A week after Hurricane Irma decimated the US Virgin Islands and other parts of the Caribbean, those in the territory dubbed “America’s Paradise,” are facing years of rebuilding in the long-term and restoring a sense of normalcy right now.
The Category 5 storm left much of St. Thomas looking like a “nuclear winter” as one resident described it, and looking as if someone set off a bomb in the middle of the island according to another resident. Yet even as shell-shocked residents clear debris, stand in long lines for water and food and await federal assistance, their fears have been raised anew as another Category 5 hurricane – Maria – is bearing down on St. Thomas and Eastern Caribbean.
Violette Brown, a St. Thomas native, said she’s lived through hurricanes but Irma showed her Mother Nature’s raw power and fury as the storm tore the roof off her mother’s home, forcing her and her mother to run for their lives.
“The wind was pulling [off] parts of roof and I looked up and saw the sky up there,” Brown recalled. “I said ‘Mama, we’ve got to go.’ We ran outside and I thought the wind was going to take us. I’ve never seen light poles snap. Mango trees just snapped. We had sour sap, sugar apple, mangoes and other trees in our yard. We don’t have anything anymore.”
“At 7 a.m., I saw our roof on the street. There’s debris everywhere – everything is in our yard. Our concrete wall on ground, houses have fallen down and roofs torn off. I asked ‘what the hell is going on?’ It’s like a bomb went off.”
The hurricane, clocked at speeds of 185 miles per hour, tore the roof of St. Thomas Hospital, prompting the evacuation of patients to Puerto Rico. Hotels on the beach and waterfront were severely damaged and destroyed and at the marina, boats were turned on their sides or washed ashore.
Of the three islands in the territory, St. John suffered widespread devastation to a greater degree than St. Thomas, while St. Croix, 40 miles south of St. Thomas escaped relatively unscathed.
There were new fears this week as another Category 5 Hurricane, Maria, was bearing down on the Caribbean and any already storm-weary region.
In St. Thomas, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are on the ground conducting inspections while US military, National Guards and local law enforcement are assisting with the distribution of food and water. Tim Duncan, born on St. Croix and recently retired San Antonio Spurs superstar, was on-island last week with truckloads of supplies and materials which he helped distribute. He pledged $1 million which so far has been matched by other donors to the tune of $6 million.
Employees from the US Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority have been working 12-hour shifts to restore power, although Gov. Kenneth Mapp is estimating that it might take as long as 8 months for power to be returned to the whole island.
In an interview on NBC’s Power Lunch, Mapp lauded the federal response but said “we need more help.”
In Cuba, Cuban Civil Defense officials said that Irma caused 10 deaths, five in Havana, destroyed 14,000 acres of fruit, vegetables, rice, yucca and bananas, damaged 40 percent of all sugar mills on the island and in Havana, inundated the capital city with water which with high winds, precipitated the collapse of buildings and other structures.
Roberto Chile, renowned artist, documentary filmmaker and Fidel Castro photographer for more than 30 years, captured Cubans’ reactions.
“My words cannot describe what my wife Vivian and I saw yesterday in Jaimanitas, Miramar, Playa, Vedado and Centro Habana,” he said in a letter send to friends. “Our chest tightened when we saw a city so happy, so desolate and sad. It will take time to heal us from the wound, but let us all know that we will once again be the city and the country we have always been: cheerful, hospitable, enterprising and virtuous.”
“Havana is unknown: collapsed walls, stones and water everywhere, fallen trees and electric poles, cables hanging and on the ground, dark areas, dull, pain and sorrow on the faces, especially those who lost their property or lament the loss of loved ones,” Chile explained.
“Irma’s bite will not ruin our faith or hope. The love we feel, instead of extinguishing, will shine from now on more than ever. A new blow to the life of Cubans, stronger for some than for others. But we will rise with new zeal and the same faith in tomorrow. God bless the Cuban people. Let the light be again.”