Af­ter Irma, re­solve and weari­ness

The U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands face un­cer­tain prospects of aid, and rain that won’t stop.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske

CORAL BAY, U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands — Sharon Col­dren, stand­ing on the bal­cony of the Coral Bay Com­mu­nity Coun­cil build­ing, raised a mega­phone to give a warn­ing to about 100 of her fel­low is­landers.

“There are trop­i­cal storms on the way that could be­come hur­ri­canes,” she said to a crowd gath­ered Satur­day out­side the town hall. Evac­u­ate, she said. Their last chance to leave their is­land of St. John would prob­a­bly be a free ferry the next day to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Even mem­bers of the mil­i­tary de­ployed to aid dis­as­ter re­lief were with­draw­ing from St. John ahead of the storm to avoid be­ing stranded. The en­tire is­land was still largely with­out power, run­ning water and phone ser­vice. Ga­so­line was be­ing ra­tioned by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice.

“We don’t know what kind of help we’re get­ting from the gov­ern­ment,” Col­dren said af­ter the meet­ing, and ac­knowl­edged that many is­landers wouldn’t flee, even the el­derly and in­firm who had lost homes to Hur­ri­cane Irma.

Irma killed dozens of peo­ple in the Caribbean. Some are also still miss­ing, in­clud­ing at least one cap­tain in Coral Bay who at­tempted to ride out the storm on his boat. Yet many here feel their plight was ig­nored af­ter the storm reached Florida, their ex­pe­ri­ence as Amer­i­cans for­got­ten, as if land­fall here didn’t count.

Among the three Vir­gin Is­lands that Pres­i­dent Trump plans to visit, St. Croix was largely spared by Irma. Por­tions of St. Thomas and St. John were dev­as­tated. Then came Trop­i­cal Storm Jose, which was still dump­ing rain on the is­lands Fri­day.

The small­est of the is­lands, St. John is just 5 miles wide and 9 miles long, and its 5,000 res­i­dents have a rep­u­ta­tion for friend­li­ness, which ex­plains the is­land’s nick­name of Love City.

Af­ter sur­viv­ing Irma, the strong­est storm to hit the re­gion in their life­times, and liv­ing for a week with­out ac­cess to the out­side world — in­clud­ing weather re­ports — many of the 3,000 who re­mained won­dered where they could run that would feel safer than home.

Col­dren couldn’t give them any in­for­ma­tion about the lat­est marine weather fore­casts — emer­gency man­agers were not pro­vid­ing them to her, and she didn’t have cell­phone or In­ter­net ac­cess.

“Our tarps are not up. I don’t know who’s go­ing to put them up. I want it done be­fore the storm. But how much more ru­ined can a ruin get?” she said as res­i­dents vied for her at­ten­tion, ask­ing about weather re­ports, emer­gency gen­er­a­tors and water pumps.

In the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands, a few miles away, of­fi­cials had sev­eral cell­phone net­works run­ning, and res­i­dents praised the gov­ern­ment re­sponse. Here Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency man­agers were ab­sent, Col­dren said, though they had con­tacted her.

Her own home had the roof peeled off. Her boat was de­stroyed. She’s pres­i­dent of the com­mu­nity coun­cil, and there’s too much to do.

Col­dren hoped the mil­i­tary with­drawal would not in­clude mil­i­tary po­lice, who had re­stored or­der af­ter days of loot­ing fol­low­ing the re­cent storm.

A group of loot­ers con­fronted Coral Bay denizen El­liot Hooper, 64, when he tried to stop them from steal­ing T-shirts he had saved from the storm at his store, Tall Ship Trad­ing.

Hooper said he bran­dished a ma­chete and shouted, “I’ve been here 30 years, and you’re go­ing to take my T-shirts?”

Then he stepped on a nail, and also re­al­ized there were about 10 men in the group, some prob­a­bly with guns. So he re­treated to his dam­aged black-and-white schooner, Sil­ver Cloud, built in 1899.

He lost his busi­ness and home, nei­ther of which were in­sured. He felt be­trayed by the young men who stole from him. But he would not evac­u­ate.

“This is my is­land,” Hooper said. He pointed to a cou­ple of dozen boats Irma had cast into the shal­lows among a twist of man­grove roots, bashed and bro­ken.

“Each one of those is a friend,” he said.

Cap­tain Karl Pyt­lik, 42, hiked back across the is­land af­ter evac­u­at­ing with his wife and two sons, ages 4 and 2, be­fore Irma. He wanted to check on his pets, home and busi­ness.

His house was de­stroyed. But what re­ally moved him was see­ing the snapped masts on Hooper’s vin­tage sail­boat.

“I saw Sil­ver Cloud, and I lost it,” he said.

Pyt­lik’s char­ter boat sur­vived, along with at least one of the fam­ily’s three cats, Noah, who rode out the storm in a mat­tress box spring.

Pyt­lik had no plans to evac­u­ate.

Nei­ther did Sloop Jones, 69, a lo­cal artist who shel­tered in a neigh­bor’s com­pound af­ter his home and rental stu­dio were ripped apart.

The stu­dio roof and tile floor were wet but sound, he said as he in­spected them Satur­day. Three guests had al­ready can­celed, but he hoped to have the place re­paired by De­cem­ber. He and his part­ner, Char­lotte Seashore, had cleared the road them­selves of downed power lines, tele­phone poles and other de­bris. The tamarind trees, ba­nana palms and bam­boo grove would grow back.

Then the sky un­leashed a tor­rent of rain, and the roof be­gan leak­ing. It was as if he were stand­ing out­side. He grabbed some pil­lows and stuck them in a dry cor­ner of a closet, then spread his arms wide in frus­tra­tion be­fore ex­claim­ing to the skies: “Just stop!”

It was a sen­ti­ment shared by those gath­ered at the emer­gency man­age­ment of­fice across the is­land near Cruz Bay, where a work crew was rac­ing to re­place the roof be­fore the next storms. They still didn’t have power or phone ser­vice ei­ther, said Abi­gail Hen­dricks, who was in charge of feed­ing and shel­ter­ing those dis­placed by the storm.

Her neigh­bors had con­sid­ered evac­u­at­ing, but wor­ried about get­ting stranded in Puerto Rico. One-way ticket prices to the U.S. from there dur­ing the next few days had reached $1,500.

Hen­dricks had no plans to leave. “If the is­land goes down, we are go­ing down with it,” she said.

Neigh­bor Adele Thomas wasn’t leav­ing ei­ther. She al­ready ran for her life once, dur­ing Irma.

When Thomas and her chil­dren went out­side to reach a win­dow­less cel­lar un­der their house, they were con­fronted by a small white whirling tor­nado.

“All I saw was light, this bright light, like those sto­ries they tell about when you are about to die,” she said.

They got in­side the cel­lar, but the wind pushed in the door. Thomas bar­ri­caded it with a freezer. The wind tossed that aside. She propped a spare door against it. That held.

On an is­land with a long his­tory, res­i­dents mourned the de­struc­tion of land­marks al­most as much as their own homes — in some cases, more.

Gen­eral con­trac­tor Dan Boyd, 59, lost his house in the storm, but he didn’t get choked up un­til he saw that the roof had been ripped off the his­toric Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion, a white­washed bea­con at the mouth of Cruz Bay.

Walk­ing past the build­ing, he stopped to greet lo­cal Vir­gin Is­lands Sen. Brian Smith.

What got to Smith, 52, wasn’t the dam­age to the man­sion, but rather out­side.

He pointed to what was once a row of 10 co­conut palms that had with­stood hur­ri­canes dur­ing the last 50 years, bend­ing in the wind like re­silient is­landers. Irma swept away all but two.

Mil­i­tary he­li­copters buzzed over­head, fer­ry­ing in sup­plies in from St. Croix. A lo­cal res­tau­rant, the Long­board, was work­ing with the Amer­i­can Red Cross to serve 1,000 meals a day. Po­lice were en­forc­ing a cur­few from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m., the town largely dark and hum­ming with gen­er­a­tors.

The com­ing storms would de­lay fur­ther aid. The re­cov­ery would only be slowed if more mil­i­tary forces ar­rived now, said Clay Covel, a former Marine at the in­ci­dent com­mand cen­ter in Cruz Bay work­ing with the Charleston-based non­profit Global Dirt, who also re­sponded in Hous­ton af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey last month and in New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. “As much as we want the ex­tra mil­i­tary and as­sets, if all their sup­plies get de­stroyed, you have more mouths to feed” af­ter the new storms, he said.

Or­der was be­ing im­posed on the chaos left in Irma’s wake. But for is­landers ac­cus­tomed to a ca­sual sort of dis­or­der, that, too, was dis­con­cert­ing.

“We hate sched­ules but we love rou­tines, and this is the op­po­site of that,” said Boyd’s part­ner, Fiona Pow­ell, 41, a free­lance edi­tor.

Former is­land res­i­dents have come back to help, some from as far as Cal­i­for­nia.

Raised on St. John, Mia Dixon, 28, re­turned Fri­day from San Diego with do­na­tions gath­ered at the char­ter school where she works: items from chain­saws to baby for­mula. Her fa­ther had lost his home, but he, too, was stay­ing to help. All he asked her to bring him were clean socks and wet wipes.

As the vol­un­teer boat fer­ry­ing Dixon and a former ele­men­tary school class­mate reached Cruz Bay in the rain Fri­day, they spot­ted the ghostly out­line of Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion and what was left of the wa­ter­front: the skele­tons of bro­ken ships washed up on shore, oth­ers up­ended and float­ing like corpses.

But Boyd the con­trac­tor saw some­thing else. Be­yond the bro­ken boats, past the man­sion with its miss­ing roof at the down­town park where 100-year-old ma­hogany trees had been stripped bare, a few West In­dian al­mond trees had sur­vived. And they were bud­ding.

CAROLYN COLE Los An­ge­les Times

EUGENIO SAN­TANA, 61, lost all of his house above Cruz Bay on St. John is­land to Hur­ri­cane Irma. He says he’ll stay and re­build.


BAT­TERED SAILBOATS are piled in down­town Cruz Bay on St. John. El­liot Hooper, bot­tom left, lost the mast on his boat. Adele Thomas, right, with two of her chil­dren, hid in a cel­lar as the roof came off their house.

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