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Caribbean Currents: U.S. Virgin Islands still reeling from devastating hurricane season

The older folks in the Caribbean have a very popular saying “If it ain’t the sugar it’s the sugar pan,” meaning “if it ain’t one thing it’s another. And if you have lived long enough you will know that in life this goes without saying.

The shattered lives of our brothers and sisters back in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) is a demonstration of that. Their world got turned upside down when within a four-month period Category 5 hurricanes Maria and Irma destroyed their homes, schools and businesses. Similar to the devastation that we saw in Puerto Rico (that is still playing out today), many towns have no electricity, their drinking water is still compromised and some are still having challenges getting proper food and medical supplies.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency — of the United States) paints a different picture as they report that it is almost back to life as usual on the islands. The most recent report for March shows that — as of March 19 — FEMA and its partners have earmarked more than $1 billion to distribute among households, businesses, territorial agencies and flood insurance policyholders.

The agency also posted a report in December 2017 itemizing their progress in doling out aid. “Since the hurricanes struck in September, the following has been accomplished: nearly 50 percent of all customers on the islands have power. $21 million in Debris removal to help clear roads which paved the way for the transport of goods, supplies and services. Cell service site restoration is now more than 75 percent throughout the islands. Housing assistance totaling more than $34 million in grants is flowing to survivors and home repairs have begun. Students are back in school. Vital healthcare services are being restored throughout the territory.”

These numbers sound as if they already have a ton of money but the USVI government is still struggling to restore the economy and bring a sense of security back to its citizens. They have been draining their resources following each catastrophic hurricane or tropical storm.

According to Reuters News, “for years the Virgin Islands sold debt to help fund essential public services and budget gaps. With just over 100,000 inhabitants, they now owe $2 billion to bondholders and creditors.”

As of August 2017, the Virgin Islands government had about three days’ cash to pay for operations, according to rating agencies.

In response to the downgrades, the Virgin Islands government said it was “aggressively and proactively” cutting spending and increasing revenues through more stringent tax collections and new so-called “sin taxes” on liquor, cigarettes and sugary drinks. The U.S. Virgin Islands government still owes money for damages and services racked up during previous storms, according to financial statements published in June.

FEMA Federal Coordinating Official, William Vogel, said that they “will remain committed to helping Virgin Islanders rebuild and come back even stronger. Work crews are on the roads installing new power poles, grocery stores and restaurants are open, children are back in school, debris is being cleared and home repairs are underway.”

The Washington Post’s aerial photographs tell a different story about what is really happening. The photos show damaged roofs on St. Croix and St. John draped in blue tarp, tarp that was provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Homeowners who use this tarp, struggle to fend off frogs, rats and lizards from entering their unsecured homes. For most of them, there is little hope of replacing or repairing these badly damaged roofs because many could not afford to pay the high cost of homeowner’s insurance or they had minimum coverage with a very high deductible. Repair costs exceed insurance payout.

One woman who commented on the Washington Post article said that it did not mention that most people who filed a claim with their insurance company have not gotten even a partial payout to start any repairs. Most adjusters are only awarding $25,000 while contractors are charging $50,000 for a quality repair jobs. The reason for this is because the cost of getting the materials for repair skyrockets because they are being shipped to the island from the mainland United States.

Much like the debt accumulated by their government, most of the locals know that they will not be able to recover from this debt before the hurricanes of 2018 start kicking up. Prior to the 2017 hurricanes, things were really looking up because the percentage of middle class household was growing. The disaster has brought everything crashing down and created a growing line of demarcation between the middle class and the rich. The future does not look bright to most who live here.

As we celebrate Easter, remember that the smallest act of kindness can make the biggest difference in someone else’s life. Find a non-profit agency that gives aid to the Caribbean and give to the hurricane relief fund.

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