As St. Croix-born resident Matt Jones took off flying an Aztec out of Henry E. Rohlsen airport in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one seat was eerily empty. He was evacuating to Curaçao, where he and his young sons would be safe, approximately 475 miles south of Hurricane Maria’s path. The seat, which would usually be occupied by his wife Gwen, was vacant that day as she remained on St. Croix. As an ER nurse, she felt strongly about staying behind to help those in need.
That day in September, Jones fulfilled a promise to his wife to never let their sons experience what he did as a child. Hurricane Hugo struck St. Croix in 1989, tearing the roof off Jones’ childhood home with his family inside. He remembers taking shelter in a closet for 13 hours as the hurricane hovered relentlessly over the island. Jones’ father shielded him and his brother from flying debris with a mattress until they were able to run to safety at a neighbor’s home.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September. Both Category 5 hurricanes took relatively the same path through the Caribbean less than two weeks apart. But the people of the Virgin Islands refuse to be victims. They are resilient and determined to restore their paradisaical islands. Immediately after the hurricanes cleared, residents were cutting their way through tree-filled roadways with chainsaws. They cleaned up their neighborhoods and the campuses of their children’s schools to get life back to normal as soon as possible.
While federal and military recovery efforts were important for initial rebuilding, Virgin Islanders have their eyes fixed on the quickly-approaching tourism season (approximately December through May). As a tourism-dependent economy, the focus is having the islands ready to welcome visitors. Tourism provides job security for a large percentage of the island community.
Jones has one of those tourism-dependent jobs. As the chief inspector at my employer, Bohlke International Airways charter fleet, it is imperative for him to have incoming flights to keep the doors open. Jones is part of a diverse 45-person team who depend on aircraft coming to island. Bohlke is a family-owned business, and it also recovered from Hurricane Hugo in the late 1980s.
From the time Hurricane Maria made landfall on St. Croix, it took Jones 48 hours to reach his wife to hear she was safe. Although the hospital in which she was working sustained serious damage and has since been condemned, she and her colleagues in the emergency room were unharmed. Jones returned to her family’s home to find that sections of the roof had ripped off during the hurricane. The family lost 90 percent of their belongings to the subsequent water damage.
The Jones family is slowly finding a new normal: Matt is supporting air-based relief efforts; Gwen is helping patients; and their sons are back at school. They found a new house to rent and are piece by piece replacing their belongings, like their son’s most prized possession — his baseball glove.
To support fellow Americans in the Virgin Islands, you can donate to local fundraisers, mail relief supplies or volunteer for recovery efforts. Adopt A Family USVI is matching participants with people in need of supplies, which can be inexpensively sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Volunteers are being organized through groups like the American Red Cross.
Others like the Jones family continue to need support from communities across the states. While fundraising, supply drives and volunteer efforts are tremendously helpful, tourism is needed most. Planning a trip in 2018 or beyond is the single most supportive thing any American can do for the Caribbean right now. Even selecting a cruise with ports of call in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is helpful for American citizens recovering in the U.S. territories.
Ashley Bouzianis is an eight-year resident of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, who evacuated to the Kansas City area with her young children after Hurricane Maria. She is the director of marketing for Bohlke International Airways and AeroMD.