Two category 5 hurricanes back-to-back in just 12 days. In St. Croix and the Virgin Islands, many stranded residents were starting to feel they had been forgotten.
Hurricane Maria made landfall in St. Croix last Tuesday at 2 a.m.
Now, 1,200 U.S. National Guardsmen are helping residents dig out, and 800 are from the Virgin Islands. Some have lost their own homes, but are living in tents now helping others.
Another 1,500 are on their way, and will be sleeping onboard a cruise ship that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has contracted to give them shelter.
The governor of the Virgin Islands compares going through a hurricane to experiencing a war. He says he needs more help, especially mental health specialists to treat traumatized residents and first responders.
“When your roof starts to peel away and you are inside there and then your windows start to go and the walls start collapsing when you are in that structure that is awful. The emotional ride of going through any hurricane is devastating,” said Gov. Kenneth Mapp, who has experienced five hurricanes. “You begin to think it is abating and then it comes back more ferocious. You begin to believe your structure is going to hold and in the last two hours it begins to disappear and then water comes through everywhere.”
From the air, St. Croix has a lot to rebuild: 70 percent of the buildings are damaged, and many look like the contents of a match box tossed on the ground.
The Tennessee National Guard gave a visiting Fox News team a bird’s eye view of the damage across the island from a Blackhawk helicopter. Even the tombs in the cemetery were blown open by the winds.
The governor hopes to have the electricity back on by December.
“We need a lot of support in terms of how we are going to get homes repaired,” Mapp told Fox News. “We are really trying to figure out how we rebuild resiliently as opposed to how we are going to rebuild fast. We’ve got 80 percent of our power system on the ground.”
He estimates it will cost an estimated $200 million to rebuild the electrical grid, most of which was built above ground. These telephone and electrical lines look like a ball of tangled yarn. The islands of St. John and St. Thomas to the north are “shredded,” according to the National Guard working there.
“Our federal partners FEMA have been dropping provisions on the ground. We have our supermarkets up and running. We are sending fuel to St. Thomas,” the governor said while waiting on the tarmac for the arrival of FEMA director Brock Long and the President’s Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, who flew in to assess the damage.
In western St. Croix, some people remain trapped in their homes. There is no clean water and roads are still blocked by downed trees. Neither landline phones nor cell phones are working yet.
“You hear about the freight train noises like a tornado,” said resident Charles Dolphin Jr., who was waiting in line for water and Meals Ready To Eat at a National Guard distribution point. “People have been breaking down.”
His wife, Trudy Cowan Dolphin, works at the University of the Virgin Islands and is responsible for a large number of U.S. medical students who are trapped and trying to get home.
He asked if the trapped American students could fly out on military flights. “They are getting hot meals. Tell their parents they are safe,” Dolphin said. Their parents keep buying airline tickets, but there are still no flights.
Members of the Texas National Guard have set up a control tower at the airport so a few military planes can land, but the airport is not yet ready for commercial flights.
On Friday, the governor lifted a 24-hour curfew for four hours a day to allow residents to resupply.
He’s trying to manage expectations: 55,000 people live in St Croix year round.
St. Croix escaped the brunt of Hurricane Irma. It was supposed to be the relief hub for St John and St Thomas to the north. Then Hurricane Maria hit.
The recovery on these islands is harder than recovery efforts in Texas and Florida where there were about 20,000 National Guard mobilized to help and resources flooded in.
They have only 11 helicopters and the airport in St. John is still closed.
General Joseph Lengyel, the National Guard chief, arrived from the Pentagon to figure out what more could be done to help St. Croix and the other islands.
“My initial impression is it will be a while before this place returns to a semblance of normalcy,” Lengyel told Fox News. “They are working hard to get back to normal, but it’s going to be a long haul for the Virgin Islands.”
St. Croix wants to rebuild hurricane-proof buildings but that will take longer and cost more.
In Texas, President Trump adjusted the cost-sharing ratio to allow the governor to request more National Guard help. Officials say he could do the same for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The real problem is these residents know they are only halfway through this hurricane season.
“The emotional ride is the worst part of it. But we’re resilient,” Mapp said. “We are going to rebuild the Virgin Islands. It’s going to be better and stronger.”
If people would like to help, the governor says they can go to USVIRecovery.org.
He said: “We have a lot of families and folks to take care of. Many lost everything and now have just the clothes on their back.”