Hurricanes Irma and Maria both hit the U.S. Virgin Islands in September as rare Category 5 storms, but the devastation there has been largely overshadowed by the damage and death this year’s hurricane season left behind in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean nations.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were as hard-hit as any place in the country; in a territory with just 103,000 residents, more than 33,000 individuals and families have applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and government agencies reported Thursday that 73 percent of customers still had no power. The storms so denuded the islands’ lush vegetation that where they once showed up in satellite photos as green jewels in the sea, they were brown after the hurricanes passed.
Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp said Thursday at a news conference that he would go to Washington this coming week to request $7 billion in aid. After taking a group of senators on a tour of the destruction, he said in a statement earlier this past week, “It is so critical that Congress sees firsthand the challenges we face in rebuilding our infrastructure.”
More than two months after the disaster began, many residents are still grappling with daily survival; serious rebuilding remains. To see how different corners of the islands are faring, The New York Times checked back on some spots that we visited and photographed not long after the storms.
Leaving an Apartment on St. Thomas
For two months, Kimmeiqua Mahoney, her husband, Shawn Mathurin, and their three children tried to tough it out in their waterlogged apartment on St. Thomas, without electricity, trying in vain to keep things clean. But they gave up and moved this past week to a home where the power is on.
Mahoney, 25, was eight months pregnant when Irma ripped away their doors and windows, allowing the blast of rain into their old apartment. It was as if someone aimed a fire hose at everything inside, and left it running for hours, she said; two weeks later, Maria turned the hose on again.
They have replaced or boarded over the openings, but the walls inside are “still wet to the touch,” she said. “The bathroom roof is falling apart. There’s a lot of mold, greenish and bluish, coming out of the walls.”
Nearly everything they owned was ruined. An outer wall of their apartment, in a building in the Tutu High Rise Community, shifted in one of the storms, so the rooms flood anew with each rainfall. Their only way to cook was on a campfire, and with no refrigeration, they had to be careful to buy only as much food as they could prepare and eat each day. Across the islands, mosquitoes and flies proliferate in the standing water and rotting garbage, and like many people, Mahoney, unable to close her home to the elements, worries about a disease outbreak.
Now, she has an added worry, an infant to care for — Trinity Luisa Mathurin, born in a hospital Oct. 19.
The baby’s arrival helped persuade the parents that they had to move, Mahoney said, “because it’s not sanitary.”
But she is acutely aware that others are less fortunate. She and Mathurin have been sheltering neighbors whose apartment lost entire walls, so that their furniture literally blew away.
With many homes destroyed, their family is not high on the list to get a more intact unit in the Tutu complex, a public-housing project — but that is as it should be, Mahoney said. The storms left their 2011 Toyota Yaris with shattered windows and soaked upholstery, but to her surprise, it runs.
She used to work at a hotel, but the storms put it out of business. After a few weeks, roads were cleared and some cell service returned, so her husband, a painter, was able to reach his boss and return to work on repair projects.
“It feels like we’re actually making a bit of progress,” she said. “But it’s still such a long, long way to go.”
Waiting to See About a Restaurant on St. Croix
The storms hit Cibone, a restaurant in the historic district of Frederiksted, on St. Croix, so hard that the owners, Almitra and Gregory Richards, have not even been able to assess the damage.
“The landlord has workers in there making sure it’s structurally sound,” Almitra Richards said. “Until then, we can’t even get in to see if the equipment is OK and start serious cleanup. I think we can scrub down the furniture and salvage it, but we don’t really know yet.”
Like thousands of other structures around the islands, the restaurant is topped by a blue tarp, covering a damaged roof. At least some buildings in the historic district still did not have electricity, their tenants said, but some businesses with generators and lighter damage have reopened.
When Irma blew past, Cibone lost power and the food spoiled, so the staff threw it all away, cleaned, and stocked up with fresh supplies. Then it happened again with Maria.
Almitra Richards, 38, said they have no idea when they might be able to reopen, but the restaurant is not their biggest concern.
Maria peeled the carport and part of the roof off their nearby house and filled it with water.
“I tried salvaging our clothes, and I got my son’s diploma, but almost everything else is gone,” she said. “The mold is pretty bad, so we wear masks when we go in there.”
The family is staying with relatives, and trying to figure out how to pay for home repairs.
Almitra Richards’ older son, Ahmad Williams, 18, was visiting relatives in Baltimore when the storms hit, and for now, he is staying there.
After the storms forced the islands’ schools to close, she worried that her younger son, Ahmil Williams, 12, had too much time on his hands and too little to take his mind off the devastation. St. Croix’s schools finally reopened in late October and early November.
“We thought about sending him to stay with relatives,” she said, “but I think he needs to be with us.”
Laying Off Workers at a Resort on St. John
The Caneel Bay resort, a luxury vacation spot on St. John, was forced to cancel its entire November-to-August season and lay off some 300 workers, said Patrick Kidd, director of marketing. The 2018-19 season remains a question.
“We had only about 30 rooms out of 166 that survived pretty much intact,” he said. “There are probably some buildings that will have to be completely demolished, while others can be repaired, but we won’t really know until we get structural engineers and architects in there to assess the prospects.”
The resort has generators, so it has been able to supply food refrigeration and ice to some island residents, and it has provided accommodations for some recovery workers. In the last week, parts of the island’s power supply have gone back online.
Kidd said he was struck by the patchwork pattern of destruction. “Some buildings were completely destroyed,” he said, “and others just nearby were pretty much intact.”