“After the Storm” St. Croix–
“Recovery is a five to seven-year project at best, but we’re committed and focused on it,” US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp shared with USVI News.
Governor Mapp has seen the Virgin Islands at one its’ most challenging of hours.
He spent much of the last year working from the local levels of government all the way to the federal, on bringing relief dollars to the territory.
“There’s no question that the relationship between the US and VI is closer than its’ ever been in our history,” Mapp said.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I don’t know when within the 12-month period we could ever say 148 members of the US Congress has been through the US Congress for both houses.”
Several lawmakers made visits to the territory, along with cabinet secretaries, former Presidents and the current, Vice President Mike Pence. Visibly absent, President Donald Trump.
“The president’s response to me is I’m going to surprise you one day,” Mapp said.
With great tragedy, Mapp added, comes a unique opportunity to rebuild.With federal billion dollars in federal funds set to come in. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI- At Large) is watching that closely from the halls for Congress.
“There’s been a resistance in the executive branch to release such funds in the manner that we would like,” Plaskett said.
Plaskett added that we’ve seen this in everything from the roof rebuild to the education system. The return to school this year delayed for 10 schools throughout the Virgin Islands due to ongoing construction from the storms. FEMA opened up about their lessons learned.
“It all comes down to communication, strengthening communication between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Virgin Islands Territorial Management Agency and the Virgin Islands Government and getting that message out to Virgin Islanders,” Eric Adams of FEMA said.
The VI Government collected their takeaways from the storm by way of creating a hurricane recovery task force and compiling a 280-page report and opening it for public feedback.
None of the people above denied the work that still lies ahead or forgetting the incident that changed the islands forever.
“While our direct lives lost remain in the single digit really following the storms, really so many of our friends and family just passed from the trauma of it and the stress and pressure of the storms,” Gov. Mapp added.
“Road to Recovery” St. Thomas —
With the heavy weight of a long recovery still lying on the shoulders of the VI. Communities pushed forward and in true Virgin Islands fashion, no Category 5 Hurricane was going to stop their party.
One of the islands longest running traditions, Carnival, went on, even in their most difficult year. Troops came out, some dancing for the first time since the storm.
Many events didn’t shy away from the reality of the year. The first annual Poker Run at Crown Bay Marina in St. Thomas called their event “Irmageddon.” Owner of the marina, Kosei Ohno crafted the trophy out of collected debris from the storms. He designed in a way to represent the light at the end of the tunnel.
“So this trophy was made with mostly from a fractured telephone pole and when I saw it and even though it was rough at the time I saw some beauty in it. In the same way I saw some, even though the hurricane devastated the Islands it brought some beauty out of it too. People working together, people helping out each other,” Ohno said.
And people coming together. Countless community events continued throughout the year gave islanders a way to let off steam after a tense several months.
“I really thought that after the storms last year that it might but Erik was like nope we’re having it two storms aren’t going to keep us away. So it’s a little bit smaller this year but that’s ok- just like the Island it will rebuild,” Ronette Phelps, Head Judge, Chili Cook Off said.
“Unseen Scars” St. John —
The light heartened moments helped, but soon after the reality of the recovery settled back in. The reality that really no one was spared in the devastation.
“Everybody lost something,” Bryan Barnes, Chief at St. John Rescue, said.
Bryan Barnes was there when the first winds came through, and he was there long after. As a member of St. John Rescue, he saw the tragedy first hand and put others needs before his own.
“What was tough, in the first few weeks, we were so focused on helping other people that it took a lot of sort of outside intervention to say, you need to go take care of your stuff.”
Barnes’ own home was washed away, Now with every rain fall, his senses, spike. His emotions are still raw from 12 months ago.
“Seeing all the people come in, people come in to help, that was huge,” Barnes said.
The wounds from the storms are very much still healing.
Doctors seeing a rise in those seeking mental health treatment in the weeks and months following for depression, stress, and trauma.
“We were so booked ahead of time the minute we announced it that we started someone else right away,” Sandy Colasacco a Family Nurse Practitioner at Island Health and Wellness said.
Sandy Colasacco original office was destroyed in Hurricane Irma. This was opened by November that same year but was only meant for primary care visits. When Colasacco heard the number of patients struggling with mental health issues, she knew she had to do something.
“Having it here where they often come as their first stop, when they come to see their provider, then I can easily refer them,” Colasacco added.
Before and after the storms there was a severe lack of mental health services on the islands. That’s when people in the community, and places like Island health and wellness stepped in to give people a way to cope.
“The uninsured rate, from the survey we did in March 2016, it was 72% of people that did not have insurance that covered primary preventive care and mental health is included in that and post storm so many people lost their jobs,” Colasacco added.
Starting in April, Island Health and Wellness started offering mental health services for just $25 dollars a session to ensure anyone who needs someone to talk to can get help.
And so many, from first responders, to tour operators to restaurant workers, still feel the trauma today.
“It was one of the scariest situations I’ve ever been in in my life I would never like to go through that ever again,” Brian Olson, Head Bartender at Aqua Bistro said.
Brian Olson moved to St. John five months before Irma, five months later, everything changed. He still has his job at Aqua Bistro in Coral Bay, but like many other bartenders and waiters, faces daily questions about what he went through from tourists and visitors.
“If they ever have any questions about the storm or what people went through I really have no problem sharing with them. It really is a unique and interesting experience that we all went through here and theres really no way to explain it to them but I try my best.”
Owner And Vacharat added, “Some don’t know and they’re really trying to understand what’s happening but often it is difficult to talk about.”
“We had a staff meeting about how to respond to customers that were unsatisfied because maybe they didn’t get cheese on their sandwich and you have just come in after you don’t have a vehicle you don’t have a roof you don’t have running water or power and you’re trying to get your kids taken care of or your kids aren’t even here because they have been evacuated and how do you handle the situation somebody upset about a piece of cheese, “she said.
Owner of Aqua Bistro, and also President of St. John Rescue and Director at Island Health and Wellness, Andy Vacharat, knows just how challenging the recovery has been. And she does weekly or daily check ins with her staff and friends.
“Now it’s like, ok you’re not doing alright so let’s take a step back let’s get you off island for a couple of days lets get you a vacation a few hours off whatever you need or just sit down and talk and have a drink and see what you need.”
Whether at the local bar, or doctor’s office, people are asking for help and opening up about the year they went through. Something the Island shares, for better or for worse. And just like each step of this recovery process, they’re in it together. As they continue on this journey, after the storm.
USVI NEWS would like to thank each person in this piece and also those who weren’t featured. These Islands could tell a million stories, we’re just grateful to share a few of them with you.
“How you can help”
Love City Strong:https://www.lovecitystrongvi.org
Love for Love City: https://loveforlovecity.org
Ridge to Reef: http://www.ridge2reef.org
Tillett Gardens: http://www.tillettgardens.com
Hurricane Recovery Task Force: https://www.usvihurricanetaskforce.org
St. John Rescue:http://www.stjohnrescue.com
Island Health and Wellness: https://islandhealthcenter.org
Aqua Bistro: http://www.aquabistrostjohn.com