Two weeks after Maria, stranded tourists and sick residents finally leave St. Croix

American Airlines hurricane relief flight out of St. Croix

American Airlines evacuates storm survivors out of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was battered by Hurricane Maria.
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American Airlines evacuates storm survivors out of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was battered by Hurricane Maria.

They waited at the mangled airport, sitting on suitcases and on bare concrete, hoping that Tuesday would be the day.

Fourteen days after a Category 5 Hurricane Maria blew off roofs, toppled utility poles and stranded residents and tourists on St. Croix without electricity or internet and only spotty cell service, the storm survivors just wanted out.

“It’s just been so frustrating trying to get onto these flights,” said Krystle Arcamo Knezevich, 34, who arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands from Sacramento, Calif., before the storm to visit her dying grandmother and has been trying to leave ever since. “I’ve been trying to stay positive because there are people here who have it worse than I do. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”

Hundreds of stranded tourists and sick residents waited at the airport in St. Croix Tuesday hoping to catch a humanitarian flight off the U.S. territory. American Airlines, which flew in hurricane supplies for its employees, evacuated 135 passengers for free at the request of the island’s tourist board. Jacqueline Charles

Knezevich didn’t make it out Tuesday. But 135 other passengers did, many with some kind of medical ailment. They left on an American Airlines Boeing 737 hurricane relief flight, which departed from Miami shortly after 8 a.m. and returned after 3 p.m. to the sound of thunderous applause from the passengers aboard.

“I just want a new beginning,” said Sharon Emile, one of the lucky ones on the flight, who said her final destination was Miami, where she hoped to enroll her children in school.

On one of the first commercial flights to St. Croix, American flew in about 5,000 pounds of supplies for the company’s 23 employees there, including crackers, water and generators. And at the request of the U.S. Virgin Islands Tourism Board, which selected the passengers, it flew the storm survivors for free.

From the air, St. Croix appears to have fared far better than nearby Puerto Rico, where President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump flew for a visit on Tuesday. But conditions in St. Croix, which was battered two weeks after sister island St. Thomas was pounded by a Category 5 Hurricane Irma, remain tough, said American Airlines’ managing director for the Caribbean, Alfredo Gonzalez.

“Because there is a need, we’re able to dispatch one of our planes for the relief effort going down and also to help the folks come out,” he said. “There are other challenges, even at the airport. That’s why we waited until conditions are appropriate for us to get back in that market.”

Workers in St. Croix unload an American Airlines fight that flew in 5,000 lbs of relief supplies from Miami on Tuesday and flew out 135 stranded tourists and sick residents. Jacqueline Charles

Outside of Puerto Rico, American has run eight relief missions, including to nearby St. Thomas, Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos and St. Martin. Gonzalez said the airline plans to resume commercial flights from Miami to St. Croix on Thursday when the airport, which is currently being run by the Texas Air National Guard, reopens.

Julia Tull Carter, a St. Croix resident who works for American’s subsidiary Envoy, said she was grateful for Tuesday’s “mercy missions,” which included a Jet Blue flight to Fort Lauderdale and a Delta flight out of St. Thomas.

What Maria didn’t destroy, Carter said, floodwaters that followed days later did.

“All of us who lost our roofs weren’t able to get any tarps in time, so we got another downpour again,” said the resident of the Hannah’s Rest community on the island. “I lost all of my contents because of the saturation of the water … I had to throw everything out.”

Sharon Emile, her husband Niko and three kids were among 135 people who finally got to leave St. Croix on Tuesday aboard an American Airlines humanitarian flight to Miami. Jacqueline Charles

U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp, who met with Trump aboard the USS Kearsarge during the president’s Puerto Rico visit, said a lot of progress has been made in the U.S. territory since it was first hit on Sept. 5 by Irma. But more work needs to be done, he said.

“At the end of the day, the people of the Virgin Islands will be a lot better off than after Hurricane Irma or Maria came to our shore,” Mapp said during a press conference.

As for the meeting with Trump, the governor, who has been complimentary of the White House response to the disaster and that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said, “I thought it was a very, very good meeting.”

He said he raised issues with the president including the territory’s immediate need for funding. He also sought Trump’s support for special community disaster loans to help him rebuild destroyed schools and hospitals, and upgrade the electricity grid by running the lines underground.