What to Expect – The Realities of St. John Recovery, in First Person

Republished with permission By Fiona Russell

Everyone who’s ever lived on St John has a story about their love affair with this stunning island of eclectic, creative people. I first visited from Puerto Rico with my family when I was 9 years old. I felt a deep peace here that called me home.

Following Irma and Maria, St John life has taken on the quality of watching someone you love recover from an accident. Imagine St John as your sister, healing from a bad wreck. You already know and love her, you understand what she’s been through, so it’s easy to be patient with her shortcomings.

Some of the healing happens more quickly than you could imagine, given how bad things were. Some takes longer. And some stuff ain’t never gonna be the same again. There are good days and really bad ones, often unexpectedly.

Our longtime visitors have started to return. You folks already know which streets in town are one-way despite the missing signs. You understand how island time runs slower than mainland time, and you’re in no hurry anyway. You’ve been helping us tremendously in the months since Irma, with your donations and your online orders and your moral support from afar, and we’re so glad to see you here again!

Our new visitors will see St John differently. You’ve only seen pictures of what she looked like before, and her scars are strange, a bit intimidating. You can tell she’s beautiful and kind, but not quite herself.

A lot of places are ready for business, some are still working on it, and others are totally gone. The beaches have a wilder beauty than before. Websites may not reflect today’s situation, and many landlines are still down. The best way to get the latest info is still word of mouth or online groups (visitor boards and Facebook).

Four months ago, our homes, jobs, friends, and time off looked very different than they do today. We’re still figuring out what comes next. Here’s a quick update on some stuff I’ve written about before.


Both gas stations open every day, and E&C has repaired its damaged pumps. The stations’ hours are longer (still, E&C has no overhead lights yet, so not open after dark), the lines are shorter, and they are accepting credit cards. We have not run out of gasoline or diesel for awhile.


Town’s water supply is working OK, although the septic plant continues to have issues. There is plenty of bottled water and ice available for purchase at the grocery stores. Donated Sawyer water filters have been distributed, allowing people to filter their cistern water for drinking.

Virgin Islands Recovery Volunteers

photo by William Stelzer


Still comes and goes, works better in some places than others. Thanks to Love City IT, there are free wifi hotspots and cell service in places that never had coverage before the storms. Most landlines are not in service.




Photo by William Stelzer


The official word is that 95% of St John WAPA customers who are eligible for power have had electricity restored. “Eligible for power” means having a roof and an undamaged weatherhead (the bit between your meter and the power line), so “ineligible” folks are still making do with generators or have had to abandon their homes.



Photo by Willam Stelzer


The roads are mostly clear of debris and power lines. However, the 50 inches of rain we’ve had since September 6 have seriously damaged the roads in many places. Watch out for deep potholes everywhere (especially the straightaway on Centerline Road, impassable by low-clearance vehicles), and the spots where one lane is closed because the road underneath is either missing, dotted with sinkholes, or covered from a landslide.

St.John Beach after hurricane

Photo by Fiona Russell


The National Park has reopened all of its beaches. Many have changed size or shape, and some have changed from sandy to rocky (the sand will come back in time — this photo is from Salomon, half sandy again). Tree debris has been cleared for access but remains in the background awaiting removal.

As long as you’re looking out towards the water, everything is beautiful. Trunk Bay is delightfully uncrowded and currently is not charging admission because there is no water; portable toilets are available. Keep in mind there is very little shade on the beach now.


Is pretty easy to get now that Internet service has improved. The Tradewinds and St John Source publish regular updates, and St John-oriented Facebook groups are really helpful in getting the latest info on what’s open, the barge schedule, etc.


Off-island police support has gone home, and the VIPD has returned to business as usual.


Lifted as of the end of October! Sweet freedom.


MKS clinic remains closed (it’s now where we dispose of hazardous waste!). Patients who need care on St John should go to the DeCastro clinic, Cruz Bay Family Practice 3rd floor Marketplace, Island Health and Wellness Center located above St.John Market at the Green Leaf Commons, or the Coral Bay fire station. The DeCastro clinic now has an X-ray machine, thanks to generous private donors, so we no longer have to go to the vet or St Thomas to diagnose broken bones.


FirstBank and Merchants are back to their regular business hours, and our ATMs have cash. Some transactions may still be delayed due to Internet connection issues. This goes for credit cards at businesses too, so carry a little extra cash just in case cards don’t work.


Our mail backlog has cleared, and we are receiving and sending mail at mostly pre-storm speeds. The post office computer system is still being repaired, though. For instance, it’s now possible to buy stamps again (they couldn’t sell any until mid December) but not to renew your PO box.

Hurricane Irma Maria School Reopens

Photo by William Stelzer


JESS and Gifft Hill had been operating on split sessions so that younger and older students could use the same classrooms. The Gifft Hill upper campus building has just reopened for the start of the new semester. The public school buildings still need a great deal of work.


Most Caneel Bay employees are out of work, as are many Westin staff. Employees of physically destroyed businesses (some restaurants and charter boats), as well as those whose income depends heavily on tourism (taxi drivers, rental car agencies, gift shops, and those restaurants and charters that have reopened), have had to figure out something else. The choices are collecting unemployment, finding different work if possible, or leaving island.


The barges are back to running a full schedule, 6:30a to 7p. The ferry schedule continues to expand; currently the first and last boats from Red Hook are 6:30a and 8p; first and last from Cruz Bay are 6a and 7p. The airport restoration is continuing, and more flights are available than before, although still fewer than usual for what is normally our busy season.


Photo by William Stelzer


Ceres Environmental has been contracted to remove debris from both public and private roadways, and it has hired locals to help with these efforts. The ballfield in Coral Bay is now a staging area to sort debris for recycling, composting, etc. The contractors servicing the dumpsters have been working hard to keep up with the daily flow of trash.



Photo by William Stelzer


We’re amazed at how far we’ve come in four months, when the island literally looked like a bomb hit us. We’re tired of being strong. We’re grateful for so much help and love, and for some return to normalcy. We’re tired of being tired. We want our old lives back. We’re glad for the friends we’ve made and the opportunities we’ve found in this unplanned new life. We’re not sure what to expect next, or how to answer questions about the future.


We have most everything we need physically, and the next step in our recovery is economic. We’re ready for visitors who can accept St John for who she is in this moment, without needing her to be who she was — people who understand her beauty is way more than skin-deep.

Visiting now offers a unique opportunity to experience a quieter version of St John’s usual self. You might find less connectivity (including phone, TV, Internet) than you’re used to — which makes for a really peaceful vacation. Please pack extra patience, a sense of humor, and compassion along with your swimsuits.

The St John Angel Network, the combined forces of many people and groups that have helped St John this year, has formed a Long-Term Recovery Team of local community leaders who are working to help our island become resilient as we rebuild. They have people working to manage resources, donations, and volunteers; strengthen our health and social services; and improve our infrastructure in many areas. If you’d like to help, here’s how: http://thestjohnfoundation.org/stjangels


Fiona Russell
Fiona Russell 1Fiona became a Caribbean island girl when her family moved to Puerto Rico in the 1980s. Upon arriving in St John in 2008, she bought a motorcycle and spent most of her free time (including lunch breaks) swimming with tropical fish. Since Hurricane Irma drastically remodeled her beach cottage in 2017, Fiona and her partner Dan have begun planning their new off-grid house on Lovango Cay, which will also be home base for their Great Dane, Basset hound, and small but undaunted bush cat.


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Kathy Janes

Thank you for this great report and info. I was a first time visitor 2 weeks before the storms and fell in love with the place. My heart breaks reading of these sorrows and swells with your recovery. Can’t wait to visit again and look forward to receiving your newsletter. Thank you.

Danette Richmond

Thank you Fiona! We’ll be there again the end of February. Can’t wait for the peace of the island. Glad to see the recovery progress🤗

Daryl T.

That was a great read Fiona. My wife and I will be there next week, after a red eye to PT and a puddle jumper across the pond, we’ll be getting to St. J in the AM. We’ve been coming there for years, and we always seemed to gravitate towards Calabash and Coral bay. We love the beach, we love the food…. we really, really love the people and the attitude towards life and love. Not one trip has been soured. I’m from the panhandle of FL so I know what those storms are capable of, and my woman keeps asking me if it’s going to be different because she’s never seen destruction like that before. I tell her yes, it’ll be different, but it’ll still be the same place you love. Maybe we will see you paddling around with a turtle sometime. Best wishes, and keep on plugging along. I can’t wait to get there..

deborah rubin

Lots of valuable info……i lived in St.Thomas for 10 years and LOVE St.John. Planning on coming in March, 2018. Are there any car rental places on St.John that do not charge exorbitant rates?….to rent a car from St.Thomas for one week is about $270…..St. John….$700….is it necessary to need a jeep?…will be staying in Chocolate Hole.

Jennifer Knowles

To get to Chocolate Hole you probably won’t need a jeep unless the villa management company advises that you get one to reach the property. You must check with St.Thomas rental companies to see if they will allow you to take the vehicle across to St.John. Many do not! If anything were to happen while on St.John with a St.Thomas rental, you would be responsible for getting the vehicle back to St.Thomas. Also, you may end up spending many hours of your precious vacation time waiting on barges to and from St.John. Stuff to consider in weighing the price.

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