I Grew Up In The Virgin Islands; Never Before Have I Seen A Storm Do Damage Like Irma Did
Note: This post deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas. I talk about death and the fear of (parental) death related to the hurricane. But don’t worry, my dad is fine. At the end of the post, I include links for people looking to donate to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
More stressful than worrying for my own safety as Irma approached South Florida was worrying about friends and family members in the storm’s path through the Caribbean.
I grew up in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.
Yes, that St. Thomas.
I lived through Hurricane Marilyn — a Category 3 hurricane that battered St. Thomas and destroyed part of my childhood home — hiding in the hallway of my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Tutu. I turned fifteen hiding underneath a couch as Hurricane Wilma battered Florida in 2005— after multiple other hurricanes had already done the same thing.
I thought I was used to hurricanes.
Irma was the first storm where I wasn’t simply frightened for the people that I loved, but was sure that we would all die. I literally feared for my life and for the lives of my friends and family members both here in Florida and across the Caribbean.
At first, there was a part of my brain that honestly didn’t believe that Irma would be that bad. After all, we survived Wilma as a Category 4 so this couldn’t be too difficult. I got cocky. Somehow, despite seeing Harvey wash away Houston, Texas only days before, my inner islander was dead set on believing that things wouldn’t really be that bad.
Then Irma wiped out Barbuda.
Then it took its 185 mph winds to the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Irma destroyed my home island.
Places that I visited, houses that I’ve driven by, are all wiped off of the proverbial map. The lush green forests and beautiful beaches that made St. Thomas such a notable island destination were all but washed away. The island, from above, looks brown. There appears to be little (if any) vegetation left standing. The heart-shaped Magens Bay is a muddy mess.
The apartment buildings that my grandmother lived in — and that my almost eighty-year-old aunt lives in — are all but destroyed.
Many of the buildings had their walls blown out from the air pressure and the valley behind the apartments is filled with the furniture of dozens (maybe hundreds) of people.
Many of these people are either elderly or parents of young children. All of them are poor. None of them can afford to rebuild or move off of the island.
The first deaths reported on the island came from those buildings and those blown out walls. One of the people that died was a woman that my mother had known for decades and who was an island staple up at the local mall. I don’t know who else has died, but I know that more deaths will be reported as the island is opened up to rescue and relief efforts.
The private school that I attended as a small child had its roof ripped off in the middle of the storm. I watched a video on Facebook that showed Irma’s powerful winds peeling back the top of the school like it was no big deal. Within seconds, a school that had survived since my sister was a child was left open to the elements.
The hospital’s roof failed. The police station was damaged (maybe destroyed). Fire stations around the island were wrecked and I’m pretty sure I saw someone say that the Home Depot was blown away. (But that I’m not sure of…)
As the storm died down in St. Thomas, we started to see the first images of St. Thomas. Few people had cell phone service — most people don’t — and hardly anyone has power, but the images that we were seeing from the island was terrifying. The news — coupled with pleas from people who’d lost contact with their loved ones — was heartbreaking.
There were trees and boats everywhere. Power lines lay scattered across cracked asphalt and cars were crushed under the weight of telephone poles. Many buildings lost their roofs. Some buildings lost their walls. Others were blown off of their very foundations. The waterfront where I set “The Carnival That Comes After” was unrecognizable due to the storm surge. There were landslides everywhere.
I saw Facebook posts and comments from people who lost contact with their family members whose houses were flooding or whose roofs had been blown off. I saw people terrified for the safety of their family members and sick with worry.
And I was one of them.
My father lives on St. Thomas. Born in Nevis in 1939, my father has lived through everything that Mother Nature has seen fit to through throw at the Caribbean since then. However, he’s almost eighty and he lives by himself.
I spoke to him the day before Irma hit. When I spoke to him, he’d finished putting up his storm shutters and was preparing food to eat during the storm. It was all so very routine. I told him to make sure he had some canned food and I asked him if he wanted to try getting off the island. I was willing to terrorize airport staff to make it happen.
He just laughed it off and asked me if I was trying to boss him around.
Of course I was.
After Irma hit, I thought my father may have been dead. I thought, seeing the destruction of buildings far sturdier than the little house that I’d grown up in, that there was no way that he would have been able to ride out the storm. Every time I tried to calm down, I would picture him hurting or even dead and I would catch myself sobbing. My eldest niece and I put our heads together and tried to figure out how we could get in contact with someone that could go up and check on him. We had no luck.
Then, one of my older brothers shared an aerial photo of the neighborhood that my father lives in.
Seeing the red roof of his little house intact but covered in the remains of our famous mango trees was the first time I could feel any bit of relief. It was only a few days later, when I was myself bracing for Hurricane Irma in a hurricane shelter, that I received word that not only did one of my cousins manage to check on my dad after the storm, but that we had photographic proof that he was fine and I could breathe easier.
But my father isn’t the only person I love on that island.
I spent the first ten years of my life on St. Thomas. I have cousins, friends, crushes, teachers, and pastors on that island and I still don’t know how some of those people are faring because not all of those people have or use Facebook. There are people that I love that may be dead or dying right now and I may not find out for weeks because entire areas of the island are impassable and so FEMA/the Red Cross have been unable to do any significant rescue/recovery efforts.
Many members of my immediate family on St. Thomas are okay. Their homes may be damaged or destroyed, but they are fine and as safe as can be. However, for the majority of the people on the island, things aren’t so simple or easy.
I saw a report today that 90 percent of the buildings on St. Thomas were destroyed and that forty thousand people are homeless. The population of St. Thomas is only fifty-two thousand. That means that most of the people on the island have no homes and no shelter. It will take years to rebuild post-Irma and I don’t know how people are going to manage in the meanwhile.
I don’t know that the island can survive another storm.
At this point, a stiff wind might just be the end of the island.
Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are two US territories that never really get much attention in the news unless it’s about how bad we’re doing financially. Even now, as relief and recovery efforts commence, news stateside still glosses over the fact that the people of these islands are US citizens. They focus on “American citizens being evacuated from the islands” where “American citizens” is code for tourists. They talk about the islands as a paradise reduced to rubble as if the people that live there are little more than set dressing.
It hurts to see how the little coverage that the USVI and Puerto Rico gets in the mainlandis focused on tourism as if actual people who have lived on those little islands are less important than some temporary visitors.
In my heart I know that the Virgin Islands will recover eventually.
We’ve weathered other storms and will weather even more. However, if this is what Hurricane Season will look like in a world wracked by climate change (and populated by climate change deniers), they’re going to need some help to get back on their feet
I have been trying to do some research on organizations to donate to that will help the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico specifically. Here’s what I’ve found so far and I’ll update this as I find more reputable organizations that are sending resources and/or funds to the islands.
Retired NBA player (and Virgin Islander) Tim Duncan has put out a call for folks not to forget the US Virgin Islands in relief efforts. He has also started a fund to donate money directly to the islands that he will be matching up to the first million.
Then there’s the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands’s Fund for the Virgin Islands.
On Facebook, four friends formed the Virgin Islands Relief Foundation in order to help people in the islands affected by the storm. They’re collecting necessities to send to the islands. You can find them HERE.
Additionally, if you want your money to go directly to St. John — whose 5000ish residents are without power and housing at the same or worse levels than the residents of St. Thomas — there’s the St. John Rescue Inc.
You can also sign up with the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. They’re registering volunteers to help in Puerto Rico and other areas affected by the storm.
This post on tumblr lists different organizations that you can donate to in lieu of the Red Cross (which basically screwed Haiti over after the earthquake in 2010).
If you know of any organization or individual attempting to raise money or send supplies to the Virgin Islands and/or Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Irma, please send them my way!
The people in the islands feel like US citizens on the mainland have forgotten about them so let’s prove them wrong in a big way!