As communications crackle back to life in St. John, USVI, you can almost hear the island residents take a deep sigh of relief. It will be short lived. This tiny island has taken the worst hit by Hurricane Irma as far as sheer devastation is concerned. Three out of every five homes have been destroyed. Countless boats are piled on top of each other in the islands two main ports, while others litter the ocean floor. But despite the bleak landscape, a group of islanders has banded together to restore some sense of order to chaos. Town Hall meetings, led by local volunteers, now disseminate information to the remaining residents many of whom still await evacuation to neighboring islands.
A new crop of police officers, 18 strong, have been brought on from sister island St. Croix to relieve the overworked and shell-shocked local police. They attend the Town Hall gatherings to reassure the locals. Early reports of looting and gunfire, which were largely overblown, are now under control and a strict curfew, from 6 pm to 6 am, has been put in place. The new police force stresses the importance of getting people off the streets to start the arduous task of clearing the roads of mountains of debris.
In addition to the police presence, St. Croix has also yielded other unintended volunteer heroes including Cindy Clearwater, a 16-year resident of the US Virgin Islands and former communication director for St. Croix Senator Judi Buckley.
Spared from the worst of Hurricane Irma, Cindy was driving home from where she was hunkered down on St. Croix. A concerned friend contacted her and asked if she’d be willing to help organize the St. John rescue and relief effort, which she thought meant some spreadsheets. She had no idea the magnitude of the storm she was walking into and rescue had no idea what a force Cindy would prove to be.
What happened next was a whirlwind of non-stop activity. In the past week, Cindy has become the St. Croix Logistics Coordinator for Hurricane Irma relief to St. John. In effect she has become the human nexus of many government and NGO relief efforts, including FEMA, the National Parks Service, the DEA, Virgin Island Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA), Dept Human Services, National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), Global DIRT, The Red Cross, and even St. John local celebrity Kenny Chesney’s team of relief workers.
Dog Food, Generators and Letters for Loved Ones
Apart from handling logistics and juggling the demands of executing a massive relief effort, Cindy was also rolling up her sleeves with boots on the ground efforts on St.John. Four days after the hurricane at 4:30 am, Cindy was able to take her first boat ride on Turn and Burn to deliver supplies to St.John. Armed with 20 eight-pound bags of donated dog food, a generator, chainsaws, and letters for loved ones she headed into Coral Bay, one of two main ports in St. John. As she pulled into the bay she saw the familiar houses on the hill and from a distance, it didn’t appear to be so bad. But as she got closer she realized the entire hill had been flattened and was now littered with debris. The magnitude of the destruction was unfathomable. She had been warned but was unprepared to take in the utter and complete destruction. “It was hard to fathom, I had just left St.Croix where the flamboyant blossoms were barely disturbed by the storm, the contrast was incredible,” said Cindy.
Mission: Letters for Loved Ones
After seeing the anguished posts from loved ones desperate to connect with family on St.John but with no available communication channels, Cindy announced another brilliant idea. On her way to deliver relief supplies the following morning, she would carry letters emailed from loved ones to Coral Bay residents. In less than an hour, a plan was hatched with one of the support teams, an email account was created, followed by a social media blast and then the letters started pouring in. Time was of the essence as they needed to be received and printed in just a few hours.
Stepping foot onto St. John, with the supplies and letters, Cindy saw the 11-year-old daughter of the local fire chief. She had just found a tiny hatchling duck and was holding it in her hand. That was the instant boost of hope she needed. If a young child can care for this little duck, Cindy realized she had to do her best to help everyone else.
“I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the destruction and the sheer number of places that have been affected. Being on an island has made it a logistical nightmare,” said Cindy. “After Harvey, all responders were in Texas helping. I don’t fault anyone, and I know everyone is trying their best. We’ve had a lot of National Guard help, the DEA, FEMA, federal agencies are all helping. But is the most cost-effective and actionable way for people to help now is by donating to proven local organizations.”
“You mostly hear about all the bad things that are happening, but this has given me so much faith in humanity. The people of the Virgin Islands are opening their homes to strangers. The outpouring of compassion is wonderful. I am so proud to be a Virgin Islander.”
St. Croix the largest of the US Virgin Islands stepped up with a massive volunteer relief effort. “Cruzians have opened their hearts and doors to their sister islands. Even with all the shelters we had set up almost every evacuee was placed in a home with a family and a hot meal,” said Cindy. There are many heroes in this ongoing story, and we hope to share their stories with you.
Even now as basic necessities are being established, the rebuild efforts are in the works. Cindy added, “We already brought over a geo consultant and drones to help with planning. We will rebuild our islands.”
This will no doubt be a tough year for the Virgin Islands economy but with blossoms still hanging from the flamboyant trees and big hearted Cruzians, St.Croix is hoping that visitors will not forget that their doors are open for business this season.
How to Help
Virgin Islands Relief Fund
Virgin Islands Relief Fund Inc., was started by local residents to help ensure the efforts of all donations goes to help those islanders affected by Hurricane Irma. The goal is to rebuild the infrastructure, build schools and help businesses get back up and running. https://virginislandsrelief.org
St. John Rescue
St John Rescue, Inc. is an all volunteer organization dedicated to saving lives and building a better community through participation, education, and community spirit. St John Rescue is chartered to provide: emergency rescue and medical support services to EMS, VI Police, and VI Fire, National Park Service, United States Coast Guard, VITEMA, FEMA, and health clinic personnel. Safety and medical support and services for community events and activities, along with equipment and supplies as shared resources within the St John community.
St. John Community Foundation
St. John Community Foundation has successfully been carrying out the mission of providing services and supporting programs that positively engage people, build resources and strengthen the St. John community since 1989. We continuously look for ways to fill service gaps and cultivate community assets including people, organizations, programs, and resources to effectively respond to changing needs of the community now and for future generations.
Major Help From Celebrity Friend
Kenny Chesney has come through for St. John in a huge way when we needed him the most. His plane was one of the first to land on St. Croix filled with Emergency Responders and supplies. He has started a campaign called Love for Love City to help with Irma Relief efforts.
If you’d like to support St. John through Kenney Chesney, here is the link to do so: https://kennychesney.com/news/448917/hurricaneirmamessage.
Here are the articles we’ve written about the St. John Irma Relief efforts over the past few days if you want to get caught up or find something you missed.
Thank you for loving Love City. You are all simply amazing. We will keep updating as our reports from the ground come in and sharing stories of our rise from the rubble.