Residents of US Virgin Islands dig out and help each other after hurricane Irma

St. John and St. Thomas residents recount tales of survival and resilience as the eye of one of the largest Atlantic Ocean hurricanes passed directly overhead.

Ian Brown/AP
This image made from video shows damage from hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Hurricane Irma weakened slightly Thursday with sustained winds of 175 m.p.h., according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm boasted 185 mph winds for a more than 24-hour period, making it the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm was expected to arrive in Cuba by Friday. It could hit the Florida mainland by late Saturday, according to hurricane center models.

There was only one staticky satellite line available to residents of St. John attempting to reach family and friends on the US mainland Friday morning. On Wednesday, the US Virgin Islands were hit by hurricane Irma, whipping through the area as a Category 5 storm with wind speeds up to 185 miles per hour for more than 24 hours.

"I've had to sit through a Taliban gunfight, and this was scarier," Laura Strickling told The Associated Press. Ms. Strickling moved to St. Thomas with her husband three years ago. She used to visit him in Afghanistan when he worked there.

"The noise [of Irma] was just deafening. It was so loud we thought the roof was gone. The windows were boarded up, so it was hot and we had no AC, no power," Strickling said. 

As the storms recede, reports on the damage left behind trickled out slowly Friday as residents and visitors to the islands contacted family members. Before and after photos posted by residents on Facebook and Instagram show the islands' trees stripped of their leaves and boats tossed like discarded toys along the shore.

Teri Wine, a resident of St. John and a concierge at The Westin St. John Resort Villas, was in South Carolina during the storm. She has been attempting to contact friends and neighbors since the hurricane hit. So far, she has been able to talk to a neighbor who reports that it took him two hours to walk a quarter mile down a road because of all the destruction in his path.

Four people were reported killed in the US Virgin Islands, according to the Associated Press. Considerable damage has occurred to property and infrastructure.

The roads across both St. Thomas and St. John are narrow and steep. On a clear day, driving the 10 miles from one end of St. John to the other could take 45 minutes. 

Melody Smith, a property manager for the past 12 years on St. John, watched news of hurricane Irma from her summer residence on Chebeague Island, Maine. Like many island residents, she and her husband, Tom Sheets, go off island during the months of August and September when the weather gets hot. Before leaving in August, they did all they could to prepare, but the eye of the storm passed close to her neighborhood in Coral Bay.

She's assuming the worst for her one bedroom wooden house. And she doesn't have insurance.

"Most residents just can’t afford premiums and the insurance companies won’t insure wooden houses,” says Ms. Smith. For many, the rebuilding process will be costly.

A number of St. John's 4,000 full-time islanders who work in the hospitality or tourist industry live aboard sailboats. But residents have reported that many boats have been reduced to splinters. 

Outside support

The US Virgin Islands have received some outside support, both before and after the storm. After evacuating as many people as possible from the islands, National Guard and port authorities closed airports and seaports ahead of the storm. In advance of the storm on Tuesday, the Rhode Island National Guard dropped two pallets of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) on the islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas, according to Col. Peter Parente.

The US Navy and the US Marines are currently focusing on clearing especially hard-hit areas. The USS Wasp was the first Navy vessel to arrive at St. Thomas bringing with it military personnel, emergency supplies, and helicopters to assist with the recovery. Two other ships, the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill are reportedly both en route from just off the Florida coast. Both ships were originally heading to Texas to assist with flood recovery there, according to CNN.

The main hospital on St. Thomas, as well as smaller emergency clinics, were damaged and helicopters from the USS Wasp have been working to evacuate patients to other facilities in St. Croix and Puerto Rico. With both military and FEMA personnel reportedly heading to the islands the priorities of emergency services are clearing roadways, evaluating infrastructure, turning power back on, clearing and repairing fields, and distributing food, water, and medical supplies.

A community strengthened by love

Country singer Kenny Chesney sent a private plane this morning heading for the US Virgin Islands stocked with water bottles and dog food for the 30 people and 10 dogs that rode out the storm in the basement of his home in St. John. 

Mr. Chesney, whose brick and stone home with hurricane proof windows was destroyed, commented on the strength of the community in an interview with HLN.

“These people are really hard workers and they’ve got great hearts, and it’s hard to rock them even with a hurricane of this size,” he said. Chesney has started a fundraising campaign called Love for Love City Foundation. He is also planning a concert to raise aid money for the rebuilding process. In the HLN interview he expressed his affection for the community, saying:“Yes, we will rebuild, and we will recover.”

The Facebook page started by Ms. Wine to connect friends and family of islanders with their loved ones has been populated with pictures and messages of support throughout the day. Some of these pictures show scenes of communal support. One Snapchat screenshot posted on the site shows a street clear of debris with the statement, “Jacobs Ladder has been cleared. No Red Cross No National Guard The work is being done by St Johnians.” 

"The community especially at Coral Bay [in St. John] is absolutely incredible," says Smith in Maine, who fought back tears when she thought of the friends she was still trying to reach. "That’s the only way we are getting news. This morning there was already a volunteer meeting and they are going out to look for people. There is so much caring in that community that they are going out to look for and help others even though their house may be in ruins.”

Fundraising for the islands has already begun. St. John Rescue, Inc., an all-volunteer group dedicated to “saving lives and building a better community through participation, education, and community spirit” started a Gofundme page, which has garnered more than $85,000 in donations, with the typical donation between $10 and $100.

Even so, full economic recovery may be a long process. Approximately 60 percent of the islands’ GDP is from tourism. 

Residents could soon be facing another storm. The island is under a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning. Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm forming southeast of the northern Leeward islands, is currently forecast to hit the US Virgin Islands on Saturday with wind speeds of 150 m.p.h.

In the face of such adversity, the island residents are leaning on each other.

“Our community is very tight knit and very generous especially at times like this," says Ms. Wine. "It is a very strong community. They call our island Love City.”

Staff writer Kendra Nordin Beato contributed to this report. This report contains material from The Associated Press.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Kenny Chesney's home. It is on St. John.

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