By Shirley L. Smith Updated with Videos
Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are desperately trying to hold on after getting pounded Tuesday night for the second time in about two weeks with a Category 5 hurricane that caused widespread destruction, flooding and mudslides. The hurricane also shattered the lives of more Virgin Islanders who were left homeless, and it destroyed the only remaining hospital in the U.S. Territory.
“There are about 600 plus folks in shelters throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands,” said Gov. Kenneth Mapp in a news conference on Thursday.
The district of St. Thomas and St. John, which includes Water Island, was devastated by Hurricane Irma which struck the territory on Sept. 6 with 185 mph winds. St. Croix, the largest of the four islands, sustained minimal damages from Irma so it has served as the governor’s main base for the recovery operation, but St. Croix bore the brunt of Hurricane Maria’s 176 mph winds when Maria ripped through the Virgin Islands late Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning.
“The western end of the island really took a horrible beating, and even if you were in the southwestern part of the island, you got beaten even more,” Mapp said. “The eastern part of the island got damages and people lost roofs, but not in comparison to what I saw on the western end of the island.
“I went into communities where people lost everything, wondering where they are going to get their next meal,” Mapp said.
The power distribution system on St. Croix was badly damaged, but the governor said it is too early to know the extent of the damage.
The power and water distribution system in the St. Thomas – St. John District were also severely damaged by Hurricane Irma. About 90 percent of residents on St. Thomas have not had electricity for 17 days, and about 50 percent of residents in St. John are still without power, Mapp said, adding that it will be months before power can be restored to some areas.
The governor surveyed the damage on St. Croix from the air Thursday, and he said based on his observations, several schools on St. Croix were also damaged and one was destroyed.
“The Juan Luis Hospital is breached. There is water everywhere. The roof is pretty much destroyed,” he said. Mapp informed residents that the patients from Juan Luis will be evacuated today and transported to health facilities in South Carolina.
The destruction of the Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center, the only hospital on St. Croix, is a major blow to the territory’s crippled health-care system, because Hurricane Irma destroyed the Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas, which is the only hospital in the St. Thomas – St. John District. This leaves the Virgin Islands with no hospital to care for its residents. The territory has a population of about 106,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
After Hurricane Irma, patients from Schneider were evacuated to the St. Croix hospital and different medical facilities in Puerto Rico, but Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic destruction in Puerto Rico as well.
Health officials say that the only part of the Schneider hospital that is functional is the emergency room, which has remained open since Irma. A temporary mobile-tent hospital was erected in the front parking lot of the Schneider hospital, but the facility had to be dismantled shortly after it was erected due to Hurricane Maria. The tents are just a temporary solution until a stronger structure can be constructed in the rare of the hospital, Health Commissioner Michelle Davis said.
The condition of the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix is still being assessed, but Mapp said the runway has been cleared. Mapp did not give any information about the status of the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas.
Lynda Rey, a native of St. Croix, said she is thankful that she and her family survived the hurricane, and that her home, located in Estate Tipperary, only had minor damage. “I have friends that don’t have their roofs,” Rey said.
A terrified Rey, rode out the hurricane with her two children in a shelter in Christiansted. Her husband is in Anguilla with relatives who lost their homes when Hurricane Irma hit that island.
Prior to the hurricane, Rey made an impassioned plea on Facebook asking residents to go to a shelter if their house was not secure. “We survived Hugo,” she said with tears in her eyes. “It was horrible, and this is what is etched in my soul. The hunger, the heat, the not being able to provide for your children them in a timely manner.”
Rey said Thursday: “For Hugo, my mother and my pregnant cousin were under a mattress because everything had gone. The windows and roof had gone. They were just in a shell under a mattress.” Rey’s mother’s house was spared this time too.
“It’s going to be a long road for recovery,” Mapp told residents. However, he said,
“The worst is finally behind us. So now it’s time to march on and to build a better community, a better territory, and to make that happen, I need your cooperation.”
But, for some residents, especially those who were traumatized by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, the catastrophic destruction they have experienced and witnessed over the past two weeks is too much for them to bear. Several residents have fled the islands on mercy mission flights, and the governor said that there are about 500 residents on a waiting list to leave the territory.
The governor’s leadership team is working with airline and cruise line partners, including the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, to coordinate more humanitarian or mercy missions to evacuate residents, primarily those with medical conditions or disabilities, said Samuel Topp, the governor’s spokesperson, in a news release Thursday.
Although the St. Thomas – St. John District did not experience any hurricane-force winds when Hurricane Maria swept through the Virgin Islands, the district had a tropical storm that caused torrential rain and an ocean surge of 6 to 9 ft., resulting in massive flooding in the downtown area of St. Thomas and mudslides throughout the islands’ mountainous terrains.
“After Hurricane Marilyn, large rocks were placed in the sea in the Waterfront area along Long Bay Road [in St. Thomas] as a barrier to prevent the water from beating against the bulkhead, but Maria washed these rocks out of the sea onto the highway,” said Emmet Petersen, a resident of St. Thomas. “Once the flood water subsided, the rocks obstructed the normal flow of traffic which made it difficult for emergency vehicles to pass through.”
The flooding and mudslides compounded the devastation for people living in the St. Thomas – St. John District, many of whom lost their homes and are either living in a shelter, with family and friends or in their damaged homes with roofs covered by tarpaulins to prevent leaks.
“All the people who put tarpaulins on their houses got them torn off by Maria,” Petersen said.
Weather forecasters expect the rain to continue in the St. Thomas – St. John District into next week. This will make traversing the roads in these islands even more dangerous, because there is still a lot of debris on the roadways from Hurricane Irma that was not cleaned up before the storm.
Both Hurricane Irma and Maria knocked down phone lines and cell phone towers so it is difficult to communicate with people on all of the islands. However, some residents have been able to use their cell phones in certain areas.
Amid the destruction on St. Croix, Mapp said some people seized the opportunity to loot damaged homes and businesses. Mapp cautioned looters that they would be prosecuted to the “fullest extent of the law.”
“When I came out of the shelter, I looked down the street, and saw people running down the street with TVs,” Rey said. Though that was upsetting, she said she also saw people in the community working together to cut trees to help clear the roadways.
Mapp also warned business owners who violate the curfew that their business licenses will be revoked.
Despite the destruction, Rey believes that St. Croix was better prepared for Hurricane Maria. “We went through Hurricane Hugo and Marilyn, and why we got so destroyed in Hurricane Hugo is because we didn’t know better. Our homes weren’t being built correctly. That was over 20 years ago, but we were ready for Maria,” Rey said.
“Some people lost homes, but not as much as in Hugo. The people built their homes a lot better and stronger,” she said.
The governor modified the curfew in the St. Thomas – St. John District. The new curfew is from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. the following day. The 24-hour curfew in St. Croix has been suspended for today only from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. to give residents the opportunity to get supplies and re-fuel their vehicles.
Mapp urged residents to abide by the strictly enforced curfew, because it is necessary for their safety and the safety of work crews. “Stay off the road. Let the crews do what they need to do, so you can get back out into the community,” Mapp said.
Mapp announced the opening of four distribution centers on St. Croix today. They are located at: the Cotton Valley Fire Station, Juanita Gardine Elementary School, Alexander Henderson Elementary School and the St. Croix Educational Complex. For a list of distribution centers on St. Thomas and St. John, go to https://shirleysmithblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/16/news-alert-more-distribution-centers-open-in-usvi-to-serve-hurricane-victims/
People interested in contributing directly to the Virgin Islands’ government recovery effort, can donate at http://www.usvirecovery.org.
** Please note: While I usually post my opinions on the news in this section. This article is not an op-ed.
Related Link and Videos:
MSNBC Interview with U.S. Virgin Islands’ Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett: http://www.msnbc.com/hardball/watch/100-of-puerto-rico-without-power-after-maria-1051221059889