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Virgin Islands Still Reeling as New Hurricane Season Hits

Posted on July 10, 2018 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

An Insider's Glimpse at Disaster

Largely ignored by current news media, the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to reel from back-to-back punches last year by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Catholic Charities extends its prayers, thoughts – and real help – to those hurt by recent disasters. For an insiders’ glimpse into how the islands are faring, let’s hear from Julianne Pannelli who recently visited the islands at the behest of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on behalf of Catholic Charities NY.

By Julianne Pannelli

Catholic Charities NY Director of Special Projects

I heard the U.S. Virgin Islands, the childhood home of President Alexander Hamilton, was once a green place with lush vegetation.  But that was before they were hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes named Irma and Maria.  During my recent two-week visit there, I did see breathtaking views facing the beaches and the surrounding water, but I couldn’t help but also notice the largely brown, almost crispy-looking grass, hills, and valleys. Colleagues and locals told me how the trees and flowers only recently started to bloom again.

Yes, the U.S. Virgin Islands, clearly hard-hit by last year’s hurricanes, continue to struggle to rebuild.  To help with this goal, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), at the request of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), invited me there from June 11 through June 23, 2018 to support their Hurricane Irma and Maria recovery mission.  They called on me because of my 15-year history with Disaster Case Management.  This includes leadership roles within the Catholic Charities USA network and at the NVOAD Disaster Case Management Committee as well as experience at Catholic Charities in two federally funded disaster case management programs after Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy hit New York.

One-Two Punch

Hurricane Irma affected St. John and St. Thomas  and spared St. Croix.  Then, two weeks later, Hurricane Maria came back with a vengeance and devastated all three islands.  The vast majority of buildings on the U.S. Virgin Islands were damaged or destroyed.  I was told that some of the damage I witnessed had been there before those hurricanes…some from the time of Hurricane Marilyn back in 1995.  And with wind and rain, you can imagine how personal belongings were also damaged.  Many people lost everything.  A good example of the personal building damages is seen in the Tutu High Rise Community in St. Thomas where walls, doors, and windows were blown off.

Point Person for Disaster Recovery

As Catholic Charities NY’s disaster recovery point person, I had nearly weekly contact with representatives from FEMA and the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Human Services (USVI DHS) for months leading up to my arrival.  USVI DHS is the local government entity that received FEMA funding to oversee a federally-funded Disaster Case Management Program across the three islands: St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas.  USVI DHS plans to have two managing agencies for the program – one on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas – and then have multiple provider agencies on all three islands to provide direct disaster case management services to clients. 

During my time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I provided two, 2-day Disaster Case Management Orientation sessions, one on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas that also included attendees from St. John. All together I trained 58 people from 17 different agencies.  With a 77.59% response rate, the training received an overall satisfaction score of 4.73 out of 5 (or 93.40%).   I was very impressed with the level of attendee engagement throughout the training and it was clear that they had already learned much of the work as a result of being personally affected by the disasters and by helping others for the past several months. 

I also spent time with representatives from FEMA and the U.S. Virgin Islands DHS to provide lessons learned and information on best practices for disaster case management.

Excess Heat and Only 2 Home Depots

Disaster recovery and rebuilding is always challenging and takes years, even in the best of circumstances.  But there are some unique logistical issues in the U.S. Virgin Islands that make rebuilding even harder.  For example…

FEMA has a blue tarp program where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installs a “blue roof” of plastic sheeting over the damaged area in order to mitigate additional damage that could result from rain while homeowners wait for long term repairs.  In the U.S. Virgin Islands, I heard that these tarps are not lasting as long as they do elsewhere because of the UV index and are actually disintegrating.  There are only 2 Home Depots in the U.S. Virgin Islands – one on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas – and because they are islands they have to wait for shipments, it’s not like someone can drive the materials there.  So I was told that even if someone has the money to purchase rebuilding materials, there is still a long wait of several months for the materials to arrive at the Home Depot; and the demand is so high for some items that they disappear from store shelves more quickly than they can be re-stocked.  What some people do is just build a layer of a home when they have the materials and then just wait until they have enough for another layer, and so on.

Roosters and Transplants

In terms of commercial rebuilding, both of the hotels I stayed at, although nice and on the water were actively being repaired.  My hotel on St. Thomas was actually still closed to the public and slated to reopen in 2019. 

Cable and cell phone service remains spotty.  My hotel on St. Croix did not have cable service back but did have WIFI.  On all three islands, my Verizon service barely worked so I relied on my personal phone which has AT&T service.

I was surprised by how many “transplants” from the U.S. mainland now live on these islands.  Many of the bartenders and waiters/waitresses I met said they were from the U.S. mainland.  In fact, several of the people I trained also noted they had moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands from other parts of the U.S.  It made me wonder why so many people think about retiring to a Caribbean Island in their later years while others decide not to wait at all.

Also, I couldn’t believe my eyes at the abundance of  roosters and chickens I came across on a daily basis. I kid you not when I say I laughed out loud every time I saw one, especially when I saw them cross the road to get to the other side.  And I even saw some baby chicks following their parents. 

Long Road to Recovery

While significant recovery efforts have been made since last year’s hurricanes, disaster recovery can take many years, especially when rebuilding is involved.   Unfortunately, disasters don’t wait and the Atlantic hurricane season started again on June 1.  As disaster recovery efforts and threats from new storms continue our support at Catholic Charities NY remains as well.

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