Hurricane Irma – followed closely by Hurricane Maria dealt the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico a severe One/Two punch. And the islands are all still reeling from having two – count’m two – Cat 5 Hurricanes come to visit.
I am fortunate enough to own not one, but two lovely condos on the island of St. Croix. It’s one of the 3 sister islands that make up the US Virgin Islands. We’ve been the property of the US since 1917, when concern with our military importance prompted the US to buy us from Denmark.
St. Croix is, by island standards, a large island. We have a population of around 35,000 – more when it’s winter in the rest of the US, although our weather doesn’t change that much. It’s pretty much 85 degrees year round here – with some rainy months when the cisterns get filled, and some dryer months when we use up the water. Our population is stable, hard working folks who count themselves lucky to live in Paradise. You just ask them and they will tell you – this is heaven, and we know it.
But back to that one-two punch. How did my beloved island fare under what can only be described as disaster conditions. And I’m proud to say – pretty well! I came down to check things out a week ago, and I’ve driven around the island from one end to the other – watching the line crews working hard to get electricity back up. There are still lots of places without power, and lots of places without gas, and lots of places without functioning WIFI or cell service – so things aren’t perfect yet – but the progress is visible.
Our roads – awesome by Montreal standards to begin with – are now in much worse shape in places. The main roads are generally fine, but I found some potholes you really don’t want to hit on some of the ‘back’ roads. Current Island advice – if you haven’t driven that road in daylight – don’t drive it at night. Good advice that.
After Maria left to pick on Puerto Rico, she left behind downed everything. Telephones were broken like match sticks, and even 6 weeks later you can see the remnants of poles that were dragged out of the roadways and left lying as mute witnesses to the devastation. There are transformers sitting next to downed wires – mostly telephone wires now. There are piles of what were once tin roofs neatly gathered at the side of the road. And there are branches.
It’s pretty interesting to see the quantity of dead branches that have been carefully stacked almost everywhere. There are no big trees on our island – but there are lots and lots of bushy trees – and these are the dead branches that had to be cleaned up. Fences were torn apart – right off their posts in some cases, and now they hang as forlorn and ineffectual property protection.
Some buildings fared a whole lot better than others, and I’m quite sure that there will be a lot of conversations among homeowner associations – why did the ocean front section of Colony Cove lose their entire roof, and why did Sugar Beach suffer so little physical damage. Even how Hurricane Shutters were attached seems to have made a significant difference. I had one real estate agent explain that at one nearby property, some hurricane shutters were attached to the outside of balconies, while other shutters were attached to the inside. Outside ones were ripped off – taking pieces of wall with them. Inside ones suffered little to no damage.
With the high winds came a lot of water – and in the early days after the storm there were lots of pictures of flooding. But flooding isn’t the only water problem. At Sugar Beach, the water torrents ran down our driveway and across our beach toward the sea. And they took a lot of our sand with them. There are huge gullies where before there was flat beach. And the tidal surge, which fortunately stopped short of the buildings themselves – also took out a lot of our beach. Palm trees have their roots exposed, and that’s a problem. The trees will die sooner or later – and I’m hoping that someone is working on a plan to get those roots undercover.
In Christiansted – which actually suffered very little damage – the flood waters overwhelmed the drain water system – and even 6 weeks after the disaster, we could still find places where water pipes must have been broken and sewer lids forced off. While we’ve been on the island, I’ve been watching these places – and the crews are going one by one to get them fixed and back in ‘business’. The plan island wide is to be totally up and ready to rock by Christmas – and I have no doubt this is going to happen.
For folks living here – it’s been a time of great challenges. We take having electricity for granted – even when it goes out, we naively assume it will be back shortly. But shortly turned out to be weeks and months here. Some folks have been told that it could even be spring before they are hooked to the grid.
The problems aren’t simple to solve either. Almost every telephone pole on the island was damaged – and they have had to import 42,000 telephone poles by barge from the US Mainland. And there aren’t enough lineman on the island to handle a job of this size – so NY State sent down by barge dozens of their trucks with their crews. We’ve seen them all over the island – gradually rebuilding the infrastructure. And consider the challenge. You must remove the old pole, re-dig the hole for the new pole, put the new pole in place, and then re-attach the electric wires. As far as I can tell – they are not even touching the phone lines. Those cables are still mostly dangling lose, or laying in coiled snakes on the ground.
The lack of ‘land lines’ has created an interesting problem for some of the re-opening businesses. If you accepted credit cards by internet (like K Mart), you are ok. But if you used a land line to do the credit card transaction – you are suddenly a cash only business. And that has put pressure on banks and ATM’s to provide a flow of cash for which they were not prepared. We’ve seen line ups a dozen folks long at some banks, yet the ‘pay’ ATMs are no problem. But we did find ourselves choosing dinner restaurants by their ability to accept credit cards, and one of our favourite grocery stores isn’t getting our business – they are cash only.
There is an entire alphabet soup of aid workers here – FEMA, Corp of Engineers, Red Cross, etc. There are NGO groups as well – including Doctors Without Borders. Last weekend they were giving free insulin shots to those in need, today I ran into a sign-language interpreter who told me how critical his team is to the operation. Because TVs are effectively ‘off’ for many on the island, the only source of information is the radio. And that’s an auditory medium. So if you can’t hear – you have no idea what is going on, where to go for help, or even what kind of help is being provided. And for many of the folks thus impacted – there is a decided fear of IRS. So his first job is to reassure folks that he’s not IRS, and his next job is to find out what kind of help they might require.
When I at the airport, waiting on my out-bound flight, I ran into some of the crew from the huge cruise ship that has been semi-permanently docked at Fredericksted. It’s been ‘booked’ by FEMA to provide housing, and apparently other facilities, not meals and entertainment. They said that they are locked in until February, although they were also sure that the island will be ready to rock by Christmas. Interesting, eh? We covered a lot of other topics as well – you might want to check out my next blog.
But despite the hardships, the lack of electricity, the cost of generators and fuel, there is still a feeling of optimism here. Folks are determined to get back on their feet – and the current word is back to normal for 90% by Christmas. Schools have re-opened, albeit with staggered hours to make it easier for kids to get around, and the curfew has been officially lifted. Tourists are finally returning to the island, boats are taking folks out to SCUBA dive, and fisherman are back to catching Wahoo for dinners at the restaurants. I was very relieved to find that one of my favourite ‘designer’ houses even had a party to celebrate their 20th year in business this weekend.
What does the island need now? Time and Tourists willing to understand that while the beaches are yet to be restored to their former glory – the ocean rolls on relentlessly, the seagulls and pelicans continue to soar and wheel above the waves, the sun sets, the moon rises – and life on this beautiful island goes on.
Please come. We want to see you!
Signing off to go spend some more money on the island – The Soup Lady