On September 5th I went to bed after calling my family back home, not realizing that it would be the last time I would hear their voices for the next three days. A Category 5 hurricane would knock out the phone signals for the next few days, making it impossible for me to know what condition my hometown was in. Hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean on the 6th of September, affecting over 35 of my family members, leaving some homeless with nothing left but the clothes on their back. As a girl born and raised in the Virgin Islands, I knew the impact of a hurricane, but most of the ones I lived through never had this much of an effect.
Since most people aren’t from an area completely encircled by water, its difficult to understand what islanders have to deal with, right before, during, and after a hurricane. Being on an island isn’t like being in the states. It isn’t as easy as just driving up north for safety a day or two before the storm. No matter where you are, you’re surrounded by water. Overnight, the not-so-threatening category 3 turned into a category 5. A hurricane the size of Ohio and almost 5,000 times bigger than my hometown, was going to pummel through my tiny 32 square-mile island, and there was nothing that I could do to help from this far away. Even the last few flights leaving the island in the afternoon on the 5th, right before the hurricane hit, were outrageously priced. Prices for a flight to Florida, which usually are less than $500 during peak season, were going for more than $1,200 per person due to extremely high demand.
On the 7th, around 5a.m. in the morning, I got my first glimpse of the disorder and chaos. Looking through Facebook, I saw a picture of the police station, with a part of the building left with no roof and two walls missing. Following that I saw a video Waterfront, completely submerged in water over 2.5 feet above ground. My heart broke to see this and I automatically felt sick, I hadn’t heard from anyone from home for what felt like a lifetime. As the day went on, I desperately stayed on Facebook to check for any activity from neighbors, friends, or anyone I knew could easily get in contact with my family. It’s difficult knowing that the place you called home for the first 17 years of your life, now looked completely unrecognizable. What hurts even more is constantly living in the fear, not knowing who was okay, and if the places I walked by every day were still standing. I was hopeful, but terrified to know the answers to the questions that popped in my head. I wondered if my family and friends were safe, if my neighbors were alright, and if the school I went to was still standing. Following that, other pictures surfaced the internet of our airport, fire station, our only hospital completely destroyed and flooded. Nothing was left.
You always hear about people who aren’t able to get in touch with their loved ones, but it is a completely different story when it happens to you. On the 8th early in the morning, I woke up from my sleep, to a 6 a.m. call from my mother. This was the first time she had received phone signal in two and a half days. We had yet to hear from our uncles, aunts, and cousins. She told me that she hadn’t slept for the past two days because the wind was so strong and the shutters kept banging on the windows. She told me how one of our big window downstairs cracked and caused over 4 inches of flooding in the house, but other than that, our home was in tact. She told me how some trees fell were blocking our driveway and how she couldn’t get out until the neighbors moved it. She told me how the trees fell on one of our cars, and shattered one of the back windows, but that it would all be okay since we have insurance on it. Through out the day she updated me on our other family members, and how our neighbors were doing. She also told me about how they couldn’t leave the neighborhood because the curfew still hadn’t been lifted.
At this time, we still hadn’t heard from my dad’s younger brother and his family, all that we knew was that their area had been impacted very hard. We prayed together over the phone and my mother told me to only think positive thoughts. Since my parents had lived through Katrina, Hugo, and Maryland, they knew how to be strong in even the hardest situations. We didn’t hear about their safety until almost half a day later. Through the shutters, one of their windows had completely shattered, causing massive flooding in the guest bedroom. They wind was banging on the door so loud that they feared it would burst open the door to the room, so they took furniture to block it from breaking open. My mother told me about how my uncles house was completely leveled in St. Martin. She told me how one of my cousins, his wife, and his new born baby, were trapped with 11 other family members (including another aunt who was pregnant) in the master bathroom, as they deemed it to be the safest room in the house. Their roof was partially gone, they lost a wall and their living room and dinning hall area, but the important thing was that everyone was safe.
For the next few months, people back home were living with no power, no clean water, no internet. The island was completely damaged, with 90% of water and power distribution lines and poles down, and almost every road was blocked. The beautiful green lush place I called home looked like a war-zone. The Virgin Islands were a place that used to entice people with it’s white sands, and beautiful clear beaches, but no one would be visiting for the next few months. Since our economy is heavily influenced by tourism and most hotels were damaged, Tourism had been held at a halt, causing an increase in the unemployment rate and forcing many people to leave their homes and migrate to the states. Many of my family members and friends now permanently live in the states, as a result of these disasters. The curfew made it impossible for people to leave their houses, but some people with corrupt intentions broke it. During this time violence broke out within the islands, as people were desperate. A family member told me about how my other cousin’s house was broken into, and they stole his generator and MacBook.
Following that day, I called my parents every single day to see how they were doing, even though coverage was spotty. Since our generator broke during the hurricane, my parents stayed at my aunt’s house. My dad told me how my old school was closed because the FEMA and government personnel was using our school as a base to help shelter and mobilize federal supplies and support, and that it would be at least another month or so until my brother would be able to go to school again. My dad told me about how condensed milk was going for $3, and a can and a pack of bread for $8, due to price grouching. My mom updated me on my younger cousin, who was a senior, and how she was doing. The college application process became a lot harder for her, as she had no internet and was typing her college essays in the dark using her cell phone. My mom told be about how they had organized a prayer in my aunt’s house to keep them safe for the next Hurricane Jose, which redirected its path. In this time, they knew that hope was the most valuable item that they could hold on to.
Unfortunately, 2 weeks later, Hurricane Maria hit my hometown again, drowning everything that Hurricane Irma did not destroy. The government did a great job at warning citizens that another category 5 was going to hit. Most people were aware though word of mouth, and were able to prepare. Once again the same process occurred, where I couldn’t hear from my family for a few days, and it felt like I was living the same nightmare over again. This time, our supply sister islands, Puerto Rico and St. Croix, were more directly impacted which left the rest of the Caribbean in the same boat. Some islands were impacted even harder, and were considered to be inhabitable. During this past hurricane season in 2017, over 90% of the infrastructures in the Virgin Islands were impacted. To say that my immediate family was lucky for only facing minimal flooding in our house, and a few broken windows to our car, is a major understatement, after seeing how two Category 5 hurricanes affected some of the other people on island.
Forward to December 18th, more 4 months after the first hurricane hit, I went back home to visit my parents for winter break. Part of me didn’t want to go home, because my parents still didn’t have power and the hot water only ran for 3 hours of the day in the morning from 5am-8am. It made me sad to know that we still didn’t have power and that this Christmas was not going to be as bright as the last one. I’m not sure how my family lasted like this for over 4 months, when I couldn’t even last 4 days. Two days after I landed, I began seeing linemen working on my street, and with less than 5 days left to Christmas, you can definitely say Santa gave us the best present we could have. It’s funny to think how much we take for granted until it is taken from us.
Since September, the lushness of the island has been restored and is more beautiful than ever. Power was 100% restored by early February. Hotels are now being reconstructed to attract more tourists. My parents were finally able to go back to work in early December, as tourists started to come in again. My brother is finally back in school and no longer constantly feels “bored” since our internet is finally back. My cousin updated me on how she was accepted into her top choice, and will be attending Princeton University in New Jersey next fall. Although it might take some more time, life is slowly but surely going back to normal.
Being back home helped me realize how much I wanted to work with an organization that helps others in times of need. One of the biggest reasons I felt so compelled to join the American Red Cross was because they were there for my people when they needed it the most. With the out pour of support, the United States Virgin Islands has received, following the 2017 Hurricane season, they are finally able to pick themselves up and rebuild again. I am extremely grateful and proud to know that I come from such a small but strong community.
Written by Lavita Totwani, Communications Intern for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago