Since the Storms
On September 9th 2017, the US Virgin Islands were rocked by one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. Hurricane Irma devastated our island paradise; our home. We were cut-off from all outside support; houses destroyed, roads blocked or washed out, no electricity or running water, and a near complete communications blackout. All we had was each other, and we stood up together.
VI4Vets reorganized its resources and went to work. We coordinated with volunteers and shelters to transport and distribute relief supplies. We connected with local veterans to assist their neighbors in need, many trapped at their damaged houses.
Just as soon as major supply line began to be established, the second of the two Category 5 hurricanes struck. Hurricane Maria hit St. Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands, cutting off the last of the supply lines for the territory. We stood back up stronger than before.
With local veteran and community volunteers, organizations, and along with support from veterans and veteran organizations in Bay County, Florida, VI4Vets provided labor and material support to debris clearing in rural communities for seniors and disabled.
Many roads remained blocked, fuel shortages became more acute, and stores struggled to reopen. Veteran volunteers collected and distributed much needed supplies to community; food, toiletries, clothes, and children’s toys.
Federal Relief efforts proliferated, and the relief mission shifted to recovery. The VI4Vets mission shifted again. VI4Vets found jobs for veterans in the recovery effort. We placed veterans in jobs with the FEMA energy mission, providing temporary power for municipal facilities including shelters, water treatment, pump stations, and communication systems.
For months communication was limited to limited radio and extremely limited cell phone service. The primary method for news to be disseminated was in community centers where neighbors would congregate to share news from around the island. But, these community centers had been destroyed by the storms as well. Again, VI4Vets stepped up to help heal and inspire a community. We recruited the premier arborist on island, an expert botanist, and hired some vets to restore Hull Bay Beach (The community center for one of St. Thomas’ most rural communities). With the support of community volunteers, the project was a resounding success.
More than seven months since the first storm, recovery continues. VI4Vets is continuing its mission of putting veteran to work in the recovery efforts. Our peer support work is getting back on track, and new events are in the works. We have started working with Federal and Territorial agencies and non-profits in advocating for local veterans’ mental health programs.
As Summer approaches, the recovery is well underway. VI4Vets is resuming our Veterans’ Peer Support Program with Sunday “hangout” at Hull Bay, the Hull Bay Olympics, the Beach BBQ at Heidi’s on Water Island, the Spearfishing Tournament, and much more.
VI4Vets is more than a veterans’ organization. We are a community.
Thank you all for your support.
Experiencing two Category 5 hurricanes, within 2 weeks of each other, on an island, is an experience that is hard to put into words. My heart was broken when I first saw the damage and destruction left by Hurricane Irma when she finally arrived on September 7, 2017. Our neighborhood was unrecognizable. Debris covered cars, roads, houses. Telephone poles laid in the road with the cables dangling in the lingering winds. Houses were turned into confetti thrown along the mountain side, and all the leaves on the trees were gone. After being stuck in our neighborhood for 4 days, before neighbors could clear the road from the other side, I could not believe what I was seeing.
My thoughts were with our friends, and I worried about how their houses handled the 187mph sustained winds with 228mph gusts. As we drove around, we began running into people, on the side of the road, outside their houses, along parts of the road where people gathered because the area was impassable by most cars. We are lucky. We have 2 Jeeps, and 1 of them made it. So we were able to drive around more than most. Slowly, we were able to account for everyone and we began to adjust to the new way of life post-Hurricane Irma.
Less than 2 weeks later, Hurricane Maria flooded whatever Irma didn’t destroy. After the 24 hour curfew was lifted, we were able to leave the house we were staying at to try to gather more supplies. The flooding had begun to reside, but the roads once again were impassible and large sections of the road were missing.
As we drove further down the road, we came across a company of Marines, who were clearing the road for vehicles to be able to pass. A Marine approached our Jeep and apologized to us for any inconvenience and informed us it would be a few minutes before we could pass due to the debris in the road the Marines were clearing. This was a moment of overwhelming emotions for me. I was happy to see the Marine helping us because I knew we desperately needed their help. I was scared that the destruction was so catastrophic, that we needed the help of the Marines. I was definitely still in shock over the situation. I remember tears coming to my eyes as I thanked the Marine for his help, and I could tell he noticed the joy on my face by the smile I had.
Previously, I had been on hurricane duty six times with the National Guard, but this was the first time I was the civilian receiving the help rather than providing the help. I am now safe and staying with family in Florida after flying off island on the first Delta commercial flight leaving the island. My focus is on continuing to help the US veterans in the United States Virgin Islands. Saturday, October 7th and October 14th I was at the VFW Post #2185 at 2136 Sherman Ave Panama City, FL for a donations and supply drive. All donations and supplies will be sent to Jonathan Rich, Director of VI4Vets, who is on the ground in St Thomas and will coordinate the distribution. Thank you for your support!!