St. Thomas Residents Welcome Relief Flights After Irma

Sep 15, 2017
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One of the places in the Caribbean that was hardest hit by Hurricane Irma is St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Irma ripped across St. Thomas as a Category 5 hurricane nine days ago, and the island is now just starting to dig out. The airport remains closed, but relief flights and U.S. Marines are finally getting in. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in St. Thomas, and he reports the island is devastated.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Prior to Irma, St. Thomas was a lush, green Caribbean paradise, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists a year to its beaches and resort hotels. Now the island's hills are a dull brown, stripped of vegetation by Irma's powerful winds. At the airport, small planes lie crumpled next to the private jet departure terminal. Shipping containers are tossed on their sides. The governor estimates that 90 percent of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Utility crews and U.S. Marines have been moving through the isle and clearing downed power lines and bulldozing muck from the streets. An 18-hour-a-day curfew slapped in place immediately after Irma hit was relaxed yesterday to just 14 hours. This allowed desperate residents to venture out to try to get food, fuel and construction supplies. But all of those are in short supply, and long lines quickly formed at the few gas stations and stores that did open.

ELVIS BRANN: They need, like, solar lights.

BEAUBIEN: Elvis Brann in the Commandant Gade section of St. Thomas says almost all of his family's belongings were destroyed when their house flooded.

BRANN: Stoves, like, when you're going camping in America, that's things that we really need. And light and food is - yeah, you need to bring more food.

BEAUBIEN: As he's saying, people on St. Thomas right now need the very basics - food, shelter, electricity. And because this place is an island and its ports and airport are damaged, getting those basics back in here continues to be a challenge. At the Sea View Nursing Home in the Bolongo area, residents continue to shelter in place in the dining room and hospital beds. Large sections of the nursing home's roof have been ripped off. Patients' rooms are littered with ceiling tiles, shattered drywall and waterlogged bedding. Adeline Connor is the administrator of the facility.

ADELINE CONNOR: I remember during the height of the storm, the doors started to go. And it took three of us trying to hold the doors so that we won't blow away.

BEAUBIEN: The nursing home has 12 residents, and only three of them are ambulatory. Eventually, these patients will have to be evacuated, Connor says. But right now, there isn't anywhere else for them to go. Even the main hospital on the island, severely damaged in the hurricane, shut down.

On the night Irma hit, in the midst of the hurricane's battering winds, the staff and patients at the Sea View Nursing Home were cut off from the rest of the island. The road to their compound was blocked. Their nursing home, however, is right next to a locked residential facility for troubled adolescents.

KIMBERLY BOURNE-VANNECK: This is the facility.

BEAUBIEN: The director of the adolescent facility, Kimberly Bourne-Vanneck, says four teens helped move the elderly patients from one part of the nursing home to another as successive rooms flooded.

BOURNE-VANNECK: There was a situation where they were losing the roof. There was a lot of flooding, debris everywhere, and they cannot get out of their beds and walk to safety. These young men helped to save their lives.

BEAUBIEN: The teens mopped up rainwater. And Bourne-Vanneck says they sat with the elderly patients in the dark.

BOURNE-VANNECK: They were keeping glass from spraying on them. I was so proud because you're looking at four young men who, to a large degree, have been forgotten in our community.

BEAUBIEN: Across St. Thomas, you hear similar stories of people stepping up to help their neighbors during Irma. And even more help is going to be needed in the weeks and months and possibly years ahead as this island tries to rebuild.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, St. Thomas.

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