The view from a destroyed apartment at the Tutu High Rise, a public housing complex wrecked by Hurricane Irma. Photo: Jack Gruber / USA TODAY

By Fredreka Schouten
9 November 2017

St. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands (USA TODAY) – I first glimpse the damage to my home island from afar: A line of beaches pounded clean of sand by hurricane-driven waves. Blue tarps covering scores of roofless homes as my small commuter plane heads for a landing at the airport here.

Up close, it's worse.

Stately mahogany trees, standing for generations, are uprooted in the historic harbor town of Frederiksted, where I was born. My junior high school's windows are blown out and the grounds littered with twisted metal. The roof of my brother’s home has been torn off, his possessions exposed to the rain and bright tropical sun.

This is my third grim homecoming to the U.S. Virgin Islands after a devastating hurricane. The first: Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, whose 140-mph winds punished St. Croix for hours, damaging or destroying more than 80% of its buildings and wiping out the electrical grid. Next came Hurricane Marilyn, which pummeled St. Thomas in September 1995.

This hurricane season, though, has been the most ferocious in modern history for this cluster of American islands in the Caribbean.  Two Category 5 storms battered the territory in a single month. Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms of the century, landed first, pounding St. John and neighboring St. Thomas, the islands’ tourism and economic hub, on Sept. 6.

Hurricane Maria arrived two weeks later, lashing the southwestern corner of St. Croix before churning on its deadly path to Puerto Rico.

As I visit St. Thomas and St. Croix nearly eight weeks after the first storm, Virgin Islanders are in the grips of a long and painful recovery.

  • Electrical power, unreliable even before the storm, has not been restored to most the islands’ 105,000 residents. Critically ill patients have been evacuated from the islands’ two hospitals, which Gov. Kenneth Mapp warns will “have to be rebuilt from the ground up.”
  • Telephone and Internet service remain spotty, prompting merchants, even at busy shopping centers, to warn customers that “Cash Only!” would be accepted. The damage to hotels is so extensive that two cruise ships serve as floating hotels on St. Thomas and St. Croix to house the throngs of off-island relief workers.
  • Thousands of islanders, some seizing on free “mercy” flights and cruises in the storms’ immediate aftermath, have left — perhaps never to return. [more]

No electricity, homes in ruins: A reporter goes home and finds misery, hope and resilience in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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