It’s been one year since hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean leaving behind an unprecedented amount of dam-age. As Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands rebuild know that progress is taking place and realize that recovery is a whole-community effort. Through a unity of effort from all levels of government, private sector partnerships, grassroots organizations and other local agencies, recovery continues. Stories like the one featured below about Gladys’ Cafe in the U.S. Virgin Islands and many others demonstrate the resiliency of the people whom were affected.
Local Café Supports the St. Thomas Community
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.
On Sept. 6, 2017, the eye of Hurricane Irma made landfall on the northern edge 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 Sept. 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 because 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.”
Resilience Begins with Mitigation: High Wind Design and Construction Workshop Takes Place in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Simpson Strong-Tie, one of the leaders in engineered structured connectors and building solutions, hosted two workshops in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 25 and Sept. 26.
The free workshops held in St. Thomas and St. Croix were tailored for design and construction industry professionals, designers, engineers, contractors, architects, building code officials, and homeowners. Attendees learned how to implement the fourth edition of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Construction Information for a Stronger Home, a guide that describes the requirements of the revised USVI Building Code. Participants also learned about wind loads and how to establish connections for a continuous load path.
After a presentation by Simpson Strong-Tie technical staff, attendees participated in several hands- on demonstrations to give them an opportunity to engage with a variety of new products. There was an increased emphasis on products that were engineered for stronger home building and resilience as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Free copies of the Stronger Home Guide and other FEMA publications were available for all whom attended.
FEMA Partners with Architecture School to Redesgin Vieques Ferry Landing
FEMA has partnered with the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture to develop a conceptual urban design plan for the Vieques ferry landing, where many tourists disembark to enjoy the small island’s natural beauty.
FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Support division invited the university to participate in redesigning the landing area to create a more accessible and appealing entryway for tourists. The design project will improve pedestrian pathways to nearby Muñoz Rivera plaza.
The goal is to improve the economy and quality of life for the roughly 9,000 residents of the island nicknamed "Isla Nena," or "Little Island," located six miles off Puerto Rico’s southeast coast. Vieques is one
of two offshore island municipalities in Puerto Rico; the other is Culebra.
An area of 52 square miles, Vieques is one of Puerto Rico’s major tourist attractions with a national wildlife refuge, Mosquito Bay nature reserve, a bioluminescent bay and feral horses roaming freely.
Ferries make a 75-minute trip from Fajardo, a municipality in Puerto Rico, to Vieques five times a day, docking at Puerto Isabel II along the north-central coast.
NDRS will provide technical expertise to the architecture students as they develop the new plan for the pier. Architects, urban planners and engineers within the Community Planning and Capacity Building team will collaborate with the university to select students to work on the
project and monitor its progress. As the project develops, the team will help identify potential funding sources when appropriate.
"Their work will help shape our island’s long-term recovery from Hurricane Maria," said Vieques Mayor Victor Emeric.
The design project is expected to be completed by June 2019.
"This is the kind of innovative partnership that we encourage. It’s a win-win for everyone," said former Puerto Rico Joint Recovery Office federal coordinating officer Mike Byrne. "The students gain invaluable experience and the community is involved with improving their quality of life and preparedness for any future disasters."
A New Sense of Hope for Hurricane Maria Survivors in Bayamón
Hurricane María survivor Francisco Diffut remembered what crossed his mind when he saw 20 volunteers standing outside the remnants of his home.
"They said more were coming but I thought that wasn’t true," he said. "Then a van full of people appeared. When I saw all those other people arrive, I was so stunned I just cried."
Diffut and Iris Mateo Rivera couldn’t go back to their home until three days after Hurricane María made landfall because of debris-blocked roads. When they were able to return they found their home was stripped of its tin roof, wooden walls and almost all of its contents; the only items that remained were the stove and the refrigerator.
"We felt our world had ended," said Diffut.
They registered for FEMA assistance that same night and the agency later provided the funding needed to make their home habitable. Diffut was recovering from an illness and was unable to physically contribute to the rebuilding process. They needed all the help they could get.
Furthermore, their church referred them to an organization that uses materials paid for by FEMA. Centro de Ayuda Social, Graneros Del Cielo, Inc., a voluntary organization with over 20 years of experience helping the people of Bayamón, marked the reconstruction of the roof as a top priority. More than 40 volunteers worked on the property.
Through FEMA’s Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair program (VALOR), nonprofits receive materials and equipment to perform minor repairs so many families may return home
while permanent repairs are planned.
FEMA has provided $5.2 million for home repair materials through this program and has been used to repair 1,351 homes.
"We qualified for FEMA’s VALOR program and that has been the biggest blessing we’ve encountered because having the desire to help is not enough. They’ve given us the tools to reach out to every home and every family in extreme need," said María Torres, director of Centro de Ayuda Social.
The Diffut household continues working on permanent repairs to their home, but thanks to the combined efforts of volunteers and FEMA, they now have a roof over their heads and a place to call home. With tears in his eyes, Francisco said his family had "recovered hope."
Learn more about the VALOR Program.