ST. CROIX— There are always lessons to learn from tragedies. And from our country’s recent wave of hurricanes, we got a much-needed lesson in U.S. history. Or maybe just a reminder.
The U.S. in the name “U.S. Virgin Islands” stands for United States. It’s an American territory, and has been for the past 100 years. Its residents are Americans. No U.S. passport is required to any three of the islands: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.
Yet when the islands were decimated by two Category 5 hurricanes within the span of two weeks in September, the people here were essentially forgotten. And we’re all to blame—the media, the federal government, and a president who didn’t seem to know the islands are a U.S. territory.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have largely been abandoned in their time of need. They’ve been relegated by a country that likes to keep territories, but treats those who live there like second-class Americans. It’s a frustrating thing to witness, and when you see the predominantly black faces on the island, it’s difficult to think the inadequate response is not motivated by racism.
But the resilience of the islanders—some of whom are descendants of a 19th century slave rebellion—is heartening.
I never imagined my first trip to the paradisiacal island of St. Croix would be under these circumstances. A month after Hurricane Maria, the place is still bruised, battered, and powerless. As of last weekend, 98% of the island is still without electricity, and the prolonged power outage has led to a multitude of issues in the aftermath of the storm.
No electricity means a government-enforced curfew starting at 8 p.m., when the sky turns pitch black. It means sweat-covered skin in the thick air of homes with no air conditioning. It means an infestation of mosquitoes as people stock their homes with as much bug spray as dry food. It means dinners from government-supplied MRE [meals ready to eat] packets with unidentifiable vegetable pasta, crackers, strawberry jam, and Skittles. It means schools are closed, and children are restless with little to distract them.
No power means no running water since most of the homes have cisterns that use electric pumps. Instead, people have to resort to drawing stagnant rain water with a bucket multiple times a day to bathe and flush the toilet.
And that’s only the physical damage caused by the storm.
Many of us would have a hard time surviving these conditions for a single day, let alone indefinitely. But U.S. citizens living on the islands have to endure these conditions day in and day out while they wait for critical aid. A visit from President Trump would have likely turned into another public relations nightmare akin to Puerto Rico, but a presidential visit would have at least been symbolic support for the island’s recovery efforts. It would have created more exposure and perhaps prompted more people to donate and volunteer.
There is aid on the ground. But it’s not enough.
One family I visited had received a cot from the Red Cross to replace moldy mattresses, and blue FEMA tarps dot neighborhoods temporarily protecting homes that lost their roofs in the storm. But the lack of aid is appalling.
We traversed the island for several days and saw only three or four utility crews restoring power on an 84-square mile island that’s home to more than 50,000 people. Many residents told us they hadn’t seen any response teams yet.
There is so much extensive damage that I worry how some of the families will ever pay for it. It’s impossible not to wonder how these families will ever fully recover.
These are hard times for the Cruzan people, but they are rising to the challenge. They’re diligently cleaning up the debris and starting to repair their island by themselves.
Frederiksted was one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm. It was the site of an 1848 slave rebellion where people freed themselves years before the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Grit and the determination runs through their blood. It’s an important part of American history, and a strong reminder that the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands are resilient.