Per­se­ver­ing in Irma’s wake

Irma tests the tenac­ity of self-suf­fi­cient res­i­dents as they start to re­build

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA an­thony.faiola@wash­post.com

U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands res­i­dents set up tents and start to re­build.

CORAL BAY, U.S. VIR­GIN IS­LANDS — “Hello, good morn­ing,” said Dan Snyder, a first re­spon­der comb­ing St. John, a Caribbean isle hit so hard by Hur­ri­cane Irma that one aid worker de­scribed it as look­ing like an A-bomb went off. “You all okay?”

Lu­cia Fran­cis, 62, sat out­side her sis­ter’s yel­low wood home, her right hand swollen from an in­jury she sus­tained while hold­ing her front door as Irma ripped it off. Her roof is down the street. Her Frigidaire peeked out from the de­bris field where the rest of her house once stood.

Aid work­ers asked to see her hand.

“No, no, I’m okay, I’m fine. It’s noth­ing,” said Fran­cis, a bor­nand-raised is­lan­der, hold­ing up her hand, which had just one fin­ger wrapped with a sim­ple Band-Aid. She sur­vived the storm by run­ning to her 2009 Ford pickup.

“Maybe I’ll lose a nail. It’s fine,” she said. “Right now, all I need right now is a tent.”

They call it is­land per­se­ver­ance. A sense that you wouldn’t live here if you couldn’t take the pit­falls along with the plea­sures. Irma is test­ing that per­se­ver­ance to an ex­tent many here never thought pos­si­ble. But St. John’s no­to­ri­ously self-suf­fi­cient res­i­dents are push­ing back.

There is no elec­tric­ity, and there won’t be for months. So what? If you don’t have a gen­er­a­tor, get one. If you can’t af­ford it, get a tent.

No bath­room? No prob­lem. “The woods,” said one is­lan­der who planned to set up a tent by his de­stroyed home. “For cook­ing, look,” he said, point­ing at the ru­ined land­scape of downed trees. “You can’t say we don’t got fire­wood.”

On Wed­nes­day, hun­dreds of first re­spon­ders — the U.S. mil­i­tary, the Na­tional Guard, the Army Corps of En­gi­neers, FEMA and a le­gion of vol­un­teers — combed St. John, tak­ing on the her­culean task of en­sur­ing that cit­i­zens of the dev­as­tated U.S. ter­ri­tory are ac­counted for. As of Wed­nes­day, 30 peo­ple were still miss­ing. Author­i­ties sug­gested, but would not con­firm, that there had been one or more fa­tal­i­ties.

Ob­sta­cles are for­mi­da­ble here, even in the best of times. There are no real ad­dresses on the is­land. Di­rec­tions amount to turn­ing right at the gnarled tree.

But the gnarled trees are gone or un­rec­og­niz­able. Irma’s winds didn’t just knock them down and take their leaves. They stripped their bark off. There is vir­tu­ally no cel­lu­lar ser­vice, no power, no land­lines. Emer­gency 911 num­bers are down. A re­lief WiFi net­work that went live Tues­day kept col­laps­ing.

De­spite a large-scale clear­ing op­er­a­tion, dec­i­mated trees and downed power lines clog sec­tions of roads. On Tues­day, author­i­ties found one el­derly man, a U.S. mil­i­tary vet­eran, lan­guish­ing in the rub­ble of his wood-frame hut. He had come back from his shel­ter in search of his heart med­i­ca­tion. They did with him what they’re do­ing with most dire cases — air­lifted him out.

There are more than a few peo­ple in des­per­ate need. Here in Coral Bay, the is­land’s sec­ond­largest town and lo­cated in St. John’s east end, the shel­tered har­bor has be­come a soup of bro­ken boats. Dis­con­nected res­i­dents streamed down to a makeshift aid cen­ter at the lo­cal fire depart­ment.

There is no cell­phone re­cep­tion to no­tify fed­eral author­i­ties, and any­way, Wendy Davis, a Vir­gin Is­lands fire­fighter, lost her phone in the storm. The ra­dio is bro­ken. But they’re try­ing to do the best they can.

“What’s wrong, how can I help?” Davis asked as a fran­tic el­derly woman ap­proached.

Donna Traina, a na­tive New Yorker and re­cent is­land trans­plant, ex­plained that her hus­band needed medicine for Crohn’s dis­ease, and the phar­macy was ask­ing $3,647.

“I don’t have it,” she said. “And my hus­band is on oxy­gen 24 hours a day. We’re run­ning out of gas for our gen­er­a­tor.”

Asked why she wouldn’t leave the is­land, she shook her head. “My hus­band! He won’t leave. He just re­fuses. I just re­tired,” she said, her voice crack­ing. “I’m 74 and we worked all my life for this. And then God sends us Irma! My hus­band just won’t leave.”

Yet on an is­land that takes pride in a do-it-your­self life­style, when aid work­ers sought to help the some­what less needy, they some­times found the needy didn’t want help. Dur­ing one house in­spec­tion, aid work­ers en­coun­tered a man who walked out of the shell of a house smok­ing what ap­peared to be a mar­i­juana cig­a­rette.

“All good here,” the man said. “I’m just wait­ing on a tent.”

“I had one woman yes­ter­day with a huge hematoma that took 20 min­utes to be drained,” said Sean Rig­gins, a New Jersey po­lice of­fi­cer vol­un­teer­ing in the St. John’s aid op­er­a­tion. “She was like, “I’m fine, go help some­one who re­ally needs help.”

Snyder, a Colorado fire­fighter who vol­un­teers for Global DIRT, a sort of non­profit SWAT team for dis­as­ter zones, cruised down wind­ing moun­tain roads, dodg­ing downed power lines and trees be­hind the wheel of a gray pickup. “I was at Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina,” he said, ex­hal­ing air. “I tell you, this ri­vals the dam­age there.”

On an is­land where com­mu­ni­ca­tion technology has failed, the best way to find folks in need is old school: Ask around. He gets a tip from some younger is­lan­ders try­ing to clear a de­bris field about an el­derly cou­ple nearby who might need help.

“Good morn­ing, hello?” Snyder called out. John Tira, an 82-year-old is­lan­der, am­bled up to greet him.

“How you do­ing to­day?” Snyder said.

“Oh, well, my back ain’t too good th­ese days,” Tira said.

Snyder paused. He meant the hur­ri­cane — the fact that he’s got no power, no phone and blownout win­dows.

“Oh, well, we’re okay, we can’t get the gen­er­a­tor work­ing, but she’s cook­ing cof­fee and tea with the gas,” he says, point­ing to his 74-year-old-wife. “The only thing I re­ally miss is the ice.”

MICHAEL NA­GLE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Some are clean­ing up in the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands, but oth­ers are giv­ing up and leav­ing even as author­i­ties say they will re­store the ter­ri­tory.

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