With little relief in sight, U.S. Virgin Islands go ignored

Media coverage and government efforts are focused elsewhere as the islands struggle to recover.

Power lines are damaged after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017.  The storm ravaged such lush resort islands as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo
Power lines are damaged after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. The storm ravaged such lush resort islands as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo

While Puerto Ricans seethe over a gaffe-ridden visit from President Trump, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are eyeing a slow and ominous road to recovery with even less recognition, after the president skipped a visit to the islands altogether this week.

Trump, who visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday, two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island as a Category 4 hurricane, initially announced his intent to visit the neighboring Virgin Islands (which are governed in part by both the British and U.S. governments) as well. But after spending several hours in Puerto Rico, the president declined to formally pay them a visit, instead meeting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp offshore on a Navy ship.

That snub registered heavily with the islands’ residents, many of whom are struggling to rebuild their lives in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which made landfall within a two week span. The U.S. Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory, which means its 105,000 residents are U.S. citizens, albeit without full voting rights. With their homes leveled, businesses destroyed, and both water and power in short supply, residents are desperate for acknowledgement.

“There’s no power, no water, no lighting, and the roads have no lights at night,” 46-year-old Michrael James told The New York Times. “I would love a generator.”

Similar stories abounded across the main islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, as well as neighboring minor islands. Residents told numerous publications that they were worried about regaining electricity and returning order to their lives. Many also expressed their frustrations with Trump, from whom they had expected a formal visit.

“It would be better if he came here and saw it with his own eyes,” said Aracelis Ruiz, 40.

Others were more cynical of the snub.

“I never expected him to actually come here,” Citierra Stewart, a 44-year-old small business owner from St. Croix, told BuzzFeed. “We’re non-voters, what does he care? It just reinforces that.” 

Offshore and away from the complaints of residents, the islands’ governor spent a quiet meeting with Trump, one marked by urgency.  Mapp, a registered Republican who ran for governor as an independent, is among the few officials praising federal efforts on the islands. But he also indicated that more money will be needed to ensure rebuilding efforts. During his meeting with the president, the governor said he asked for upwards of $750 million in relief funding — a request that was met with mixed reactions.

“The president did say he would support and work with us on the special community disaster loan, but wanted me to know that we’re going to have to work together on that because there are some members of Congress who may not be as supportive as he is,” Mapp later said of the relief funding, in a radio address broadcast from St. Croix.

“When you think in terms of that, you’ve lost two complete hospitals and the appurtenant health facilities, you’ve lost four schools, you’ve lost a number of government buildings and infrastructure, the United States is in its fifth rebuild of the power distribution system,” he continued. “I didn’t want to use a number that seemed small and gratuitous, and then when the assessments are all said and done, we were well understated.”

Trump seemed frustrated by the cost of hurricane recovery during his visit to Puerto Rico, where residents are also in desperate need of fuel, water, health care, and other vital necessities. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack — because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” the president said during a briefing.

That approach hasn’t gone over well on Puerto Rico, where around 95 percent of residents are without power and nearly half don’t have access to potable water. But on the Virgin Islands the situation is also tenuous. Local schools forced to close by the hurricanes hope to re-open by October 10, with the exception of schools on St. Croix, which are eyeing a re-open date of October 16. According to BuzzFeed, many students are considering heading to the mainland for the school year.

“I don’t want my kid to leave St. Thomas but education is more important,” one mother of four told the publication. “We still don’t have power. How are they supposed to do their homework? How am I supposed to wash their clothes? Just because you have school up and running doesn’t mean it’s good.”

For those remaining on the islands, the road to recovery appears rocky. Trump amended the U.S. Virgin Islands disaster declaration on Tuesday, authorizing an increase in federal assistance in acknowledgement of the damage incurred from Maria. But it’s unclear how much of a difference that update will make. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been dispatched to aide the islands, the prospects of sufficient financial support are looking grim, something a letter submitted Wednesday by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney seemed to underscore.

“With two more months of hurricane season remaining and wildfires continuing to burn in the West, we must act expeditiously to ensure that communities have the assistance they need, when they need it,” Mulvaney wrote.

Mulvaney’s letter requested $29 billion in federal aid, an amount allotted for all hurricane-afflicted areas, including the mainland states of Texas and Florida. That’s not comforting for island residents — Puerto Rico alone has estimated the island will need $95 billion in aid from the federal government, and that $29 billion also doesn’t account for the $750 million Mapp has said his constituents require.

Of particular urgency for many islanders is the Blue Roof Project, which many feel isn’t moving quickly enough. Upwards of 13,000 buildings may be in need of roof repairs, and 1,300 of those have sent applications requesting a fix. But only 63 of the 1,300 applications have reportedly been addressed, leaving residents frustrated and unhappy with the effort’s pace.

Islanders are also facing a slew of other problems, including expensive generators and widespread instances of vandalism. Excess garbage has reportedly been hindering movement, with officials stating on Monday that workers needed to remove around 1,125,000 cubic yards-worth of trash on public roads alone. Technical issues have also kept approximately one thousand people on the islands from receiving their unemployment checks, hindering their ability to purchase food and other important items.

Some residents are taking local officials to task for the stumbles. “We can’t hold Trump responsible,” one resident told BuzzFeed. “Mapp is our gov—he represents us…. He could request that Trump at least tour the devastation.” (ThinkProgress’ requests for comment from both FEMA and Mapp’s office have not yet been returned.)

With recovery projected to take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, and mainland attention focused elsewhere, some residents say they’re resigned to their fate.

“We got hit twice,” Kimba Callwood, a 56-year-old construction worker, told BuzzFeed. “By two hurricanes. …I’m not surprised [by the lack of concern].  We’re used to not getting attention.”