The Rubble And Recovery Of U.S. Virgin Islands: 'Will We Survive The Aftermath?'

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma on the U.S. Virgin Islands, as seen from the air on Friday.

Caribbean Buzz via AP

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Caribbean Buzz via AP

As Hurricane Irma brings its might to bear on the west coast of Florida, there’s one thing that should not be buried by the immense storm’s winds: all the wreckage those winds have made of the Caribbean. From Antigua to Cuba, the string of small islands so often considered tourist paradises endured the hellish brunt of a Category 5 hurricane.

Smack in the center of that path were the U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory torn apart with the storm’s arrival Wednesday. Now, days later, many on the islands fear the focus of their fellow Americans will be irreversibly drawn to the mainland, while they’re left to pick up the pieces.

The Associated Press reports that of the at least 24 people who were killed by Irma in the Caribbean, at least four people died in the U.S. territory.

“This is a horrific disaster. There will be no restorations or solutions in days or weeks,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp told reporters Saturday. “Let’s manage our expectations.”

The Virgin Islands are impossible to find in this satellite image, still completely covered by Hurricane Irma’s outer bands as the storm moves northwest on Thursday.

NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images

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NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images

President Trump issued a major disaster declaration for the battered U.S. territory Saturday, freeing up more federal funds to support recovery efforts, including the removal of debris.

Mapp said St. Croix, an island spared the worst of Irma’s effects, has become the temporary staging area for delivering relief supplies to the rest of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. On St. Croix are aircraft, troops — and residents such as Elizabeth Smith, who told NPR about the situation faced by the territory four days after the storm’s departure.

The other two major islands in the U.S. territory, St. John and St. Thomas, are still “not safe,” Smith wrote in an email Sunday.

“No power, no running water, no cell service. The only hospital on St John faced catastrophic failure during the storm. Patients with life threatening injuries were evacuated to hospitals in Puerto Rico and St. Croix.”

Hurricane Irma inflicted catastrophic damage on St. Thomas when it made landfall as a Category 5 storm earlier this week. The U.S. Army National Guard worked to shuttle food and equipment to and from the island by aircraft based in St. Croix.

Army Sgt. Priscilla Desormeaux/U.S. Army National Guard via Getty Images

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Army Sgt. Priscilla Desormeaux/U.S. Army National Guard via Getty Images

Smith reports obstacles to obtaining assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including the fact that the stations distributing food or water in rations are difficult to find without power or cell service.

Several cruise lines have offered their ships to assist in recovery efforts, sending them fully stocked to usher tourists to safety off the islands, according to the Miami Herald.

“We have been such a part of the Caribbean and South Florida communities for so many decades. We are worried and anxious,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, told the Miami paper. “At the end of the day, we want to try to help as much as we can.”

Retired NBA star Tim Duncan also pitched in, saying in a post on The Players Tribune he is donating $250,000 to “storm relief efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands” — and promising to match other donations up to the first $1 million. He also noted he would charter a plane to help shuttle supplies to St. Croix, where the future Hall of Famer grew up.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about my old neighborhood in St. Croix, where I recently took my kids. I showed them where I used to play with my friends when I was their age. I showed them my high school,” Duncan wrote. “Now I’m asking myself, What will still be there after the storms?

An aerial view of the Virgin Islands — both British and U.S. — shows in stark terms just what is left now: roofs torn off houses, trees uprooted, whole neighborhoods turned into rubble under the weight of the storm.

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St. John resident Stephanie Stevens told NPR of school pulled apart, its roof looking “like somebody took the individual sheets of metal and twisted it like a washcloth before they through it everywhere all over the ground.”

Laura Cockford, whose mother had been visiting St. John at the time of the storm, put the matter plainly on Friday: “The island is destroyed.”

When 14-year-old Margaret McConnell walked outside the morning after the storm passed St. Thomas, “the sky was dull, gray, and lifeless,” she wrote in a long note relayed to NPR by her sister. “The trees all looked to be dead. Our once green and flamboyant yard was brown and ugly. It did not feel like my home that I had always known. “

“Everything on the side of the road was ruined,” McConnell added. “Was this really St. Thomas? How could this have happened?”

Stevens sounded a note of hope in her dispatch, telling of collaboration in the recovery efforts.

“The islanders are prevailing amazingly. Everybody is pitching in, and everybody is pulling out whatever they can — chainsaws, trucks, whatever they can to help get people out of houses, to get people into shelters, to get people food,” she said.

Still, in listing her fears, Smith said this teamwork won’t be enough on its own.

“We need help,” she says. “We need the United States government to step up. We need military. We need security. We all survived this monster storm. But will we survive the aftermath?”

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Ways To Help As Florida Is Dealt 'Catastrophic' Blow From Irma

A Red Cross volunteer at a full shelter in Miami on Friday shows the addresses to other shelters with availability.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

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Wilfredo Lee/AP

Hurricane Irma’s punishing winds and life-threatening storm surge have already left their lethal imprint, and there is more catastrophic damage to come as now downgraded 3 Category hurricane takes its projected path up Florida’s west coast.

Irma has killed at least 22 people and left devastation over parts of the Caribbean.

State-side, the extent of the damage, of course, may not be known for days until the storm dissipates and emergency workers can fan out to assess and provide aid.

Yet by Sunday, the day the eye of storm made landfall in the Florida Keys, a picture of the destruction was already becoming clear: more than a million Florida homes and businesses were without power, more than 6 million Floridians were warned to evacuate and more than 100,000 people were holed up in emergency shelters.

Irma’s force is unstoppable, but feelings of helplessness can be converted into action.

“Your efforts could make the difference a family needs to get through this storm,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott at a press conference earlier in the week. “So please volunteer.”

Give time

-With hundreds of emergency shelters in operation, volunteers are needed to staff them. You can sign up online with the state-run Volunteer Florida and receive shelter training or call 1- 800-FL-Help-1. Officials say more than 17,000 Floridians have already signed up to volunteer.

-The American Red Cross is on the ground, having already deployed around 1,000 volunteers, but is asking for more to help serve food, load and unload trucks and set up facilities, among other duties.

Use your skills

-Florida needs 1,000 volunteer nurses to help at special-needs shelters. Nurses can email: HelpFL@FLhealth.gov.

-Officials are seeking other workers with “specialized healthcare skill;” such workers “would be incredibly helpful,” a spokesperson with the Florida State Emergency Operations Center tells NPR.

Give shelter

Airbnb, the online rental site, lets hosts in the region offer their homes at no charge to Irma evacuees.

Give money

GlobalGiving, distributes Irma donations to vetted local groups, as well as bigger organizations.

The American Red Cross is accepting money for food, shelter and “emotional support” for Irma victims.

GoFundMe, the crowdfunding site, gives people the opportunity to either raise funds or donate to Hurricane relief efforts.

The Salvation Army is providing thousands of meals throughout the state and says the best way to help is with a monetary donation.

Why money may be best

USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information says money given to “established relief agencies” is “always the best way to help,” and that donated items can sometimes hurt more than help.

“Many Americans respond to disasters by collecting food, clothing and household items for people in need,” the agency says on its website. “These donations require transportation — which is expensive and logistically complicated — and a pre-identified recipient on the ground who will receive the shipment, pay customs and other fees, sort and distribute the items.”

To ensure that your money is going toward a reputable charity, The New York Timesreports you can:

“(C)heck whether it has been rated or accredited by an organization like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or the Better Business Bureau. These might not cover smaller, community-based charitable organizations. But you can read useful tips about choosing a charity from the Federal Trade Commission.”

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Telecom Companies Turn To Drones For Help After Hurricanes

A drone is flown during a property inspection following Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. The mass destruction brought on by Hurricane Harvey has been a seminal moment for drone operators, proving that they can effectively map flooding, locate people in need of rescue and verify damage to speed insurance claims.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tropical Storm Harvey disrupted at least 17 emergency call centers and 320 cellular sites, and it caused outages for more than 148,000 Internet, TV, and phone customers, according to the Federal Communications Commission. It left many people unable to reach out for help or get in touch with family and friends to say they were alive.

It’s likely that a similar scenario will occur after Irma, one of the most potentially devastating storms in the state’s history, hits Florida.

To speed up the process of getting everyone back online, telecom companies are starting to use drones. According to experts these unmanned planes can access where the damage is, find the best routes to get there, and what equipment to bring.

Both AT&T and Verizon have confirmed they are getting their drones in place to help with recovery efforts.

According to Kate Harris, a spokesperson for Verizon, the company began using drones last October during Hurricane Matthew to inspect cell towers in North Carolina. She says flooding would have made it hard to send out inspectors to all the sites.

“Reviewing video from the drone, our network engineers realized that one cell site had its equipment on stilts and was not damaged,” she says.

The problem was that the generator needed fuel.

“The team was able to send in a team via boat and refueled the generator, getting the site back online to serve customers within just a few hours vs. days,” Harris says.

AT&T says it has been successfully using drones to help get their systems back up around Houston and other areas affected by Harvey. Art Pregler, National Mobility System’s Director at AT&T, says they kept drones just outside the area where Harvey was expected to hit so that they could deploy them quickly.

The company actually embeds drone crews with repair crews. Pregler says the drone can get pictures of a cell tower and then the repair team can see what’s actually wrong with it. Knowing what’s wrong is important.

“The worst thing is to send a crew who doesn’t have the right equipment,” Pregler says.

Drones can also be used to figure out what areas to avoid — which areas aren’t flooded, where there are large piles of debris — and then repair teams can find ways to get out to the cell towers and other facilities without wasting time.

Pregler says that they’ve moved drone teams to Florida but it’s a more complicated situation than Harvey.

“The entire state is a target of the hurricane,” says Pregler. “There is a lot of ongoing coordination.”

Pregler says given the shifting information about where Irma is headed, they may have to keep the drone team out of state in Georgia or elsewhere.

The Federal Aviation Administration has now developed special regulations for drones during emergencies. The agency put in temporary flight restrictions. Hobbyists or people who are just curious are told they cannot send out drones during a crisis. But, the agency will quickly register government, non-profit and commercial drones involved in helping recovery efforts. The agency tracks flight plans for the drones such as where they will fly, how high and when to prevent collisions.

According to a spokesperson for the FAA, it’s not only telecom companies that are using drones. Local fire departments, insurance companies, the Red Cross, railroad companies, and even journalistic organizations are sending out drones to assess damages.

Using drones after disasters is still a new. But, so far the companies that use them say they are proving themselves to be an invaluable tool for disaster recovery. And for those waiting on the ground to reconnect with family and friends or get in touch with emergency services anything that can get them back online faster is likely to be welcomed.

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