St. Croix Seeks to Rebuild Battered Image : Virgin Islands: The devastation from Hurricane Hugo remains. Many residents want the area to be known again as an ‘American paradise.’
Two months after Hurricane Hugo ripped through St. Croix with winds in excess of 150 miles an hour, 80% of the island remains without electricity and telephones, thousands are living in severely damaged homes under roofs fashioned from plastic sheets, and the winter tourist season has been written off completely.
But, say many residents, even tougher than rebuilding homes and lives in this devastated U.S. territory is rebuilding the island’s image as an “American paradise.”
Hugo not only physically tore apart this 82-square-mile island, it also stripped bare its deep-seated social and racial problems.
The storm roared in after dark on Sept. 17, bringing wall-to-wall destruction. Trees were uprooted, tin roofs went flying, boats were piled atop each other on shore and glass was shattered everywhere.
For the next two days looting was rampant. The storm severed all communications with the outside world, and with no lights and little evidence of local law enforcement on the streets, an unnerving air of anarchy descended, residents say. As newspapers and television spread images of people carting off appliances and men armed with shotguns patrolling a shopping center from the roof, President Bush ordered 1,100 Army troops to the island.
Order was restored quickly. But the damage, both to the public image of the island as a haven for tourists, and to the private image residents had of themselves, had been done.
“It just shocked me,” said Everett Gumbs, a 63-year-old taxi driver. “My wife and I saw four men carrying a refrigerator down the street, and I said: ‘What is this? Something’s wrong.’ ”
“There was racial tension here prior to Hugo (related to) an expanding gap of economic difference,” says Jerry Garcia, 26-year-old executive director of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce and a native of the island. “So the good thing the hurricane brought about is an awareness. The issue is now being discussed.”
The issue of race is a particularly sensitive one on this island, still haunted by the grisly murder 17 years ago of eight people at the Fountain Valley Golf Course. Five black men were charged with killing the eight, seven of whom were white.
Mike Hernandez, a conciliation specialist with the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, helped investigate the Fountain Valley case. “People here are still traumatized by Fountain Valley. You hear about it all the time,” he says.
Now Hernandez has been sent back to St. Croix to reactivate a human rights commission that has lain dormant for years. “St. Croix is not a powder keg,” he says. “We’re not going to see a riot here. But St. Croix--like other U.S. cities--needs some sort of mediating organization to deal with tensions.”
What’s wrong in St. Croix may be no different than what’s wrong in many other scenic Caribbean islands, where the development of tourism seems to have favored off-islanders with money more than the native population. Although 85% of the island’s 56,000 residents are black, most of the businesses are owned by whites and other non-blacks.
David M. Nissman, the U.S. attorney in St. Croix, says that despite the multi-ethnic population, “color matters less here than anywhere I’ve ever lived.” But, he adds, “internal weaknesses in the Virgin Islands government and a school system that is a mess” have put native Crucians at a competitive disadvantage for jobs. “And that’s a cause of tension,” he said.
In the aftermath of the storm, that tension bubbled to the surface, Nissman says. Although initial reports of attacks on whites by machete-wielding gangs were patently untrue, “there was some violent crime, and some racial epithets were directed at continentals,” as whites are called here, Nissman says. “And let’s not sweep this under the rug for the sake of tourism.”
Tourism is two-thirds of the economy in the Virgin Islands--St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix--which became an unincorporated American territory in 1917 when the United States bought the islands from Denmark for $25 million. Last year, almost 2 million tourists visited--most via one of the many cruise ships that stop at St. Thomas--and spent $676 million. Visitors spent $132.8 million last year on St. Croix.
Positioned as they are atop the Lesser Antilles chain, just east of Puerto Rico and about 1,100 miles southeast of Miami, the islands are on the main line for hurricanes that form off the coast of Africa and head west across the open Atlantic. But Hugo was the first tropical cyclone to hit the Virgin Islands directly in 61 years. Both St. Thomas and St. John suffered considerable damage. But St. Croix got plastered.
Today, the island looks like it’s waking up from a hangover, still a little groggy, but determined to set itself right. The roads are clear, the trees are greening with new leaves and debris is being hauled to dump sites by the truckload.
But evidence of Hugo’s fury is never far from view nor out of mind. An island-wide curfew remains in effect from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., and although the Army troops have gone, local police and National Guard forces have been bolstered by the arrival of 150 MPs from a Washington, D.C., National Guard unit.
After its roof fell in, the island’s lone hospital was condemned. Medical care is now dispensed by doctors and nurses working in tents set up in the parking lot. “We’ve cut down on elective surgery,” administrator Lloyd K. Austin said. “We’re just doing things that have to be done.”
In Fredericksted, the island’s second city, the pier that once enabled huge cruise ships to tie up and disgorge tourists was blown away, and without visitors the town looks depressed. In the mountains that run through the center of the island, the once stately mahogany trees are splintered and cracked, as though blitzed by a firestorm. Hundreds of houses along the rugged coastline remain roofless or collapsed into rubble.
Still, in the major city of Christiansted, amid the noise of hammers, saws and portable generators that have replaced the chatter of tourists on the narrow streets, there is optimism. Sailboats remain beached on some downtown streets, and the harbor is littered with overturned hulls, but there is a lot of hard work going on.
About 750 of the island’s 1,700 hotel rooms are habitable, and all are filled, with off-island construction workers, Red Cross and federal disaster teams, insurance adjusters and 450 linemen sent from power companies in six states. There are not many tourists here, and no one is expecting them back soon. The Virgin Islands government recently spent $600,000 to promote the winter season, which begins Dec. 15, and did not even mention St. Croix.
“We’re not ready for tourists yet,” says Charlie Martin, executive director of the St. Croix Hotel Assn.
While food supplies are ample, businesses are reopening daily, and school has started up again, coping with the day-to-day routine can be a struggle. “There is a lot of stress here,” says Jerry M. Kaiser, an expert on stress management flown in from Santa Cruz, Calif., to conduct workshops for schoolteachers and students.
For many, daily life means filing insurance claims, applying for Small Business Administration loans or filling out forms at offices set up by the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“In 16 years with FEMA, I’ve never seen a place hit so hard border to border,” said Steven B. Singer, director of the agency’s efforts here. Although only five persons were reported killed as a result of Hugo, Singer said most of the homes on the island were damaged or destroyed, and more than 95% of the power poles were blown down. Most residents will not have full electrical and phone service until spring.
Virgin Islands Gov. Alexander Farrelly estimated total damages to the territory at $935 million. On St. Croix, Singer says FEMA has passed out $125 million in goods and materials, including 4.2 million pounds of food, and more remains to be done. “FEMA will have a presence here for two years,” he added.
Physical recovery seems certain. Hotels will reopen. Sid Kalmans, the owner of the Caravelle Hotel, hired 11 construction workers from the mainland, put them up in the 11 of the hotel’s 43 rooms that still have roofs and set them to work. He plans to welcome guests again by the summer.
But Kalmans knows that island residents have some emotional repair work to do as well. For two days after the storm, Kalmans walked the street in front of his hotel with a rifle in his hands. The weapon was unloaded, he now admits. But seeing shops all around him being looted, he said he was determined to protect his property.
By the second day after Hugo’s passage, the looters represented a broad cross section of St. Croix society, attested to by later arrests. Among those charged with grand larceny were former Virgin Islands Sen. Adelbert Bryan, a captain in the local police force and an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, alleged to have stolen a truckload of building material; and Michael Harris, the owner of a popular Christiansted cafe, who allegedly stole foodstuffs from a competitor’s shop to resell in his own.
Many residents are convinced that St. Croix will emerge stronger for the tribulations Hugo has posed. Kalmans said he thinks “those few days after the storm, when things were crazy, brought people together. We started a community watch program to look out for each other.”