March 11, 2018
200 mph SUSTAINED WINDS!! 200 mph!!! Can you imagine sitting in your home, in the dark, for almost 12 hours, listening to winds of this strength battering your house… and not just once, but twice within two weeks?!?
Minnehaha has been in the US and British Virgin Islands since late December and we’ve heard many stories from residents who lived through Hurricanes Irma and Maria last September. Residents who have lived here for decades shake their heads and have told us they have never seen hurricane winds reach this level.
I have never experienced a hurricane first hand. My only experience has been television coverage of hurricane destruction such as Katrina, Irma in Houston and Homestead, Florida in the early ‘90’s. Coverage of those stories lasted as long as the hurricane itself and then moved on to other news events. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first arrived in St. John in early January. My only experience in the area was a one-day cruise stop in St. Thomas 6 years ago, so I had no prior memories to compare the ‘before and after’.
At first glance, when we arrived 4 months after the storm, the full level of destruction was not readily visible and it took some time to grasp the true extent. Green foliage has returned to the island and some flowers are blooming. Residents recounted walking out of their homes, after the storm passed, and finding every bush or tree that was still standing, completely bare. Not one leaf remained. Others shared stories of driving across St John (an island that is 8 miles long) and not knowing where they were because the landscape was totally different. Valleys and buildings that had never been visible before the storm, suddenly were. Of course, thousands upon thousands of trees were blown down, but now the majority are covered over by the returning foliage. The hillside foliage somehow looks ‘blunted’. It reminds me of the trees that are found at the top tree line of mountains – stunted and twisted because of the harsh weather conditions.
Some damage was immediately obvious when we arrived. Sailboats had been washed up on shore and now were lying on their sides. Other boats that were tied to mooring balls had lost their masts or had broken windows or severally damaged hulls. The US Customs office in St. John had been completely demolished and is now a tent set up on the pier. Many buildings were missing their roof or were covered with blue tarp. The hurricane doors and shutters on many shops and restaurants were closed and padlocked with no sign of opening anytime soon. Frankly, some of the less affluent neighborhoods have the appearance of a 3rd world nation and it was hard to determine how much of the debris and damage was the result of the hurricane or the normal living conditions
On St John, two of the major resorts, the Westin and Caneel Bay, were so severally damaged that neither is open. The Westin is scheduled to open in January 2019 and the future for Caneel Bay is uncertain.
Infrastructure on the island was destroyed and is slowly coming back. We found internet access at the Market Place, a mall that houses a grocery, drug store, deli, bank and other various businesses. People gathered at outdoor tables in the courtyards accessing free DIRT public wifi. Some businesses have wifi/internet but its spotty and not available to customers. AT&T has the best coverage in the USVI but we have been able to use Verizon for phone and text.
Many areas did not have electricity or water for 4 months. In late January, we drove to Coral Bay located on the east side of the island, which had been really slammed by both Irma and Maria. Utility trucks from Joplin, Missouri were installing new electrical poles and finally bringing electricity to those areas after 5 months. Think of the challenges of replacing infrastructure in a location like St. John or St. Thomas. Utility trucks and workers are brought half way across the U.S. to be put on a ship for transport to the Virgin Islands (or Puerto Rico) to replace infrastructure that was completely destroyed.
FEMA is present and residents say it has helped but mostly, as in disasters around the world, the locals have helped and supported each other. In Coral Bay, in the weeks immediately after the storms, residents in that area gathered at the local fire station at 10 am every day to get the latest updates on what was open; where could they find water or phone service; were grocery stores stocked, etc? All the myriad day-to-day services we take for granted. Many left the islands for a few months until things began to sort themselves out. Livelihoods and businesses were destroyed. Charter captains of sailboats found new work as construction workers or waiters or bartenders. Outside labor was brought into the islands due to a shortage and many were housed in cruise ships or in places like the Westin, where some rooms were undamaged and available. The influx of laborers is an offset for some businesses, such as restaurants, that have experienced a major decline in tourists.
After Irma the USVI relied on Puerto Rico, which is about 90 nautical miles from St. Thomas, as a source for emergency supplies. The situation became even more desperate with the arrival of Hurricane Maria 2 weeks later when it hit both the USVI as well as Puerto Rico.
The Coast Guard had a contract with Restore, a Florida firm, that brought in barges to recover boats and debris from the local waters. A representative of that company told me that as of mid-January they had pulled almost 300 boats from the waters around St. John. There are boats that are being chartered despite the tremendous loss of boats from the charter fleet. However, popular bays and locations, where, in the past, you had to arrive by noon to get a mooring ball, there are plenty that are free any time of day – which is an advantage for us but is an example of the diminished charter business.
In St. Thomas, the Yacht Haven Grande which caters to large private or charter yachts and is next to the Cruise Ship pier, appears to be 80% empty. It has wonderful cement piers with a row of 2×4 boards running the full length through the middle of the pier. We were told by a project manager that the boards in those piers were lifted and loosened by the hurricane. One 180 ft. steel-hulled sail yacht banged against a cement pier so hard that it destroyed the cement. That Hull had to be cut into thirds and lies along the shore of the harbor. Most of the stores in the complex are closed.
The next challenge for the islands – what to do with all the storm debris? There are big and small piles everywhere. I’m told most of it will eventually be put on barges and shipped to landfills and recycling centers on the mainland.
It is not all gloom and doom, however. The islands are on the road to recovery but it will take time. I left the area for two weeks in late January to head back to Minnesota and Florida and it was gratifying to see how much had changed in just that short time. Repairs are being made everywhere. More openings; more clean-up had been done; and noticeably more tourists on the street.
Tourists are coming back but we are told its very slow compared to the norm. We’ve met a few who have spent time in the area and love it so much they wanted to come back to support the economy. In fact, we have had several restaurant owners and staff who have made a point of thanking us for being in the islands and supporting them.
Grocery stores are open and fairly well stocked. For example, in the Starfish on St John you can get the essentials, as well as a good selection of liquor and wine (also essential) and gourmet cheeses. Each week more and more shops, bars and restaurants open. In the face of the challenges, its amazing how many restaurants have white tablecloths and the food is fresh and delicious. Shop owners have told me they are treading water to get through this slow season but they are optimistic they will be back next year. Cruises ships, usually two, arrive in St. Thomas every day and the jewelry stores that St. Thomas is known for, are all open, busy and selling.
The coral reefs were hit pretty hard and when you snorkel you can see the destruction. Again, the good news, the sea life is plentiful, which is essential for the reef recovery, and you can see new, colorful coral slowly growing. We have seen many varieties of reef fish along with many rays, sea turtles and starfish.
I don’t know that any of us, who have not lived through a natural disaster can appreciate the impact it has on a community – both the negative but also the positive such as the people pulling together to help each other.
The hurricanes were not successful in destroying so much of what makes this area so special and beloved by so many. It is incredibly beautiful with its many islands and their mountainous terrain all covered in green. The water is so clear you can readily see the bottom and sea life below and the color is everything you’ve seen in pictures. The beaches are still white sand and clean. Rainbows, sunrises and sunsets rarely disappoint. And the temperature for the day stays in the range from 75 -85 degree F with cool tropical breezes at night for easy sleeping. There is almost always wind for a nice sail and getting from one island to the next.
I’ve mostly written about the US Virgin Islands and the following pictures were taken around that area. In my next blog, I’ll write about what we’ve seen and experienced in the British Virgin Islands, which were also victims of the hurricanes.
Thank you for taking the time to read the Minnehaha blog and please, share any comments or thoughts you might have as we love to hear from you and please share this with others that might be interested.
Miscellaneous pictures of hurricane destruction:
Customs building in St. John destroyed – now housed in tent
Recovery of a dinner boat that never had its first voyage before Irma hit
Caneel Bay Resort hurricane damage
Lost boats and recovery barge in Coral Bay
Yacht Haven Grande Marina and the destroyed 180′ Steel hulled yacht
Piles of debris and damaged appliances
Cruise Ships are in and jewelry stores are selling`
Help in different ways
‘Irmaria’ cannot diminish the beauty of the area
Charlotte Amalia, St. Thomas at sunset from aft deck of ‘Minnie’