As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Caribbean last week, Laurel Brannick, a park ranger on far-flung St. John Island, flipped through news channels to see how she might be affected.
It appeared the U.S. Virgin Islands didn’t exist.
“The weather channels didn’t even include us,” she said. “All they kept saying was that Irma was in the Caribbean and headed to Florida.”
Now, after the killer storm has raked through the Caribbean and slammed into South Florida — leaving at least 12 dead and billions of dollars in damage — residents of these hard hit and isolated islands worry they’ll continue to be invisible to a reeling mainland.
Irma’s damage in the U.S. Virgin Islands, home to about 100,000 people, is extensive but hard to quantify days after a storm that destroyed most means of communication. Irma was a punishing Category 5 hurricane when it struck the islands.
Some of the devastation is immediately obvious: Homes and hotels were pulled apart and swept off their foundations. St. Thomas and St. John, once-lush islands and national parks, have been stripped bare of vegetation, as pieces of cars and boats dangle from dead power lines. Electricity is out.
Michael Beason, 65, hid in his reinforced shower with his wife and two dogs as the storm raged. When it was over nothing was left but his 4-by-6 concrete shower-bunker sticking out “like the last tooth in the mouth of a bum.”
“We spent two hours listening to our lives blow away,” said Beason, who ran an ice cream store on the island for 40 years and was planning to retire in a few more. “I was fired by Hurricane Irma.”
Even St. John’s major health clinic lost portions of its roof. Most of its recovery rooms are being used as shelters for weary, homeless nurses.
FEMA and other federal agencies have been scrambling to evacuate thousands of stranded tourists and keep the islands supplied. The U.S. military in conjunction with the government of Puerto Rico has airlifted more than 1,800 U.S. citizens from the Virgin Islands, St. Martin, Antigua and Dominica since the hurricane hit, said Jamie Iriazzy, with Puerto Rico’s department of gaming, who is helping organize logistics for the refugees.
On Wednesday, a Royal Caribbean Cruise carrying passengers from St. Thomas and St. Martin is also expected to be arriving in Puerto Rico.
But the lack of contact with the outside world has turned each community into an isolated echo chamber reinforcing the idea that they’re on their own. Reports and rumors of looting, arson and armed gangs preying on tourists has only heightened tensions.
A man who asked to be called “Biff” said he watched people get mugged and stores looted in the Coral Bay section of St. John just hours after the hurricane, as police remained on the sidelines.
“It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You have people looting and taking things from people who had absolutely nothing … And our local government did nothing, absolutely nothing.”
After spending the day unloading donations that were trickling in to St. John, often by private boat, from nearby Puerto Rico and St. Croix — another U.S. Virgin Island that fared better during the storm — Matt Gyuraki, a 35-year-old IT specialist, worried that there wasn’t more of a coordinated U.S. effort to rescue the islands.
“It feels like we’re the bastard step-children of America and now nobody wants to help us,” he said. “America wanted us at one time, but now they really don’t.”
The U.S. government and Puerto Rico have been leading evacuation and recovery efforts, but coordination has been chaotic at best. As park officials in St. John this week were struggling to get people off the island on private boats, the police imposed an 18-hour-a-day curfew — from 6 p.m. to noon — that threatened to stall the operation.
Steve Boswell, 34, lost his two restaurants, his charter-boat business and his gun shop on St. Thomas. As the hurricane rolled in late Tuesday and early Wednesday, it triggered dozens of tornadoes that chewed up houses around his, but left his home relatively intact.
But as looting swept the island and he ran out of fuel to keep his generator running, he said he tried to charter a helicopter, boat or an airplane to get off the island.
Finally, on Sunday, he found a private yacht that would take him and his two dogs back to Puerto Rico, where he hoped to catch a flight to Texas. But he was worried that there wasn’t a larger-scale evacuation going on.
“It’s getting very hairy over there,” he said of the island. “And nobody is talking about us. It’s like they forget that we’re all Americans.”
The islands were a late addition to the United States. The U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands from the Danes in 1917 for $25 million in the midst of World War I, when there were fears that Germany might seize the territory as a naval base.
The islands are an unincorporated territory, with a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House, and are located about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico. They’re closer to Caracas and Colombia than Miami.
That has led the residents of “Love City” and “Rock City,” as St. John and St. Thomas are known locally, to pride themselves on being idiosyncratic and self-reliant.
But tragedies like Irma show how vulnerable they are. As locals waited for food and help to arrive this week, they fended for themselves. Two of the remaining restaurants in St. John were feeding hundreds of people for free.
At 420 to Center, a bar usually full of rum-soaked tourists, Ryan Sharkey had turned his open-air establishment, into a combination soup kitchen, homeless shelter and first aid center. He was in need of all three himself, having lost his house to the storm.
Despite the hardships, the U.S. Virgin Islands might have fared better than some of their neighbors. On Tuesday, the U.S. Southern Command said it had 300 troops stationed in Honduras ready to provide humanitarian aid to St. Martin — the shared Dutch and French island 200 miles east of Puerto Rico — that was also ravaged by the storm and is reportedly desperate for food.
And the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is asking Puerto Rico to assist the British Virgin Islands.
But the longer term fate of the locals on St. John and St. Thomas is tied to when, and in what numbers, tourists return to the islands.
Along with rebuilding hotels and restaurants, the islands’ main attractions — rolling green hills and coral-rich waters — will have to recover. And that could take months, or even a year, said Brannick, the park ranger.
Brannick, who has lived on St. John for 25 years, struggles to explain how badly the park was damaged by Irma. St. John is so denuded that hummingbirds are literally too hungry to fly, she said. The oldest structure on the island, a Dutch house from 1680 that survived multiple storms and served as a park museum, was entirely gone except for one wall. Its collection of pre-Columbian artifacts had been scattered to the wind.
The splendid isolation that makes the island so unique is now one of the main obstacles to its recovery.
“We’re a small community and we’re destroyed,” Brannick said. “And it’s not like we can drive to New Jersey and get stuff. We’re an island.”
Correction: The Virgin Islands were purchased by the U.S. from the Danes, not the Dutch.