On She Goes

Return to America’s Paradise: St. Croix and the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria

I am from a place where people vacation—and it’s slowly rebuilding to be the island home for so many people.

Anquanette Gaspard
Anquanette Gaspard
January 23, 2018
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Words cannot describe the helplessness I felt when I saw the devastation that hit my island home last fall. It was the middle of September 2017, and when the news broke that Category 5 Hurricane Maria would make direct landfall on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, I knew the effects of the storm would be felt for an indefinite amount of time, not only for me but for everyone that lived within the island’s 80-plus square miles. The island had narrowly escaped the wrath of Hurricane Irma but would not be as fortunate this second time around. Being stuck in Miami, Florida, when the hurricane hit meant that I wouldn’t be able to make it home anytime soon.

I’m a proud Caribbean woman—you hear it in my accent when I boldly say, “Iz a Crucian I be!” What may seem like a foreign language to many is my way of proudly informing the person asking that I am a Crucian—a person born and raised on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands (USVI). Also known as America’s Paradise, the USVI are one of the Caribbean’s cherished gems. It’s the best of both worlds for American travelers: you don’t need a passport to visit and we use the American dollar as our currency.

I am from a place where people vacation. I spent Sunday afternoons at Rainbow Beach on St. Croix’s West End, drinking coconut water straight from the shell. Growing up, I would play in and around the sugar mill ruins (which we weren’t supposed to do). It took me leaving St. Croix for college in the mainland—what Virgin Islanders often call the United States—to realize that life in the islands was different than what most of my college peers experienced growing up. While there were more opportunities for advancement on the mainland, I always longed for the chance to move back home. There’s something about knowing every other person you meet at the local supermarketfrom my cousin Mikey, who I used to babysit, to my mom’s church friend Sister Mary, who never misses the opportunity to give a warm hellothat cannot be replaced.

I am from a place where people vacation.

My heart was heavy as I waited an excruciating 24 hours after the hurricane hit to see reports coming out of St. Croix. The damage was worse than anything the island had experienced before. This vacation destination that has been cherished by frequent visitors and tourists was pummeled by sustained 176-mph winds. America’s Paradise, the place I called home, was far from the picture-perfect snapshots you’d often see on Instagram. There was no water or electricity, supplies were scarce, and people had lost their homes.

The descent on St. Croix was vastly different this time around.
photo by Anquanette Gaspard

Neighboring islands such as Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, and St. Martin/St. Maarten were also gravely impacted by Hurricane Maria. News coverage focused primarily on the devastation in Puerto Rico, barely mentioning how the neighboring islands were affected. Virgin Islanders at home and abroad were outraged by the media’s omission of the parallel challenges being faced in the USVI. After all, we are a US territory, just like Puerto Rico, and it was hurtful to see our destruction and loss being overlooked. Even with the heightened attention about the catastrophic damage in Puerto Rico, there was still little aid being sent there and even less being sent to St. Croix and the rest of the USVI.

There was absolutely nothing I could do to offer immediate assistance to my Crucian people who were desperately in need. I knew that the needs of the people back home would be ongoing and I could do my part to help them get back on their feet. Almost overnight, Virgin Islanders near and far were setting up hurricane relief drives for much needed items like batteries, tarpaulins, and canned goods. There were drives across the US to gather supplies, and I decided to organize a mail-in relief drive to collect critically needed supplies for people on St. Croix affected by Hurricane Maria. After shipping items from Miami to St. Croix, various nonprofits on island would receive the items for distribution to those in need. Ten pallets of supplies totaling 1,600 pounds were donated and collected over the course of six weeks. Diapers, tarpaulins, batteries, canned foods, and toiletries were some of the items donated by approximately 25 individuals. One friend from my Girls Pint Out craft beer group in Fort Lauderdale even launched a series of Love & Lemonade stands with her daughter to collect money and supplies for hurricane relief. Organizing my own drive allowed me to see where the items were going and how they were helping the community.

A large tree felled by the hurricane lays on the roadside.
photo by Anquanette Gaspard

Getting back to St. Croix to help rebuild the island was critical in helping my community get back on their feet. As the saying goes, there’s no place like home . . . even after that home has been ravaged by a Category 5 hurricane. Looking out from the window seat during the descent into St. Croix had always brought a welcoming feeling. Seeing my island home from above, with its lush green hills, turquoise waters, and white sand beaches, brought a sense of calm of sorts. This time around, the descent was bittersweet as the view was vastly different. Homes that once were had been destroyed, gone from the land they once occupied. Roofs were gone and were temporarily replaced with blue tarpaulins to allow occupants to have some semblance of a home.

Gas-powered generators run 24/7 to supply power to businesses and homes. Intersections are void of traffic lights and piles of debris litter the roadsides, with downed power lines as far as the eye can see. My island home St. Croix is much more than a vacation destination for me. More than anything, it’s important for past, present, and future visitors to understand that it wasn’t just that an idyllic beach getaway was destroyedbut rather that this place is a home to 50,000 people.

As bleak as the situation might look right now, there are glimmers of hope. Ninety percent of the island had its electricity restored by December 25, 2017—almost three months after the devastation. Our visitors are no longer primarily tourists in search of a Caribbean escape. Instead, they are the relief workers in the form of linemen helping to restore the electricity and volunteers and employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration. Organizing these relief efforts opened my eyes to all the compassion and good that is still out there in the world. The outpouring of love and support accompanying this hurricane relief drive was astonishing. In reaching out to the community to determine who was in need, I encountered a man from a local church who lost his roof. The temporary blue roof that was installed was only good for 30 days and he was in desperate need of large, heavy-duty tarpaulins. I gave him one of the tarps that I collected through the mail-in relief drive. With tears in his eyes he whispered, “You don’t know how much this one item changed my outlook today. Know that what you and all these organizations are doing to help is truly making a difference.”

it wasn’t just that an idyllic beach getaway was destroyedbut rather that this place is a home to 50,000 people.

Even with these hopeful moments that are brightening a bleak situation, there is still plenty of work to be done. More than half of the island’s public schools have been condemned, forcing students and teachers to stick to split-session schedules, with morning and afternoon sessions in four-hour blocks. This means students are receiving only four hours of instruction per day. The island’s only hospital suffered significant damage from Hurricane Maria, and all critical patients continue to be evacuated to the mainland for treatment. Hurricane debris and downed trees litter the roadsides, with no concrete plan in place on when they will be removed. Stray dogs and cats are roaming the streets, left behind by people who evacuated the island on mercy flights and cruises after the storm. Roadways are riddled with potholes or have been completely wiped out, making navigation difficult throughout the island.

St. Croix waiting to welcome you! photo courtesy of Anquanette Gaspard

What does it mean for this proud Crucian? It means that we get busy getting back to basics. The thing that makes Virgin Islanders, especially Crucians, resilient people is our uncanny ability to adapt to any situation. This means helping a neighbor in need, offering a plate of food, or even supplying power from your generator to a neighbor who doesn’t have one. It means exercising even more patience than normal and remembering that starting a conversation with “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good night” sets the tone.

Despite the destruction and devastation of Hurricane Maria, St. Croix is still part of America’s Paradise. Please excuse my home’s appearance while we’re remodeling.