ST. CROIX, Virgin Islands – As the Virgin Islands makes strides recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria, the united effort of government, private sector, nongovernmental agencies and humanitarian groups to meet survivors’ needs remains strong. Recovery after a disaster requires all levels of government, nonprofit organizations, private-sector businesses, and even survivors — each drawing upon their skills and capabilities to meet the needs of disaster survivors.
On Sept. 6, 2017, the eye of Hurricane Irma made landfall just north of the U.S. Virgin Islands, as a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane. Extreme winds and heavy rainfall ravaged St. Thomas and St. John. Powerful gusts and downpours unleashed a blow to Charlotte Amalie’s waterfront pushing water and debris into homes and local businesses.
Gladys’ Café was not spared, owner Gladys Isles recounts her experiences following Irma. “The floor of the restaurant was like a big chocolate cake, but it was easy to clean. We started to hose it down September 7, and people came in to help. Anyone who was looking for work was coming in to help. We cleaned all day.”
Ms. Isles and her staff, served free meals of johnny cakes, rice and beans, oxtail and goat, banana and pumpkin fritters, and bush tea to thousands of St. Thomas residents immediately afterward. Much of the food had been stored in airtight containers and could last for days. Food that could spoil, Gladys took to her home that was powered by a generator and where she had a freezer. The dedicated crew only stopped serving when food or the gas to cook ran out.
Power and gas came back about a week later but new alerts soon began, Hurricane Maria was approaching and gaining strength. It directly hit St. Croix on Sept. 20, once again bringing torrential rains to St. Thomas Harbor. Mud and debris rushed back into Gladys’ Café, and Ms. Isles, her staff and friends, again cleaned the restaurant and then served the beleaguered friends and fellow survivors, who were joined by first responders and emergency workers coming in to help out in the recovery effort.
Gladys’ Café continued to support the St. Thomas community in November when the café distributed clothing, school supplies, snacks, and held a Kids Fun Day on Nov. 12, with a bounce house at the Royal Dane Mall on the St. Thomas waterfront. “I was just glad to help all the people and glad to open the restaurant as fast as I could. We were able …to keep the restaurant afloat and keep the staff,” said Isles.
VITEMA director Mona Barnes commended the generous effort, “Gladys Isles and her restaurant are one example of the many Virgin Islands’ individuals and businesses who pulled together to help their communities. Their selfless acts of kindness and concern for their fellow citizens typify the spirit of the Virgin Islands. We are extremely grateful for their unwavering support and unsolicited help.”
In the months since hurricanes Irma and Maria hundreds of local and visiting volunteers have spent their time, energy, and compassion helping survivors. Dozens of local, national and international groups have been on the ground in the Virgin Islands, providing lifesaving and life-sustaining food and water, hot meals, fresh clothing, cleanup kits and much more for survivors in need.
More than 100 AmeriCorps members and volunteers took on some of the toughest jobs in the months after the hurricanes hit – mucking out sodden homes, cleaning up debris and working on rooftops to make emergency repairs.
In St. Thomas, AmeriCorps members worked side by side with All Hands and Hearts volunteers, a disaster relief organization, ridding homes of waterlogged furnishings and ripping out wet and damaged drywall, insulation, appliances and more. Some worked outside, using chain saws to remove battered trees that threatened to topple onto people’s homes; others cleared debris to make way for repair crews or installed tarps on leaky roofs. Still other members managed a newly established multiagency warehouse that provided commodities, supplied by FEMA and community donations, to relief organizations for distribution to survivors in need.
AmeriCorps members and volunteers in the Virgin Islands mucked and gutted nearly 40 homes, removed almost 122 hazardous trees, and cleared more than 1,860 cubic yards of debris, ensuring more residents are able to return to their homes. They have also collected and distributed more than 25 tons of food and sorted approximately 7 tons of donations.
Divisions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have supported the many humanitarian and nonprofit groups working in the Virgin Islands. From the beginning the agency’s voluntary agency liaisons helped coordinate activities among the many voluntary and nongovernmental organizations on the ground and provided technical advice to local groups to continue the recovery process.
The agency’s Disability Integration teams continue to actively reach out and respond to the needs of survivors, assisting some of the territory’s most vulnerable residents. Team members work closely with social service agencies, such as the Virgin Islands Department of Health, the American Red Cross, the State Nurses’ Association, and the Disability Rights Center. They have also partnered with the Atlanta based relief organization, Friends of Disabled Adults & Children, to deliver hundreds of donated assistive medical devices to hurricane survivors who needed them.
Hundreds of homeless dogs, cats and other four-footed hurricane survivors found new homes and comfort thanks to a joint initiative among territorial, federal and nongovernmental partners. With support from the FEMA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, teams from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) provided comfort and medical care to more than 450 dogs, nearly a dozen cats, and several large animals including horses, pigs and a donkey. Additionally, thanks to the nonprofit group Cloud Nine Rescue Flights, nearly 100 homeless dogs were carefully put in crates and transported to shelters in New York and Florida to find their new families.
In the aftermath of disasters like hurricane Irma and Maria, survivors need help that is both short term for immediate needs and long term for getting back to normal. Throughout the Virgin Islands long-term recovery depends on the behind-the-scenes work of local organizations like the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and the St. John Community Foundation. Who better to understand the unique needs of a survivor on the road to recovery than people from that survivor’s community?
These groups have been involved in raising funds and directing assistance to survivors and will continue their work long after government agencies have left. Additionally, long-term recovery groups have been formed. Consisting of local grassroots organizations, and faith- and community-based groups, these organizations will continue to address survivor needs, distribute resources, and help reinforce vital support systems for months and years to come.
“Every disaster recovery mission poses unique challenges,” said Federal Coordinating Officer Chris Hartnett. “But when local communities and residents must deal with back-to-back catastrophic hurricanes across three separate islands – amid ongoing dangerous storms and flooding – the challenges to recovery mount considerably. The support and involvement of nongovernmental humanitarian and private-sector groups and business in the Virgin Islands has been immeasurable. FEMA will be here for the long haul continuing to rely on the hard-work and efforts of our partners from across the whole community to rebuild and strengthen the resiliency of the Virgin Islands into the future.”
FEMA’s mission is helping people before, during, and after a disaster.
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