Devastated by Irma, Virgin Islands Torn Between Fight and Flight

The lush greenery has been stripped bare, homes have lost their roofs and cars lie crushed under utility polls. St. John, part of the Virgin Islands struck by Hurricane Irma last week, couldn’t look less like a tourist destination.

Many local residents are giving up and getting out after losing everything to the category 5 storm, even as the local authorities in the U.S. territory say they are determined to rebuild the islands.

Damaged buildings and trees in St. John on Sept. 12.

“I have no job, I have no house, I have no money,” said Miriam Martinez, who works as a housekeeper and chef on St. John. “I can’t stay here.”

The US Coast Guard arrived Tuesday to help transport evacuees and some tourists off the island. Many people are heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for medical care, or to reunite with their families and find out where they can go next. Martinez waited on the dock for hours to see her daughter, son and two grandchildren off as she planned to stay another month on the island. She couldn’t afford to leave herself. 

U.S. Coast Guard evacuation efforts in St. John on Sept. 12.

Many have come here from the U.S. and are going back to their families on the mainland, said Ian Samuel, a volunteer and resident of St. John, who was helping evacuees leave the island. Some are comparing Irma to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which cost the territory about $3.6 billion.

Fighting Back

“Our main staple as an economy is tourism and we want folks from the wider U.S. community or the market to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands on a regular basis,” the US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp said. “We don’t want to be wiped off the list” of tourist destinations.

That won’t be easy for a while. On St. Thomas — the larger sister island and heavily marketed to tourists — there was even more devastation. Four people were reported dead, with some residents complaining that government aid had not come to them sooner.

Ruth Petersen, 90, who lives alone in a second-floor apartment, said the heavy rain and wind blew out her shutters. That’s when she hiked herself into her bedroom, away from the windows.

“Everything’s gone. Everything,” she said. “I know they couldn’t stop the hurricane, but then, come around. Come in and ask how we’re feeling.”

Trump Visit

President Donald Trump is expected to visit the Islands within a week, Mapp said. He said the president had passed along his “well wishes” for the residents.

“We’re not going to have recovery in an instant,” Mapp said. “We’re managing the expectations. This is not a sprint.”