For 22 years, the U.S. Virgin Islands have been fortunate. The last major hurricane to impact our islands was Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. A generation of Virgin Islanders have not known what it was like to live through or recover after a major storm.
But in the span of two weeks last year, between September 6 and 20, our territory took direct hits from two Category 5 hurricanes. Irma struck first, pummeling the northern two islands of St. Thomas and St. John. Maria quickly followed, making landfall on St. Croix. Let that sink in – two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks, resulting in $10.8 billion dollars in damages. Five people died in the immediate aftermath, but the storms were also responsible for a number of deaths due to a lack of basic health services.
After Irma wiped out St. Thomas and St. John, farmers from St. Croix donated 8,000 pounds of food to their sister islands. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria’s 137 mph winds destroyed all crops on St. Croix. United Way of the U.S. Virgin Islands was able to provide clothing, tools, and ironically, food to these very same farmers in St. Croix.
Out of necessity, I became skilled in logistics and supply chains. Through the generosity of grassroots efforts of Virgin Islanders living on the mainland, and the assistance of Crowley Maritime Services, we quickly and safely distributed food, water, clothing and other supplies from Florida to families in need in St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. These donations came from countless companies and individuals throughout the United States. One example – 16 pallets of bleach – were sent to public schools to clean and ready them for reopening. Our warehouse on St. Croix, which was filled to capacity four times over the past year, continues to support our long-term recovery efforts across the islands.
We still have a long way to go. Affordable housing, which was difficult to find before 2017, is virtually non-existent. Countless homes are covered with blue tarps, with many abandoned and damaged beyond repair. Our libraries and schools need new books. With so few hotels operable and the subsequent effect on tourism, the economy has taken a long-term hit throughout the territory. Like others in the Caribbean, we fear the damage another hurricane might bring to our islands. Anxiety and stress run high, highlighting the need for mental health support.
In the midst of all of this, United Way of the U.S. Virgin Islands sponsored the territory’s spelling bee. It might seem like an unlikely move on our part, but it was a source of pride to the entire territory and provided a small bit of normalcy and happiness to our students and their families. A year ago, who would have imagined a spelling bee would be part of our response to these unprecedented disasters?
Reflecting on the past year, we are grateful to so many for their continuing generosity. Donated supplies to replenish our partner agencies, schools and our warehouse are still pouring in and are distributed as quickly as possible. United Way of the U.S. Virgin Islands is here for the long haul and will continue fighting for every person impacted by these storms.