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Relief Operation Tries To Ease Irma Victims' Pain In Virgin Islands

Sep 14, 2017
Originally published on September 14, 2017 5:39 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A big relief operation is underway in the Caribbean, trying to ferry food and water in to thousands of people there in the Virgin Islands. Those islands were flattened by Hurricane Irma. Now U.S. and British military planes and helicopters are working alongside folks in private boats all trying to help. NPR's Jason Beaubien is there. He is on the island of St. Croix, and he is on the line now.

Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KELLY: Tell us, as you look around, what is the situation like there in the Virgin Islands?

BEAUBIEN: You know, relief is starting to come in here, but things are still incredibly dire. You know, if just a few minutes ago if we'd been talking, you wouldn't even really be able to hear me. The rain was pounding down so hard on the roof over my head, the tin roof. And you've got to think that the number of people around here who no longer have roofs is really quite high, the people on St. Thomas and St. John who had their houses just completely destroyed. It's been more than a week at this point.

You know, I've been talking to people around the region - talking to officials, pilots, relief crews - and this word that I'm hearing from them is, you know, it's really bad in some places and almost every building destroyed. You've got thousands of people who've already been evacuated on boats. I was talking to a private pilot, Sam Black. He's been flying in and out of St. Thomas and to other islands with relief supplies. And he says even though, you know, there are no control towers or lights at most of them, he's been trying to get in there, and he's finding lots and lots of people who want to get out.

SAM BLACK: I will say that all the airports are flooded with people wanting to get off the island.

BEAUBIEN: You know, basically, until they get larger aircraft in there, they simply can't get these people off.

KELLY: And Jason, we can tell from your phone line that the phone service is a work in progress there today. You're talking about people who don't even have roofs and pounding rain. What about some of the other basics - you know, getting power back, getting water flowing through people's taps? How's that effort going?

BEAUBIEN: You know, at the moment, people are working on that. There are crews out there that are trying to just clear the streets so that they can get power lines back up and running. I was talking with David Mapp. He's the head of the Virgin Islands Port Authority. And he says it's going to be at least nine months until they get the airport on St. Thomas rebuild. You know, that said, they do hope to get some limited commercial access for charters in the coming days. You know, in a couple weeks they hope to have a sort of jury-rigged way that commercial flights can be going in and out of there. You know, the ports are also damaged.

And, you know, got to remember, this is an island. These are island communities. You know, St. Thomas has 50,000 people. And, you know - and David Mapp was saying that he was - just got back from assessing the damage. And he's saying that, basically, you know, people are living sort of bare-bones here.

DAVID MAPP: While there were some homes that survived - some lost just roofs - there are homes that are totally obliterated right down to the foundation. I mean, all you're seeing is rubble.

BEAUBIEN: You know, and his estimate is it's going to take also months to get the electrical grid up and running. You know, right now, people are just concentrating on the basics, trying to get food, trying to get water in here to start with the rebuilding process.

KELLY: And it sounds like there's this two-way traffic of trying to get all the food and basic supplies in. Meanwhile, other people are just trying to get out. What's, I mean, the biggest challenge right now? Is it just these - the very basic essentials?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it really is just the basic essentials. But also, getting the electric grid up is going to be key. You know, that's going to allow people to be able to start doing the rebuilding. You know, they're also still trying to evacuate people out. You know, it's been, as I said, more than a week. And you still have all of these people who are trying to get out.

And there's this other big concern here, and that is that, you know, this is a U.S. territory. But there's a lot of concern here that the needs in Texas from Hurricane Harvey and the devastation in Florida from Irma, that the resources just might not come. They might not be sustained. So people here, many of them, you know as I've been saying, are just living with even nothing of a roof over their head. They're worried that in the months ahead, the Virgin Islands might get lost in the static of these other disasters that are playing out on the mainland.

KELLY: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting there from the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.

Thank you, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.