22 May 2018
Richard has often called the US and British Virgin Islands "hurricane alley," because so many tropical storms turn into hurricanes as they pass overhead, and so many hurricanes come straight through this region. It sometimes feels like we have a target drawn on some celestial map, and both sets of islands are in the bull's eye.
So I thought I'd include photos of both the beauty of St. Thomas, USVI, as well as some of the destruction caused by Irma and Maria in 2017. Some people call the storms Irmaria, because they were only about ten days apart. And what are the chances of two Category 5 storms coming through the same islands in one year? (Unfortunately, the chances are better than anyone would hope.)
The first photos show the damage at the little hotel we're staying at. I don't know how many rooms are okay - our room is fine. No leaks, no visible water damage, windows are fine. But the room next door is missing the back. Really, the entire sliding glass door, which makes up most of the wall, is just gone. The windows are missing glass. Pieces of the ceiling are gone. Paint is peeling off the walls. No furniture is standing, there's just a jumble of broken glass, broken ceiling, pillows, curtains, and slats of blinds in a sodden heap on the floor, awaiting insurance adjusters or someone.
At the other end of the building, parts of the roof are missing, and are covered with the signature tarpaulins of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Walls are good, but there are some missing pieces. I can't get around the back of the building to see how many rooms are missing those glass sliding doors that lead to the balconies and decks, so I really can't say how many rooms are damaged.
The building we were in last year is missing the entire roof. Really, a three story building with probably 25 or so hotel rooms, with no roof. A few doors were open, so I peeked in - again, the sliding glass doors that make up the wall of the rooms were missing, and the interior was a mix of furnishings and broken glass/ceiling/debris. Totally unusable at this point.
Plus I shudder to think about what animals might wander in and out of these rooms at night. Our friends who own this hotel feed and take care of stray cats, and a friendly black cat accompanied me in and out of the rooms. I'm hoping he and his friends are keeping the rats and mice away - but hurricanes damage trees and the bush, and then the rats and mice move inside wherever they can. (At least we don't have poisonous snakes here - just some nasty things like scorpions, tarantulas, and giant centipedes. When we lived here, we've had all of those inside our various apartments. Plus a tarantula in my car one season.)
The pool deck and the side of the pool structure are damaged, and the walkway from our building to the pool is gone. Tile, rebar, cement just collapsed and sort of hanging there. So we go the long way around.
One building of rooms is just fine. The other pool is wonderful. The office building, and the little casino downstairs, all seem to be untouched. And the murals my students painted years ago, exterior paint on plywood, are all looking bright and cheerful, despite the damaged buildings.
There's a new restaurant, so we can get lunches or dinners. But the little store and coffee shop is missing part of the roof and the entire back of the building. Again, just gone. Disappeared in pieces into the bush, or blown away to somewhere else.
Hurricanes as big as Irma (the size of France!) and as powerful (sustained winds of 225 miles per hour) just blast through and create a path of destruction similar to that of a tornado. Actually, a hurricane is basically a giant tornado or cyclone, but with rain in addition to the wind. So, yeah, there's a lot of damage.
And everyone has a story. Roof broken in half and flapping all through the storm. Windows blown in or blown out. Walls caving in. Flood waters rushing through. Coming out of the broken houses to see bare ground, because these winds blow the grass right out of the earth.
But people are resilient. People rebuild, and start over again. Items that can be salvaged are dried and saved, other items are replaced. Businesses start up again, eventually electric poles and lines are repaired or replaced, and life slowly gets back to normal.
That's the point the islands are right now, slowly getting back to normal. Several schools are on double session to accommodate another school where the buildings were destroyed, or because the one school had so much damage that only half of the classrooms can be used. Schedules and people adjust.
But major hotels won't re-open for another year, because they need to be rebuilt. Some of the large stores caved in, roofs collapsed, and the buildings have to be gutted and rebuilt. Some items are difficult to find, and prices are high because everything has to be flown or shipped in. Life on an island.
The most worrying thing is that there is still debris all over, with HUGE piles of metal debris in a few strategic areas around the island. One pile looks like cars that were damaged, as well as galvanized metal from either storm shutters or roofing. I'm talking a pile of debris that is the size of a one-or-two-storey building, possibly the size of a city block!!! Huge amount of garbage that cannot be burned or buried. And no place locally for recycling.
The official beginning of hurricane season is June 1. Yes, nine days away. So all of this debris is really worrisome. In another storm, all that metal garbage, plus all the debris hidden in the bush, will go flying in those 100-200 mph winds. They all become lethal objects at that kind of speed. This much debris can take out windows, shear roofs off cars, and you don't want to even think about what happens when a person is hit by roofing or a flying car.
Yes, people are on edge. Stressed from the storm, a little bit of PTSD, stressed about the coming season. Trying to keep cheerful and maintain normal life while living in improvised shelters and rebuilding their house upstairs, or around them.
It isn't easy.
Friends have said that it helps just to be listened to. So while we haven't done the kind of volunteer assistance we thought we might be doing, we're doing a lot of listening to hurricane stories.
The other photos - Frenchtown, always colorful and picturesque with the small fishing boats. This is a small peninsula on the outskirts of downtown Charlotte Amalie (pronounced Charlotte a-MAHL-ya), once home to much of the island's French population (from St. Bart's). We have several favorite eating spots down here, so this tends to be where we hang out and run into friends.
And the beach is Magens Bay. This beach was once named one of the world's top ten beaches by National Geographic magazine. From end to end, the beach is just about one kilometer (.6-something miles), and beautiful. Sandy, tree-lined, with a long peninsula at each end. This is called a pocket beach, because those two peninsulas (maybe a mile or so long) form the sides, and the beach is the bottom of the pocket. The peninsulas help protect the beach, but in a hurricane they really don't help. So the water brought the sand up and covered the road, plus brought broken coral and small rocks up from the bottom. This once sandy and smooth beach now has some rough spots, with that rock and coral mix littered on the sand. Trees blew into the bay, and there's also house debris in the water as well.
But it's still a gorgeous beach, and our Sunday ritual is to have a late breakfast at the snackbar, then play in the water or walk the beach. Magens is one of the best spots on island to run into friends while relaxing - the quintessential island hang out.
So, we're enjoying our time on island. We're helping where we can. We're boosting the island's economy. And, as always, we're finding our own fun.
After so many years living here, our hearts really have been with the people of the VI. Watching the destruction and aftermath of the storms was emotional and depressing. Seeing the rebuilding, as well as the cheerful faces of friends, former co-workers, and for me, former students, has been one of those events that renews our faith in the human spirit.
Yeah, this has been a worthwhile visit. Maybe more for us than for the islands.