Gut-wrenching and Glorious
Grueling, gritty, gut-wrenching and glorious. Yes, glorious. Minuscule, but monumental, glimmers of hope and breathtaking beauty imbue the catastrophic and widespread destruction. My time serving in devastated St. John for two weeks proved all of the above. (So much so, I’m going back. See “The Latest” below.)
Serving in other disaster-zones around the world couldn’t quite prepare me for the reality of what I’ve encountered. This time, it’s personal. My island home of two years, the U.S.V.I., remains a close-knit community, for better or for worse. Every day I’ve discovered a place or person dear to me affected by these horrendous forces of nature.
I entered my first work site and stood momentarily stunned. Complete and total loss. Approaching six months later, the home had remained untouched since the hurricanes, in exactly the condition the family, and the storms, left it. Wearing a high-grade respirator, the stench of mold and rotting substances still somehow wafted into my mask. And the black mold that covered virtually every belonging in the hurricane-ransacked house, left even the most precious of personal items toxic to touch.
Instinctively, I started setting aside any potentially salvageable belongings. We tried to save a few items like the passports we found in Ziploc bags. But almost all else, the clothes still hanging in the closets, the curtains still blowing eerily in the wind, the photo albums and cassette tapes, the suitcases that somehow remained on the beds as the family prepared to pack and leave before fleeing…all were enveloped in toxic mold and had to go.
“Mucking and gutting,” now referred to as “cleaning and clearing,” entails removing all debris and stripping the house down to its studs and foundation to sanitize the wood and provide a clean start for rebuilding. By the end of the day, I began to witness this bittersweet but fundamental metamorphosis. I too, personally gripped this glimpse of glorious hope for each of the families and sites that we assisted.
Though assistance at sites typically ranges from 1-3 days, we spent eight days at the farthest eastern point of St. John for a particularly devastated property. Geographically isolated, the couple had little access to resources or help.
All Hands and Hearts, the phenomenal organization I worked with, was the first to offer aid to this family in the nearly six months since the storms. By the end of these eight days, we too witnessed the glory of glimmers of hope restored to this uninsured family that had sold everything to start a dream home on St. John. The work of multiple small teams of volunteers saved this couple thousands and thousands of dollars in clearing, cleaning and gutting costs, expediting their journey toward restoration and rebuilding. Mysteriously
and perhaps miraculously, we couldn’t reconcile our limited time frame and little teams with the overwhelming amount of work completed for this site. We watched as the couple embraced these glorious ounces of hope, transforming from a shell-shocked state of despair to a newfound motivation to move forward.
Back on St. Thomas
I returned to St. Thomas after two weeks of exceptionally long days, strenuous physical conditions and communal living/sleeping arrangements. Even with that exhaustion, I still can’t fully grasp the days and months of strenuous survival experienced by courageous, weary, but resilient Virgin Islanders.
I had hoped to meet with existing organizations on St. Thomas to better connect future resources with ongoing needs. However, new challenges greeted me on St. Thomas. Unreliable internet, data and cell coverage, left me also tasting the frustration of daily life for islanders the last six months. Simple endeavors, like scheduling and arranging meetings, became more complicated as I found myself daily driving around the island chasing cell signals or wifi.
Ultimately, meeting with several organizations confirmed my suspicions. The small pool of resources and aid organizations assisting St. Thomas, had already dwindled dramatically. Only a few reputable organizations remained, dedicated for at least the next few months to engaging the daunting obstacles faced by across the U.S.V.I. The Virgin Islands desperately need help for the long-haul.
- Cruz Bay, St. John has undergone a massive clean-up effort in recent months. Up to half the number of the previous establishments like restaurants and grocery stores have reopened.
- Cruz Bay’s previous party atmosphere seems far more somber and empty. People are justifiably tired. Many St. John residents evacuated between or after the storms and are yet to return.
- The U.S. Customs office in St. John was destroyed, so boat charter companies to the British Virgin Islands no longer operate out of the East End of St. Thomas or Cruz Bay, St John, if their boats survived at all.
- Coral Bay and East End of St. John experienced extreme destruction. Geographical challenges make accessing scarce resources more difficult. Many homes and structures remain untouched, awaiting any kind of assistance. All Hands and Hearts has served as the “first responder” for many homeowners, now almost six months later. Wind, mold and water damage is unfathomable. Hundreds of micro-tornadoes generated during Irma decimated, or lifted and relocated, entire structures away from their foundations. Entire housing units “stand” moderately intact, but now 20 to 30 feet away from their original site.
- St. Thomas has also made tremendous strides toward recovery in a short amount of time. However, though many restaurants and stores have reopened, the devastation is still immense. Downtown is functional, but the tops and sides of many buildings reveal the remnants of destruction.
- A majority of all of the resorts and hotels on St. Thomas faced significant damage and will remain closed for the rest of the year, if not longer.
- Cruise ships however arrive almost daily, providing an awkward juxtaposition of happy tourists meandering through rapidly revamped tourist locales, surrounded by obvious broken buildings and structures. Many cruise ship companies quickly invested both physical and financial resources to repair parts of the island and reintroduce tourism. Altruistic or ulterior motives aside, they provide a huge benefit to the local economy.
- Despite these commercial strides, St. Thomas still has a very long way to go, especially for devastated homeowners.Most homeowners in the U.S.V.I. are uninsured for a variety of reasons. Those who were insured currently face an inordinate amount of red tape and ever-shifting “technicalities” preventing them from receiving desperately needed assistance.
- Hurricane season resumes in just a few months, and many people have started ominously counting the days, a common topic of conversation frequently overheard in many public places.
Though I planned to depart back for San Diego early this last week, my flights were cancelled and new opportunities arose. I’ve booked a new flight home for mid-April. For the next few weeks, I will return to St. John and continue working with All Hands and Hearts, assisting with logistics and media. I can’t say enough great things about this organization and their work around the world and in the U.S.V.I. If you are considering short-term opportunities assisting with disaster relief across the globe, check them out.
(While food and housing will be covered in St. John, additional support to subsidize costs of food, gas, flight, etc. is always appreciated. Thank you so much for your continued enthusiasm and assistance!)