple as an economy is tourism and we want folks from the wider U.S. community or the market to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands on a regular basis," the US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp said. "We don’t want to be wiped off the list” of tourist destinations.

That won’t be easy for a while. On St. Thomas -- the larger sister island and heavily marketed to tourists -- there was even more devastation. Four people were reported dead, with some residents complaining that government aid had not come to them sooner.

Ruth Petersen, 90, who lives alone in a second-floor apartment, said the heavy rain and wind blew out her shutters. That’s when she hiked herself into her bedroom, away from the windows.

"Everything’s gone. Everything," she said. "I know they couldn’t stop the hurricane, but then, come around. Come in and ask how we’re feeling."

Trump Visit

President Donald Trump is expected to visit the Islands within a week, Mapp said. He said the president had passed along his "well wishes" for the residents.

"We’re not going to have recovery in an instant," Mapp said. "We’re managing the expectations. This is not a sprint."

Recovery will take years as there’s "an awful lot of work that is going to need to be done," according to John Rabin, an acting administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for region two, which covers the islands. Ninety percent of St. Thomas’ electrical distribution was destroyed; while about half of St. John’s grid is down. Schools haven’t opened yet, and the government is encouraging parents to send their students to St. Croix, almost two hours away on ferry, Judi Shimel, a St. John resident said. 

The ratings firms have be cautious about assessing the impact of Irma on the island, which had a gross domestic product of $3.77 billion in 2015. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the ratings on U.S. Virgin Islands’ bonds issued through the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority in January to Caa1 and Caa2 from B1 and B2.

"Although the U.S. Virgin Islands’ government will receive FEMA assistance, the storm is likely to worsen the territory’s extremely weak liquidity,” Ken Kurtz, Moody’s lead analyst for the Virgin Islands’, said in a statement Friday.

Long Haul

Volunteers and the government officials have helped clear some of the roads. But it’s still a common sight to see power lines and utility poles strewn across the roads. The hospital on St. Thomas was "devastated," Mapp said and patients requiring dialysis were evacuated and transported to San Juan. 

The Cyril E. King airport on St. Thomas is expected to re-open on Sept. 16 for commercial flights, Mapp said. The airport on the island of St. Croix is already operating, with JetBlue and American Airlines resuming services on Tuesday.

As the islands start the long work of recovery, even the authorities are looking to the future with more than a little trepidation on fears that climate change will make hurricanes like Irma all the more common.

"Hurricanes are going to be more a part of our lives and they’re going to be more ferocious," Mapp said.

If interested in making a donation to relief efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, see https://www.usvirecovery.org

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