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In the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria Drowned What Irma Didn’t Destroy

Author: Jeremy W. Peters

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CRUZ BAY, V.I. — Even before two Category 5 hurricanes struck the United States Virgin Islands with punishing fury this month, the notion of paradise here was already about as brittle as a sand dollar.

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The local treasury had barely enough cash to keep the government funded for three days. Its debt had grown so large that Wall Street stopped lending it money. The unemployment rate was more than twice the national average.

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The one-two punch of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria 14 days later was especially cruel. In many places across the three major islands of this American territory, the second storm drowned what the first couldn’t destroy, ravaging what was once one of the Caribbean’s most idyllic landscapes.

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Debris and downed power lines on St. John.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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Ms. Moorehead’s flooded bedroom. Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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“Maria broke our spirit,” said Ian Samuel of St. John, who lost parts of the upstairs of his house to Irma’s wind and his downstairs to two and a half feet of water from Maria. “I was in a pretty bad car wreck. And it’s like that — when you get out of the car and you’re trying to figure out what’s happening.”

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The governor, Kenneth E. Mapp, said he expects that the hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix, the most populated islands, will have to be torn down and rebuilt. In St. Thomas, not far from where cruise ships have long unloaded vacationers, tarps and trash cans now collect dripping water from the ceiling of the emergency room, which has to evacuate any critical patients to the mainland.

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On St. Croix, one of the few working cell towers went down after someone stole the generator powering it. The authorities had to ease the strict curfew after bodies started piling up at the morgue because people could not stay out long enough to bury those who had passed away of natural causes since the storms.

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The main hospital on St. Thomas was seriously damaged. Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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The hospital will likely need to be torn down and rebuilt. Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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On St. John, the smallest and most remote of the islands, water and wind reduced beachfront hotel rooms to rubble. A landslide blocked the one road that connects the island from east to west, leaving just enough room for cars to pass but not an ambulance.

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So many public school buildings have been compromised on the three islands that students cannot go back to class. And the wind has stripped the trees of all their leaves, leaving the once lush tropical forests looking as if they were set afire with napalm.

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The 103,000 people who live in these islands are at the end of a long supply chain of relief that depends heavily on the ports in neighboring Puerto Rico — now crippled by Maria and unable to meet the needs of its own people.

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Rose Maunder carried her 8-month old son as she, her husband and their older son, Shane, retrieved fuel cans from their boat, which was wrecked in Coral Bay, St. John.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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The wreckage of ships littered the main ferry terminal on St. John. Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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And as Virgin Islanders wait for doctors, medicine, fuel and manpower to rebuild the flattened communications and power grid, the economic toll from the storms is only starting to come to light.

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“The economy evaporated pretty much overnight,” said Clint Gaskins, the owner of Longboard, a restaurant on the island of St. John where the only customers these days are the locals who stop by twice a day to pick up meals provided by the Red Cross.

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Across the island, the picture is grim: The two largest resorts will not be able to open until next year, if not longer; owners of the restaurants and bars that came away unscathed wonder who will be left for them to serve; and residents who are suddenly without jobs are leaving en masse for the mainland.

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“And you’ve got a nearly bankrupt government,” Mr. Gaskins added. “I don’t know how they get out of this.”

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The Caneel Bay resort on St. John was heavily damaged.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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The troubles in Puerto Rico are far better known. That island is facing a humanitarian catastrophe following the flooding and destruction from Maria. A debt crisis has left the government so badly strained that it effectively declared bankruptcy in May.

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But on a per-capita basis, the often out-of-sight, out-of-mind Virgin Islands carry more debt than Puerto Rico. Wall Street analysts have warned that the territory may be unable to pay back the nearly $2 billion it owes creditors and keep up with billions more in payments it is required to make into a pension system that is projected to be insolvent in less than six years.

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“We believe there is a large chance they will default,” said David Hitchcock, an analyst with Standard & Poor’s, which has said it plans to withdraw its ratings of the Virgin Islands — already at a level considered junk by investors — by October because the government has stopped providing it with basic information on its cash flow and financial outlook.

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Governor Mapp said in an interview this week that the territory had already made its bond payment due next month and was not in danger of default or bankruptcy, which would have to be authorized by Congress, similar to what happened with Puerto Rico. He said his administration has been working with Wall Street to try to borrow additional funding, but no deals have come together yet.

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Power lines still sat in tangled piles on the side of the road.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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Solar panels that provided a small percentage of power for St. Thomas were destroyed. Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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“I’m not an economist, so I don’t want to sort of say to you it’s going to be all fine. It’s not going to be all fine,” Mr. Mapp said. The government — the territory’s largest employer — had been able to pay its employees since the hurricanes and would do so again this week, he said. But beyond that, he offered no guarantees. His priority, he said, was making sure critically ill patients got out of the two damaged hospitals.

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He asked that Washington remember “the forgotten Americans” in the territories. “We are no different than Americans anywhere else,” he said.

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Tourism is not only the livelihood for many Virgin Islanders, it provides a third of the local gross domestic product — a revenue stream the local government cannot afford to live without.

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A vicious cycle of financial mismanagement, combined with other factors like the loss of one-tenth of the islands’ population since 2008, were hampering the Virgin Islands even as the rest of the country bounced back from the Great Recession.

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Basic government functions have suffered neglect for years. The government has shortchanged the hospitals of the funding they are supposed to receive. And that has caused the hospitals to fall behind on payments to entities like the local water and power authority, which has raised rates so high on customers that they pay three times as much as the average in the states. Compounding the financial stress, the federal government caps the amount of money it provides the territories for Medicaid.

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“I’m so at a loss right now and really trying to hold it together because we were on the brink before this, in terms of our finances,” Representative Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress, said in an interview. Ms. Plaskett, like other territorial delegates, cannot vote.

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After Irma hit three weeks ago, aid was slow to trickle into St. Thomas and St. John. When military, law enforcement and emergency medical workers finally did begin to settle in, they were forced to pull out as Maria approached, taking the semblance of safety and order they brought with them.

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Rickie Donastorg took a sledgehammer to his walls as he began to clean up and rebuild his home on St. Thomas.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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A destroyed car on the top of a hill on St. Thomas. Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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“What it did was send everybody back into shock,” James Smith of St. Thomas, a ferry operator, said of Maria. Many people like him shared a similar reaction now that a week has passed: While the initial shock has worn off, the trauma lingers. “I hear my shutters rattle at night, and I get excited,” Mr. Smith added.

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One of the businesses hit badly by the storm was the marine industry. Harbors are littered with ferries that capsized or were washed ashore, leaving fewer vessels to carry supplies back and forth. Masts from sunken sailboats jut out of the water. Charter boats, a big economic driver, lie on beaches, their hulls ripped open.

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Reinforcing the sense of despair, St. Croix was hit especially hard by Maria after being spared the worst of Irma’s ferocity. And what had been a staging ground there for relief operations for St. Thomas and St. John was suddenly thrown into a state of emergency.

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A week after Maria blew through, the recovery efforts were still lumbering to get off the ground. Power lines sit in tangled piles on the side of the road. Some droop down from broken poles and slap the windshields of cars as they pass by. Houses have been knocked from their foundations and rest precariously on steep hillsides. Piles of garbage grow larger and more fetid by the day, rotting in the tropical sun.

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And help from the local and federal government can be hard to come by. When the public clinic on St. John ran out of essential medicines like tetanus shots and did not have doctors and nurses to relieve its overtaxed staff, it was a private individual, Tom Secunda, a co-founder of Bloomberg L.P., who flew them in on a company jet and ferried them to St. John while the federal government kept the ports closed. The company has also donated generators and sent staff to help with recovery logistics.

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The remnants of a plane in a ditch on the St. Thomas airport runway.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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With no commercial air traffic allowed in or out of the St. Thomas airport, evacuations are being left to wealthy individuals with ties to the islands, including Mr. Secunda and Kenny Chesney, the country singer, who chartered a plane usually used by Nascar to get people and their pets out on Tuesday.

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Even as relief begins to flow, residents understand that normalcy will not return for months, if not years.

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Kimmeiqua Mahoney sat in what was left of her apartment in a public housing development in the Tutu section of St. Thomas this week, kneading dough for johnny cakes as her fiancé fried them in a pan heated with chunks of broken drywall — his improvisation for charcoal. Ms. Mahoney has two weeks until she is supposed to give birth to her third child, a girl.

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She rubbed her belly and looked outside at where there used to be a wall. She said she had no idea where she would live or work after she has her baby. Her job as a warehouse supervisor at a nearby resort is gone. And she has no idea if the housing stipend the government is offering her will cover her expenses. She cannot access her bank account because she has no internet. Neither do the grocery stores, which cannot process her food stamps.

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“Already the island was short on jobs,” she said. “Right now we’re just filing for unemployment because it’s the only thing we can do.”

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Kimmeiqua Mahoney looked out from where there once was a wall in her apartment complex on St. Thomas.

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Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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DMU Timestamp: September 19, 2017 21:22

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