St Thomas is a vacation paradise for millions of annual visitors, they arrive daily by cruise ship, by plane, on charter boats. They arrive seeking the sun, the tranquility of our beautiful beaches, they enjoy our amazing food, they drink our rum, they come to get married in paradise, they return for their anniversary. However, for the island’s 50,000 permanent residents, this small rock in the middle of the ocean is our home, she’s just a little rock, surrounded on all sides by turquoise waters.
What the sea bringeth, it also taketh away!
For us, it is where we live, where we work, where our friends, or family, our businesses are, it’s where we gather for meals, where we celebrate holidays, it’s where we grieve, where we celebrate, it’s home, it’s our home, and this is our story.
St Thomas is no stranger to hurricanes, while many of you have 4 seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, we have 2, Tourist Season and Hurricane Season. We earn money when the island fills with guests, and then as the winds begin to shift ever so slightly, as the rains begin to fall and the tropical waves push through, we watch, we wait, we listen. St Thomas is just a few miles wide in each direction, hurricanes comes and go, no one really worries too much about a storm 10 days out, because a slight shift of just a few degrees in the path can push the storm hundreds of miles out to sea. So last week, as Hurricane Irma was just a tropical wave coming off of the coast of Africa, it was business as usual on the island, we went to work, kids prepared to go to school, we cleaned our houses, we did our laundry. By Sunday September 3rd, there was an ominous threat loaming in the Atlantic, Hurricane Irma was a Category 4, the Hurricane Hunters had begun making flights to penetrate the eye wall and get a clear understanding of the force, size, and direction of the storm so those in the path could be as prepared as possible.
The first question many people ask is, why didn’t they just leave? St Thomas is served by several airlines, but with a handful of commercial flights daily and many of those filled with tourists, outbound flights quickly filled, prices skyrocketed, by Monday when everyone was certain the storm would make landfall directly on USVI, commercial tickets were $6,000 one way, charter flights were filling quickly and there was no way for anyone to leave. When you live on a little rock in the middle of a stormy sea, you do what you can, you gather the needed supplies to provide for your basic needs, food, water, batteries, and cash. You begin to secure your belongings, you board up your houses, you make a shelter for you and your loved ones, you have the hard conversations, no one wants to have. You call your family back in the states and through the tears, you try to be brave. You tell people you love them, you sort through your home and find the things that are most important to you. Then you help your neighbor.
I’ve never had to sort through my things and decide what I am going to try to save, knowing I will probably lose everything I own-KC
Throughout the day Tuesday our phones rang, our friends called, our parents called, our cousins we only talk to every few years called, we were flooded with messages from people we barely know, they all saw what was coming, they all had the same message, please be safe! They saw the same images we saw, the looked on in horror as the shear size of Irma loomed over our tiny island community, even a glancing blow from a storm of this size would bring hours of devastating winds and torrential rains. But this was to be a direct hit, packing with it hurricane force winds never before measured, rainfall rates of over 6 inches per hour, and no sign of hope. We fought back tears, we huddled together, we prayed, and we got to work!
For those of us fortunate enough to be back in the States for the storm, all we could do was watch and wait. We checked and rechecked forecasts, we relayed information to our friends and families, we hoped for the best, but we were prepared for the worst, we would lose our homes, our cars, our livelihoods. Our belongings were at the mercy of the sea, and she is a relentless force. We made phone calls, we made sure our friends had a place to be that was safe, we double checked on supplies, we made sure there was no one that felt like they were alone. At times our phones would ring and we would sit in silence with the person on the other end, we were both sobbing, we had no words, we just needed to feel connected, to feel like we weren’t alone, we needed to feel love. We needed people who understood what it is like to be so isolated. Living on an island is unique, there are no roads to truck in supplies, there is no convoy of boats coming to help, or line trucks coming to restore our power, our ports are closed, our airport is closed, we can’t get out, and no one can get to us. We are used to cargo ships getting delayed, we get accustomed to the grocery stores running out of milk because the boat hasn’t made it there, but this is different. We are alone, and alone is scary.
Sometime Tuesday evening the power went out, WAPA (Water and Power Authority) shut down all of the grids in preparation for the storm, it was dark, and eerily quiet, but for the constant hum of the diesel generators around the island. We lit candles, we read books, we kept our spirits high, we waited.
Dawn broke early on the island, and by 9am on Wednesday September 6th, many of the island’s residents were as safe as they could be in shelters, bath tubs, lower level apartments. Many of our buildings are built to hurricane standards, constructed of reinforced concrete with hurricane windows, storm shutters and back up power, but this storm was different, this storm is a monster with wind speeds stronger than a Category 5 and it is bearing directly down on us, there was no where to go!
Those of us in the States kept in touch with our friends, we watched webcams as the first bands of wind and rain began to violently lash at the island, boats began to break free of their moorings, trees began to be stripped, and slowly communication was cut off.
At 1:36pm, everything went dark!
The eyewall passed over the island, we saw it coming, we watched the radar, we could only imagine the sounds of the winds beating on the walls of the houses, the rain relentlessly pounding its way in, we cried, we called each other, we waited minutes felt like hours, hours felt like days, we would pray, we would call and pray together, and we waited, for what felt like eternity. It could take days for reports to trickle in, we knew that, power was out, the towers that provided vital communication would never withstand the winds, it could take weeks for them to restore these resources.
Slowly reports began to emerge, a small network of friends began to reach out, one at a time, hour upon nail biting hour, a text here, a satellite call there, someone saw someone, the coconut telegraph began to get word out. With each new report of the safety of one person came a little sigh of relief, and mounting concerning for those still unaccounted for! Are they safe? Why aren’t they responding? Where are they? Calls from family of friends begin to flood in, many of whom know no one on the island except their husband, or father, or daughter, they all came with the same sense of desperation, the same overwhelming sense of urgency…can you help? Quickly a small group of us scattered around the country began to do what we could! We reached out, one person at a time and began to look for people via text message and phone call. One by one they began to turn up. Every Time someone was located we paused for just a moment, we said a quiet prayer of gratitude and we got back to work, we clung to our phones, we waited for them to ring, we couldn’t eat, we didn’t sleep, we just worked.
Calls of desperation turned into little miracles, moments where time stood still began to be private celebrations of life, but there was still more to be down, the calls began to be replaced with a single unified voice…how can we help?
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –That perches in the soul –And sings the tune without the words –And never stops – at all –And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –And sore must be the storm –That could abash the little BirdThat kept so many warm –I’ve heard it in the chillest land –And on the strangest Sea –Yet – never – in Extremity,It asked a crumb – of me.
Born from the wreckage in the wake of Hurricane Irma, VIStrong.org emerged. A small group of stateside Virgin Islands Residents began form a team, focused on raising awareness, raising relief funds, compiling resources, and connected the needs of our community with those whose hands were outstretched with aid. We worked diligently to build a reputable public face, to create a supply network with drop off staging areas, we secured planes, we made new connections. People called needing helicopters, people called offering search and rescue teams, people offered boats. The response from the nation was overwhelming! Tears of worry turned to tears of gratitude! We knew our island friends were hard at work cleaning the wreckage, we wanted them to know we were just as hard at work getting them what they needed, we wanted them to know one thing.
You are not Alone!
With so many needs to be met we had to decide what we could do to help, we knew would could be a single source for reliable information but beyond that our goal was to coordinate relief supply efforts for the staging area in Philadelphia. We needed a place for people to send things, and we needed to tell people what to send.
We established the drop off location:
VI Strong: Virgin Islands Relief
East End Excursions
Puerto Del Ray
4900 State Road #3
Fajardo, PR 00738
We have created a list of needed supplies which can be sent directly through Amazon to our location, where it will load on planes, and then on shipping containers for transport to those in the USVI community who are in need!
This is our little piece of the puzzle, this is what we can do to help, there are thousands of people out there helping, each in their own little way, and our tiny island is grateful for the love and support it is receiving. When you ask, what can I do? Let us help you answer that, monetary donations help, more than anything, clear and present needs arise, charter boats working on evacuations need fuel, shipping containers cost $3,000 to ship from Jacksonville, Florida to St Thomas. We are raising money to send where it is needed when those needs arise, it’s a leap of faith, we are asking you to trust us with your hard earned money, so here is our response, and this is personal.
This is our home, these are the streets we drive on, each of us has a story of how we got there, and why we never left, we each do what we can when we are there to make your paradise and our home a little better of a place. We walk down the streets and we wave at our neighbors, we hand water to the same homeless man everyday, we go to the shelter and we walk the dogs, we pick up trash off the road because it ends up in the ocean you come to play in. We dig through the jungle to rescue animals, we each in our own way give back everyday to this place we love. We know this island, we know it’s people, we feel it’s pulse coursing through our veins. We are asking you to trust us, when we say the supplies will get there, and when they get there, they will make their way to those most in need, not because we know how that will happen, but because we know our people, we know that they will skip a meal so a child can eat, we know they will hand their last bottle of water to an elderly person in need, because we are a community, and we have only each other to rely on, because we are VIStong!
ps The best thing you can do for the Virgin Islands right now is be a voice, advocate for relief efforts, share this with your local media…make sure they are not forgotten!