I have been attempting to write this blog post for a few days now. How does one put into words what it is like to experience a catastrophic disaster not once but twice in two weeks. I had envisioned this blog post as a celebration of my 20th anniversary of life on St John.
20 years ago I was the Director of Sales and Marketing for a boutique hotel in Fells Point as historic neighborhood in downtown Baltimore's inner harbor. I received a call from a head hunter asking if I was interested in a job in Seattle, WA. As I am a sunshine and warm weather person, I immediately said"No, but find me an island and I will go!"
Strangely, he called me the next day with an opportunity in the USVI. This was 2 years after Hurricane Marilyn. At that time, Marilyn was the most devastating hurricane to hit the VI. Upon arrival in the USVI, I was surprised to see how depressed the islands were two years after the storm . Blue FEMA traps dotted the landscape. It was a long road to recovery.
Now, here we are 22 years later having had 2 Category 5 storms in two weeks. The island of St John is physically devastated. I spent most of Hurricane Irma in a laundry room w no windows. The anticipation of Irma made me physically ill. We stayed in the safe room from 2 pm- 10 pm. When we were able to go outside, the devastation was incomprehensible. I still struggle with words to describe it.
Every neighborhood on St John was affected. It was the luck of the draw for the newer homes. They had been build to code for up to 150 mph winds. Irma's clocked in at 225mph. Tornadoes ripped down GIFFT Hill Road taking entire homes with them. There was not a tree left standing. Some split down the middle, some uprooted completely from the earth. Many residents fled as evacuations were arranged through the LOVE CITY STRONG group. The group worked tirelessly to update the community and address our needs.
The first couple of days after the storm there was sporadic looting. Everyone was living off adrenaline. Seeing the destruction, I still am not able to put it into words. Within 2 weeks we also prepared for Hurricane Jose and Maria. Jose did not effect us, however 2 weeks to the day after Irma, once again we were preparing for a Cat 5 storm. I weighed my options for evacuation. I had been offered to stay in my clients home on St Croix. The other option was to go to Puerto Rico. Every time I considered the two I felt completely overwhelmed. I was already exhausted from the trauma 2 weeks earlier.
My gut told me to stay on St John. I am so grateful I did.
We got word the night before that St John would experience tropical storm winds vs Cat 5. I don't think St John could have withstood another storm of that caliber that soon. We did not go into the safe room for Maria. Many prayers were whispered with her winds of 125 mph whipped through the night. The next morning there were 15-20 ft waves in the south shore.
Maria effected St Croix and Puerto Rico. St. John's damage was more isolated vs cumulative.
For two weeks I walked around in a daze. Our island, our homes and our livelihood were gone. I returned to my home after Maria. The reality of what had happened started to sink in. Communication was a huge issue. With no power, phone, internet or cell service, I attempted to communicate with my clients. My bank accounts were bouncing checks left and right. No internet or phone made it impossible to correct. The serenity prayer was my mantra. As cell phone service improved, I began to reach out to many nervous couples.
Unfortunately for some their dream of a Caneel Bay wedding was not going to come to fruition. Caneel suffered extensive damage and will be closed through 2018. Many couples wanted to still host their wedding here. They felt this was one way to help the community. As with any tragedy, there was light coming from the darkness. Residents were kinder to each other. People stopped on the street to see how each other came through the storm. The common thread was "thank God for life."
Irma and Maria were the great equalizer. The spirit of St John (Love City) was evident even to the military, search & rescue and state troopers who came to help. My hope for St John is that we keep this spirit of community after recovery. I hope that we each think long and hard how we can help Love City to rebuild. Can we continue to keep the caring nature that is prevalent now?
Will we heal the disconnect between the West Indian community and the expats? Will those who come to make St John their home, take the time to learn about the rich Caribbean culture? Can we move away from the happy hour 24/7 atmosphere that was taking over our island?
There is an opportunity for St Johnians to each play a part in the recovery. There is discussion on having a completely off the grid island. Many lessons have been learned and will help in the new St John. And we all here but we're not all there!
Love City is alive. #lovecitystrong