In the Virgin Islands, a steep drive up a mountainside in St. Thomas takes you to a community called Anna’s Retreat. At the very top of the hill there’s a house owned by Hophni Martin. An affable man, he laughs as he explains that his name comes from scripture.
“You’ll find it in 1 Samuel,” he says. “I’m not a Bible man, but my father was. He gave us the name.”
Hophni and his wife, Dorset, have lived there more than 25 years, but never experienced anything like last year. The Virgin Islands were hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes in September: Irma and then, two weeks later, Maria. The storms blew out windows and ripped off part of their roof. Wind and rain ruined most of their possessions. More than eight months later, they’re still cleaning up.
“There was a big cabinet there and everything fall down,” Hophni says. “And the worst of it — walking in the water [and] the amount of glass.”
A crew working with FEMA’s Emergency Home Repair program has already replaced the glass in many of the Martins’ windows. Workers are now replacing the galvanized metal on his roof.
In the months after the hurricanes, FEMA found that temporary housing programs that were effective in Florida and Texas made little sense in the Virgin Islands. Mobile homes were impractical and the few hotels that reopened weren’t available for housing because they were filled with relief crews.
It wasn’t until March, six months after the hurricanes hit, that FEMA launched this program on the island.
“What we’re trying to do is we want to give them a functioning kitchen, a place to sleep and a functioning bathroom,” says Brent Hazzard, who supervises some of the work crews.
Nearly nine months after the hurricanes, in the Virgin Islands recovery is going slower than many expected. Fewer than 100,000 people live on the three major islands — St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. But, as hurricane season begins, most in the Virgin Islands say they’re not ready.
One of them is Bruce Perry. For him and his wife Wilma, the emergency repair program provided some of the first good news they’ve had since the storm. They’re able to use only three of their seven rooms because water from an upstairs neighbor’s patio leaks into their home every time it rains. He’s hopeful a FEMA crew will soon have his home sealed and weatherproof.
“I’m probably more fortunate than most,” he says. “But all you got to do is drive around, count the blue roofs that are not ready for another hurricane.”
Blue tarps covering damaged roofs are still visible all over the Virgin Islands.
“People are stressed and they’re scared because yes, we are coming on to the next hurricane season,” says Daryl Griffith, who heads the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority. “More than three-quarters of our population received some type of hurricane damage. That means that we’re actually in a precarious state when it comes to housing right now.”
Even in the best of times, affordable housing is a scarce commodity. Construction costs are much higher here than on the mainland. Because of that, Griffith says the FEMA funded repairs, capped at $25,000, don’t cover even the full cost of replacing a roof.
“It’s about $40,000 to replace an average size roof,” he says. “And if you’ve seen the terrain in St. Thomas, a lot of our homes are on hills. So, not only do you have to ship it in, then you have to go on a hill and you have to get a crane and all that stuff while it’s on a sloped embankment. So that adds to the cost.”
Construction costs are even higher on St. John, a small, beautiful island accessible from St. Thomas by ferry. On the eastern end of St. John, residents in the community of Coral Bay have struggled since the storm for basic necessities like power and phone service.
Myrtle Isaac is a caseworker with a local foundation and her husband is the pastor of Emmaus Moravian Church in Coral Bay.
“That is where we were living,” she says, pointing to a large three-story stone building, the church’s Fellowship Hall.
During the storm, the roof of that building and the church were blown away and still haven’t been replaced. FEMA is working with the church on a plan to repair the buildings, and Isaac and her husband found temporary quarters nearby. But many of their church members aren’t as fortunate.
“Some are living in tents,” she says. “Some still, they have the cover, the tarps, you know. They don’t want to go to a shelter.”
On St. John and St. Thomas, people are living in homes where roofs, windows, even walls are missing, using blue tarps to keep the elements at bay. For many, Isaac says, the FEMA repair program is no help at all.
“You have to have walls, four walls up in order for them to repair your place,” she says.
A survey of homeowners in Coral Bay found that, as hurricane season begins, one-fifth of them don’t have a safe place to stay. More than one-quarter also report they don’t have phone service or any way to call 911 in case of an emergency.
For those eager for a quick recovery, Virgin Islands Gov. Ken Mapp has a message: be patient.
“We’re eight or nine months out,” he says. “Recovery is five to seven years.”
Mapp says the long-term picture is brighter. The large infusion of federal funds to help rebuild the islands’ infrastructure, he says, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A project to rebuild and harden the territory’s power grid is already underway. By the fall, modular buildings to replace damaged schools are expected to be ready so classes can resume on schedule. There’s also money to repair and replace damaged hospitals, roads and government buildings.
“We qualify for a little over $8 billion in all categories,” he says. “It is a lot of money. The Virgin Islands has not had that experience in any of its previous four storms, and that type of resources. But that lends itself to our federal partners recognizing how broken the system is.”
Federal money also will be available to replace at least 3,000 homes here were destroyed in the storms, but not until the end of the current hurricane season.