Lengthy Recovery for St. Thomas, St. John
St. Thomas and St. John took a catastrophic blow from Hurricane Irma, and it will take a long while for those Caribbean islands to bounce back.
The Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas was left in shambles, although the airport tentatively set a Sept. 16 reopening for relief and supply flights.
"This is a horrific disaster. There will be no restorations or solutions in days or weeks. Let's manage our expectations," warned Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp in the Virgin Island Daily News, three days after Irma passed.
Compounding the calamity were complaints from visitors and locals that federal response was slow to come in the first days after the storm, that distribution centers had not stockpiled enough basic provisions and that information was nonexistent.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Brock Long met with Mapp in St. Thomas on Sept. 12 and reiterated the U.S. government's commitment to assisting the U.S. Virgin Islands with its recovery efforts.
"We're going to be here a long time," Brock said.
The storm knocked out power and cell service on St. Thomas and St. John, leaving a communications blackout. Uprooted trees blocked streets, leaving no means of egress from damaged structures. There was no way to pump gas, get cash at an ATM or get bottled water.
FEMA officials toured St. Thomas and St. John to get a clear picture of how the agency can best assist those islands in both the short and long term.
Mapp asked for help in getting ice and large-sized tarps distributed on the ground. Many of the tarps that were available were not large enough to secure most roofs.
Mapp plans to establish a public-private sector task force to work on rebuilding both islands' economies.
FEMA officials said they would soon be on the ground to get the Loan Assistance Program up and running. However, the immediate priority is ensuring that Virgin Islanders have food, shelter and medical assistance.
"Once we get our situation stabilized and our people taken care of, we must focus on economic recovery," he said.
Both Brock and Mapp agreed that the recovery effort should include improved building codes and stronger infrastructure.
The third island in the USVI, St. Croix, 40 miles south of St. Thomas, was spared the storm and is serving as a temporary staging area for government aircraft, U.S. Army National Guard troops, Marines and private relief efforts. Flotillas of private boats with relief supplies are crisscrossing the waters each day from St. Croix to St. Thomas and on to St. John.
San Juan is spearheading efforts to take in evacuees and deliver relief supplies by ferry and airdrop from helicopters. Cruise ships have played a big role in evacuating tourist and residents from the two islands.
Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism, said that Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas extended its departure from St. Thomas to San Juan on Wednesday to 6 p.m. to accommodate more people.
"We have been advised that the American Red Cross and the government of Puerto Rico are coordinating ground support in San Juan and helping to rebook flights," she said.
On the hotel front in St. Thomas, Bolongo Bay Beach Resort posted on its Facebook page that it was "very lucky compared to many other properties."
"We have high expectations to begin taking guests again by Nov. 12. Our phone lines into the resort are still inoperable but we will address all of you once we are back up and running," Bolongo Bay stated.
The resort currently is housing U.S. Border Patrol, government officials, FEMA and many employees who lost their homes. Bolongo hopes to set up one of its buildings for displaced employees to reside as the island rebuilds.
Bluebeard's Castle Resort sustained major damage, which is still being assessed. Point Pleasant had damage and the team is assessing it. Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort is closed while damage assessments are underway.
The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas is closed until further notice, and Sugar Bay Resort & Spa sustained significant damage and is closed through the end of the year. Secret Harbour Beach Resort has a working generator, no major structural damage and is waiting for power and cell service.
Windward Passage is closed for six months.
St. John took an even harder hit than St. Thomas. More than 80% of its structures are extensively damaged, roads are impassable and food and water are in short supply, according to Stacie Plaskett, a delegate member of the Virgin Islands delegation in Congress, who was interviewed on CNN.
"Both islands are facing major challenges. The airport in St. Thomas looks as if grenades were exploded inside. We are getting support now from FEMA, the Department of Defense and the federal government, but it is going to be a long road to recovery," Plaskett aid. "There was panic initially but it has settled down and everyone is trying to work together."
Caneel Bay on St. John sustained heavy damage as did all of the homes of its employees. The Westin St. John Resort Villas also had serious structural damage.
Source: Travel Weekly