U.S. Virgin Islands Still Devastated After Hurricane Irma; Survivors Vow to ‘Fight On’

Photo: Siobhan Soleil Mulvey

As Hurricane Irma approached, Zenzi M. Hodge sought refuge at her mother’s home in Wintberg, located on the west side of St. Thomas, the US Virgin Islands.

The entrepreneur and author said she’d lived through hurricanes before. So apprehension was leavened by past experience. But what she and her family experienced for – what is reported to have been at least 10 hours – left her beyond shaken.

“It’s raining today which is like adding insult to injury. The rain which used to be a blessing is now torture,” she said while driving in St. Thomas five days after Hurricane Irma, packing 185-mile-per-hour winds, smashed into the island and territory. “Before the storm, the tropical force winds we felt outside blew away any security I felt. It was blowing us around. During the storm, there was a combination of things banging your door, objects dropping on the roof. I saw a roof flying overhead whipping by. It reminded me of the Wizard of Oz. It was nearly dark so I could not see the destruction around us. I felt it might not be so bad.”

The next morning Hodge said she saw the full measure of the hurricane’s devastation. The fierce winds had ripped roofs from buildings, often leaving little more than foundations and concrete posts; uprooted, split and demolished trees; knocked down power lines; and blocked roads. The storm surge inundated coastal areas, tossing boats, yachts and other vessels around, washing them up on beaches and depositing them on roads and other locations some distance from the sea.

“As I opened our shutters, I saw a friend’s house,” Hodge said. “I always had a line of sight of the house. I could see inside of their house from the outside, it was eerie…My mother’s house was spared. Her home got a lot of water and debris from other homes. Dad’s house has a pole on the roof,” she said. “The home across my father’s house was shredded. The devastation was so random in its selection.”

Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, leveled Barbuda, destroyed large swathes of Tortola and other parts of the British Virgin Islands, swept across the Dominican Republic, dropped rain on Haiti, pummeled Havana and cities, villages and towns along Cuba’s north coast, then made a beeline for Florida where it drenched, flooded and wreaked havoc on the state’s east and west coasts after dismantling the Florida Keys.

The hurricane caused the deaths of more than 30 people in the region, left about 90 percent of buildings and structures on Barbuda “uninhabitable” and destroyed an estimated 60 percent of the buildings on the French side of St Martin.

With slow assistance due in part to the level of disaster, U. S. churches, non-profits and media agencies; including newspapers are stepping in to tell stories with hopes to speed up the needed help.

“We are trying to build an awareness of the major disaster that has gone through the Caribbean outside of what happened in Florida and of course in Texas,” said Karl Rodney, publisher of the New York Carib News. “In Barbuda, 90 percent of the houses are gone. The same thing in St. Martin, St. Thomas and St. John in the U. S. Virgin Islands. They’ve been totally destroyed. So there’s a tremendous need for relief and so we’re organizing around that.”

Rodney said people are responding with compassion. Rodney said they’re working on the ground through missions and local drop office places that are closer to the people who need it. “What we’re trying to do is to have it in a coordinated way so that it gets to the people in a hurry,” he said.

Cuba has also sent 750 doctors and health workers to the affected islands. President Donald Trump finally announced this week that he may be visiting the U. S. Virgin Islands after a trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Hurricane Irma was followed by Hurricane Maria causing additional disaster. The White House has declared the Virgin Island a disaster area and ordered aid to be delivered there. But hazardous conditions have made the deliveries difficult; exacerbating the devastation.

In the Caribbean, residents were left without electricity and telephone services. Isolated and in need of food, shelter and other resources, there is simmering anger and growing frustration as the days drag on with food, water and other forms of relief just beginning to trickle in.

For the island nations that suffered the most damage, the authorities in these countries are estimating that the rebuilding will take years; not months, costing billions of dollars. Meanwhile, those living in this archipelago of islands are trying as best they can to piece their lives back together.

Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua’s ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States credited preparation and planning for ensuring that there were not more casualties.

“My government was able to mobilize resources and plan for this hurricane before it occurred,” he said. “We were there and ready. The fact that we had only one fatality, a child who was literally sucked out of the hands of his guardian and found dead the next day, was a miracle.”

“As soon as the storm had passed, authorities moved quickly to transfer Barbuda’s 1,800 residents to the larger sister island of Antigua, whose 80,000 residents were largely spared the storm’s wrath,” he continued. “For the first time in 300 years, Barbuda has been left with no living person upon it.”

Sanders said that unlike others islands, the twin islands have no formal ties to the United States or Europe so cannot rely on them to offer financial and logistical support.

“At the end of the day, it is our country, we have to try our best to keep it going as best we can,” he said. A number of countries have voiced the intention to help but there are few who have made concrete pledges. That may necessitate convening a donors’ conference.

“I’m a realist,” Sanders said. “I know my country is small and in the course of events, it is not important to everybody. My country plays the hand with the cards it receives, we try to play it best we can. We will fight on.”

Longtime St. Thomas resident Steve Rockstein, survivor of a number of hurricanes, said the ordeal he and his family withstood has him wondering how much more he can endure. He described the landscape as a “nuclear winter.”

“I’m a little worn out,” he said during a phone interview. “I knew pretty much on Sunday/Monday that it was coming. We live in an old West Indian house in Wintberg.  We survived Hugo and Marilyn … this was so much worse than Marilyn. I don’t scare easily. But I was terrified. I had to hold shutters. The hurricane’s eye was overhead. My ears were popping, we got flooded. Water was going up, down, left, right. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Rockstein, a photographer and documentary filmmaker who has lived in the US Virgin Islands for 42 years, said at one point, he, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren had to huddle in the bathroom.

“The hurricane took two hours warming up and then spent 10 hours over us. It was really unbelievable. We thought it had stopped but it just kept on coming. I watched my car moved about a foot to the retaining wall. It didn’t go over but someone’s roof landed on the front. I feel incredibly fortunate.”

It got worse, Rockstein said. “We spent 47 days without electricity with Hugo and with Marilyn it was 96 days. The Governor’s saying that it may be eight months to a year before we get electricity back.”


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