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First Impressions: Virgin Islands Disaster Relief
So much to say, so little time. Hit the ground running, this unedited synopsis only scratches the surface.
I arrived sleepy-eyed and sneezy after a late night flight from San Diego to Boston, Boston to Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico to St. Thomas. Flying into Puerto Rico, the infrastructure initially appeared alive and well. The once lush, storm-battered vegetation, appeared to be returning. As we descended toward the runway, the highways seemed clean and functional. However, the closer we came to the ground, the more apparent the remnants of Hurricane Maria became. Patches of blue-tarp roofs colored entire neighborhoods of lower lying houses.
After a brief layover, we taxied slowly down the runway to depart. I noticed missing windows on many modern multistory buildings throughout the San Juan, PR metropolis area. Approaching St. Thomas, I couldn’t help but observe the rugged barren curvature of the now naked hillsides dotted with devastated structures. Shiny silver and blue tarps marked “FEMA” largely covered most of the airport terminal roof, now missing after the storms. A massive section of missing ceiling panels, still awaiting repair, didn’t stop them from reopening the widely damaged St. Thomas airport. I peered into the tinted glass of the one room airport departure hall and saw it full of people, mostly gathered around a bar area, holding plastic cups awaiting their plane, sipping rum and margaritas in true island fashion. Minutes later I too, was greeted by the Cruzan Rum tasting lady, offering free rum tastings to new arrivals as they stepped off the plane. Ah, St. Thomas, Business as usual.
Kim, a friend-of-a-friend, working on a sustainable roofing project, picked me up at the airport. Transportation was a challenge prior to the hurricanes, but became even more scarce and unreliable after the storms. Grateful but exhausted I crowded my pile of stuff in her tiny borrowed-Yaris and ventured out across the island. Though islanders are desperately trying to get “back to normal” the heavy atmosphere and somber sense of loss was undeniable. Electricity has been mostly restored for many parts of the island, particularly those catering to tourism and the hospitality industry. And while many stores and businesses have re-opened, the immense scale of devastation was still painfully obvious on every corner.
Kim invited me to go meet with her and another organization, but in my exhausted stupor, I instead went directly to my friend Susannah’s and immediately fell into a dead sleep for the next 12 hours. The following day, I met with Kim in the morning and we hit the ground running, meeting with different organizations and individuals until 12am. Yes, midnight. Informal interaction is the way of the island, and communicating an idea or gathering critical information usually only happens by interacting with people as you meet them at random times and places across the island. Our day included a (scheduled) meeting with an incredible organization, the Family Resource Center, that will be the first recipient of Kim’s sustainable roofing project, followed by several other spontaneous meetings. We concluded the day (or so we thought) by attending a FEMA meeting that became a minor disaster within a disaster, not because of FEMA, but because of an angry lawyer who hijacked the meeting with random insurance information about insurance loopholes meant to keep people from receiving insurance money. The meeting was intended to provide resources for the under or uninsured. Sadly, because of this individual and the upheaval that ensued at the meeting, I watched as many islanders seeking any ounce of hope for the restoration of their homes, left with even less hope.
And then the spontaneous meetings happened, for another 3 hours, in the parking lot and outside the local bars of Red Hook, my former neck-of-the-woods when I lived on St. Thomas four years ago. Kim zealously and strategically disseminated information about her project as she carried a shingle made of recycled plastic with her throughout the day and across the island, introducing the idea to as many “key figures” on the island as possible.
During the disastrous FEMA meeting, we did however learn that while roofing and repairs are essential, the debris removal situation on-island is rapidly devolving into a crisis of its own. With no recycling plant on island, the landfill is overflowing. The island has far exceeded its capacity to navigate trash and debris, with no immediate solutions in site. To exacerbate the situation, much of the debris is toxic, comprised of mold and lead-based paints, and anyone downwind of these chemicals finds themselves suffering with adverse reactions.
Anyone want to come and start a Recycling Plant? Create jobs and help the environment? The crisis is eminent. Elikya Connect would love to connect better environmental solutions to the Virgin Islands. If you know of any replicable technologies that might apply, we are all ears! Please send us a message. In the meantime, we want to do everything possible to support the work of Kim and her project, VI Wise, bringing recycled roofing to the VI. And, her first project will support the only known organization on island committed to domestic violence and human trafficking prevention, rescue and rehabilitation. We look forward to sharing more!
(Next week we will be assisting for two weeks physically moving debris, gutting houses, etc. on the island of St. John. Internet accessibility will be limited.)