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Virgin Islands National Park Is Still Trying To Recover From Hurricane Irma

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 9:12 pm
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In the U.S. Virgin Islands, one of the areas hit hardest by hurricanes Irma and Maria was the national park on St. John. St. John is a small island with just 5,000 full-time residents. The national park is its greatest attraction. It covers more than half the island and includes some of the best beaches and coral reefs in the Caribbean. Now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the park is struggling with severe damage it took from the twin hurricanes.


GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Standing on the beach on St. John's eastern shore, Jeff Miller can trace the path of Hurricane Irma.

JEFF MILLER: The eye of it went over that island out there. That's Jost Van Dyke. So we were in the eyewall the entire time the storm passed by.

ALLEN: Miller is a fisheries biologist at Virgin Islands National Park. Irma's 185-mile-per-hour winds devastated the park's buildings, trails, forests and coral reefs. Darrell Echols is the park's acting superintendent.

DARRELL ECHOLS: Hurricane Irma removed the vast majority of the leafy vegetation. So the trees were left, but there were no leaves. It exposed the ground. So then when Maria came, you got a lot of rainfall. So now you've got erosion. You've got landslides.

ALLEN: In the three months following the storms, a series of Department of Interior teams worked to clear debris from beaches, roads and trails, to repair buildings and re-establish basic visitor services. Because of the damage to housing and other buildings, many of the park staff had to leave the island and have not yet been able to return. The park is open, but some key facilities like campgrounds, showers and the bar at the popular beach at Trunk Bay remain closed. Echols says making those repairs will be costly. Another big cost and perhaps its biggest headache - removing derelict sailboats and other vessels that sunk in park waters during the hurricanes.

ECHOLS: Right now - 60 vessels remaining in the park. We're working with vessel owners to have those that are floatable, that are reachable, that are still salvageable - to have those vessels removed from the park.

ALLEN: But around the island, many damaged vessels have been abandoned where they sank.

MILLER: I don't exactly know where these boats came from that are on the shore here.

ALLEN: On a trail along the beach, Jeff Miller points out some of the vessels. Removing abandoned boats will be costly. Money for the job is part of a supplemental funding request just approved by Congress. There are some visitors at the park but many fewer than usual. Katia Kelleher lives on St. John - was hiking along a beach trail with her dog. She works at a bar in town and says business is slow.

KATIA KELLEHER: People seek out St. John because they want something more secluded. Even those people aren't back here yet.

ALLEN: Although much of the debris has been cleared from beaches, in the sand, Jeff Miller sees signs of the hurricane's impact on some of the park's most valuable assets - its coral reefs. Littered on the beach are chunks of coral ripped from the sea bottom by the storms. He picks up a piece the size of a bowling ball.

MILLER: This is one of the threatened corals. This is Orbicella annularis. It grows about the width of a dime a year. So - what? - how many dimes can we sack up in this? You know...

ALLEN: (Laughter) That's worth a lot of money.

MILLER: This is a 600-year-old coral. You know, it died overnight.


ALLEN: Miller and I don masks and snorkels and head into the water to get a firsthand look how the hurricanes battered the coral reefs. Some reefs here did remarkably well. Others, like this one in Leinster Bay, a reef with a lot of star coral, suffered extensive damage.

MILLER: You saw that the overwhelming majority of them look like they had exploded. And the columns were splayed open or completely inverted and upside down. These are some large colonies. They're hundreds of pounds, if not thousands of pounds. Imagine the force it takes to dislodge those, to turn those upside down.

ALLEN: Miller has spent more than 20 years studying the coral reefs on St. John, and the destruction has hit him hard. It will take decades, maybe hundreds of years, he says, for this reef to get back to how it was. In the meantime, he hopes the park service will be able to stabilize and restore the coral before the fragile animal colonies take more damage. But given all the needs of the park and the uncertainty of funding, at least for now, that doesn't seem likely. Greg Allen, NPR News, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.