Published 9:01 p.m. UTC Sep 3, 2018
CRUZ BAY, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands – Streams of visitors pull suitcases on and off the ferry as tour guides in Jeep Wranglers wait by the curb to whisk them away. The nearby Dog House Pub is clamorous with a midday crowd, and, up the street, work crews bolt the finishing touches on a patch of new homes.
Everywhere you turn, there are signs of recovery from the destruction of Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 storm that raked across St. John and St. Thomas a year ago Thursday, essentially paraylzing the islands. Hurricane Maria, also Category 5, followed two weeks later, dumping torrential rains.
A key part of the recovery has come from a rare private-public partnership that, in some ways, has outpaced federal recovery efforts and could be replicated in future disasters, residents and leaders here said.
Groups such as Love City Strong (“Love City” is St. John’s nickname), Love for Love City Foundation, All Hands and Hearts/Smart Response and Bloomberg Philanthropies have poured millions of dollars and hours of sweat equity here and shared resources among themselves with the mutual goal of restoring the island’s homes and businesses.
The effort began with locals – business owners, chefs, out-of-work boat captains – who took the island’s recovery into their own hands in the chaotic days after Irma and has surged with the backing of some well-heeled part-time residents of the island, such as country music star Kenny Chesney and Thomas Secunda, Bloomberg co-founder and billionaire.
“The private sector has shown up on St. John and, in my opinion, really rewrote the playbook on disaster relief,” said Jeff Quinlan, a former bar owner and charter boat captain here who today leads Love for Love City.
Bloomberg mobilized experts on power restoration and other disaster consultants to work alongside island officials to expedite recovery. Flush with expertise, the U.S. Virgin Islands had 90% of its power restored by last Christmas.
Chesney has brought a national spotlight to St. John’s recovery and is donating the proceeds of his latest album, “Song for the Saints,” to its rebuilding.
Last month, Bill Clinton visited the island to praise the efforts of the groups and announce a donation of solar panels from the Clinton Foundation. The former president was hosted by Secunda and Bloomberg.
"We’re a facilitator," Secunda said. "We're using our ability to convene and fund and bring in experts and tools from the States, but we’re empowering the local people that live there to do this."
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The twin punches of Irma and Maria left much of the U.S. Virgin Islands – St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix – essentially cut off from the rest of the U.S. Hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix were severely damaged, and St. John’s sole clinic was condemned and later closed. The storms damaged or destroyed 85% of the islands’ 56,000 homes and caused three deaths.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved more than $1.8 billion in disaster assistance for the three islands combined, including $82.6 million in individual and household assistance grants to more than 20,000 households, said Eric Adams, a FEMA spokesman based in St. Thomas.
Much of that money has either not reached residents or, in many cases, was not enough to fix homes ravaged by the storm, residents and volunteers said.
Money from the Community Disaster Loan program, a FEMA-distributed fund that island officials hoped to use to rebuild hospitals and schools, has been slow to reach the island because the Trump administration has placed unexpected stipulations on the money, said Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands’ representative in Congress.
The U.S. territory has received more than $240 million of the $306 million fund, according to a FEMA spokesperson.
“That’s where the real struggle is right now,” Plaskett said.
As federal disaster dollars make their way through Washington's bureacracy, the locals have stepped in. Shortly after the storm, Quinlan and other residents used personal chainsaws to clear roads, set up distribution centers and tapped contacts on the mainland to fly in medical supplies and generators.
As more private money rolled in, they organized into groups and created teams: roofers, electricians, government liaisons. Bloomberg’s disaster advisers teamed up with government officials, prioritizing recovery efforts. The teams were so effective that they’ve essentially been given the reins to recovery on St. John, said Kurt Marsh, community liaison to Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s Hurricane Recovery and Resilience Task Force.
Problems still plague St. John: The only clinic operates out of a mobile trailer, the main public school hasn't been rebuilt, and the island's two biggest employers – The Westin St. John Resort and Caneel Bay Resort – remain closed.
But the island is in better shape today than many expected, thanks in no small part to the private sector, Marsh said.
“We’ve had assistance that the government hadn’t provided and otherwise would have been very slow to provide,” he said.
The islanders-turned-recovery-specialists all know one another from years of living on the small island and meet frequently to coordinate recovery – often at one of St. John’s many watering holes.
On a recent afternoon, members of Love for Love City and Love City Strong squeezed into a table at the Dog House Pub to discuss upcoming projects. After a round of shots of vodka mixed with grapefruit soda, Quinlan brought up an 80-year-old man in Coral Bay in dire need of a new roof. The teams discussed where the supplies would come from and what roofers were available. A date was set and agreed to: The man would have his new roof by the end of the week, they said.
The group had achieved in about 20 minutes what would have taken the federal or state government several weeks, if not months. Another round of vodka shots followed.
That ability to make quick decisions and act on them is key in speeding up St. John’s recovery, said Meaghan Enright, who sidelined her boutique marketing firm to help lead Love City Strong. She realizes that St. John’s size – the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands with only 4,500 residents – allows the group to be more effective than it would be on some of the bigger islands. But the template it's creating could be replicated across the USA, she said.
“Truth is, storms are getting too big, damage is too much for one government alone to handle,” Enright said. “We’re looking at a new era of response. This is the new model.”
After the meeting, Quinlan climbed into his Jeep Wrangler and navigated up mountain roads to check on Evelyne Stephen. Last year, the 61-year-old former hotel clerk huddled in the bathtub of her bathroom with her son, Kevin, 29, as Irma demolished their home.
FEMA awarded her $11,000, but it wasn’t enough to replace a home that was gone. She stayed with a friend for 10 months until Quinlan and his group built her a home. The two-bedroom house is built with a stronger frame, hurricane straps on the roof and sweeping views of Cruz Bay below.
All homes constructed by Quinlan's crews are made with building specifications from Miami-Dade County to be able to survive future storms, he said.
For Stephen, it was nothing short of a miracle. “I thought it would take at least a year before I had my own house again,” said Stephen, who is originally from French Guiana but has lived in St. John for more than three decades.
She said, “If it wasn’t for them, a lot of local people wouldn’t be where they are today.”
Love City Strong began last year by making sure families had clean water to drink and removing mold from damaged homes. Today, it’s leading a new program to help rebuild 200 low- to middle-income homes on the island, Enright said.
“We’re making sure we’re not just building villas but affordable housing, as well,” she said.
Water damage from Irma caused mold to spread in the home of Kenisha Small, 31, who lives in Bellevue Village, an affordable-housing community high on a hill on the western part of the island. FEMA rejected her claim because her home was still livable, she said, despite her asthma that flared up because of the mold.
Crews from Love City Strong replaced her tainted sheet rock with mold-resistant sheet rock, removed all the mold from the ceiling and replaced her furniture. Her lungs are doing better, she said.
If not for groups like Love City Strong, “we’d still be under a lot of debris, still lacking medical services, still lacking a lot of things,” said Small, a St. John native. “We didn’t have the manpower do this on our own.”
A shared goal among the groups is not just to rebuild St. John to what it was before Irma but to make it more resilient and better prepared for future storms. Up the mountain from Cruz Bay, a once-empty warehouse holds rows of chainsaws, 4,000-watt generators, circular saws, first-aid kits, flashlights, bolt cutters, masks, boots, bottled water and enough military meals to feed all of St. John for a week.
It's one of two "supply bunkers" positioned on different sides of the island that the groups will tap into should another storm hit. Volunteer teams are trained on emergency first-aid techniques, and an internet provider, Love City Community Network, built a mobile network of antennas and generators that could have connectivity across the island within hours of a major storm.
Another Irma-sized storm may batter the island, but it won’t cripple it the way it did last year, Quinlan said.
“We’ve taken some very extreme steps to make sure the population of St. John is protected,” he said. “We’re not going to go through the same things we did last time.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.