ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – The last of the late-summer tourists were gone Wednesday from the U.S. Virgin Islands, ferried away from the wreckage of Hurricane Irma in cruise ships bound for Puerto Rico and Miami. Most part-time residents — and anyone else who didn’t have to stay — had cleared out as well, back to homes on the mainland with water, power and internet, and where food isn’t scarce.
Those left behind on St. Thomas and St. John were surviving on whatever they could find as they tried to repair their houses with whatever materials were available. They had to dodge downed power lines that snaked through hills that were a deep green before the storm but now so stripped of leaves and trees that they are brown and desolate.
Many people were surviving on military rations handed out by U.S. Marines and the National Guard or at a local church that is serving 500 people a day.
“What I see are people coming who are hungry, who are tired, who are thirsty and need help,” said Jeff Neevel, pastor of the St. Thomas Reformed Church. “It’s a destruction zone. Everything is destroyed. Everything.”
His church got power Tuesday for the first time since the storm hit a week earlier, thanks to it being designated an official food distribution center. Neevel said one of the most critical needs he sees is for tarps to protect the many homes that have lost roofs.
People are also desperate for power and water so they can get back to work and return to some sense of normalcy.
“The village where I live is devastated,” said Dominique Olive from French Town on St. Thomas’ southern coast. “There are people I’ve known for many, many years. Everything they have is gone.”
Olive said there has been some “disgusting” looting and desperation but also hopeful signs. “We are helping each other. It doesn’t matter which color you are, we are all helping each other,” he said.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned that it could take several weeks to restore full power and water to the territory as he angrily denounced people with “unrealistic expectations.”
“If you are not prepared to go through these challenges in a realistic way, with realistic expectations, I am strongly urging you to take one of the flights or one of the mercy cruises and go to the mainland for a few months and come back,” Mapp said.
Hurricane Irma lashed St. Thomas and St. John with winds of 150 mph for more than four hours when the storm hit Sept. 6. A complete damage assessment has yet to be done, but many homes were left in ruins, as were police and fire stations and the main hospital.
Damage was particularly widespread on St. John, an island of stunning natural beauty that is mostly national park surrounded by coral reefs.
“You could see there was not much left,” Larry Brown, a part-time resident, said as he waited in Puerto Rico for a flight back to his home in southwestern Florida to see what damage awaited him there. “It was just horrible.”
There was some progress in getting back to normal on St. Thomas. The health department reopened a prenatal clinic and at least one water-pump station was back online. Power was restored to parts of the island, though most residents still remained in the dark and downed power lines posed a hazard. Several U.S. Navy ships were in the islands, ferrying in heavy equipment for a recovery effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its local equivalent.
Mapp said several airlines plan to resume flights Saturday to the St. Thomas airport, which should help bring in additional emergency supplies.