St John, USVI – Post Hurricane Get Away Update – March 27, 2018
Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated islands in the Caribbean last September. Six months later, how are they recovering? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in Vieques, St. Martin, St. John (below), Dominica and San Juan, P.R.
The ruins of a windmill that crushed stalks of cane in the 19th century was off-limits, a red sign warning of its “unsafe condition.” So were many of the other spots of interest along the trail of the Annaberg Sugar Plantation in St. John in the United States Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean six months ago.
St. John suffered major damage to its hotel and housing stock, charter boat business, beach facilities and the national parkland that extends over about 60 percent of the island. It lost its clinic and its only public school buildings.
Now visitors are trying to look past uprooted trees and roofless buildings to focus on the natural beauty that has been St. John’s main draw. At the Annaberg ruins in the Virgin Islands National Park, one sight remained untouched: the ocean view with a cluster of British Virgin Islands in the distance, looking as majestic as an oil painting
“There’s two ways to look at it,” said Cathy Malley, 68, of New Milford, Conn., who has been coming to St. John for three decades with her husband Art. “Some people may say, ‘What a mess.’ On the other hand, you still have the beautiful views and the beautiful beaches.”
Loyal visitors like the Malleys are still coming but tourism is down — by more than half for this time of the year, local business owners said. The island’s two largest resorts, Caneel Bay and the Westin St. John Resort Villas, remain closed, most likely through 2018, affecting both tourism and jobs.
During a visit in early March, the evening scene was lively in Cruz Bay, the town on the western side where restaurants and shops are concentrated. The streets were filled with people and laughter, and music spilled over from restaurants and bars, including Morgan’s Mango, which had just reopened after the hurricane. Mongoose Junction, the stone and mahogany shopping center with about 30 stores and restaurants, was up and running.
But there weren’t the usual jam-packed crowds for this time of the year, some business owners noted, and many stores were closing early.
“We just don’t have the same business and some businesses don’t have the employees,” said Beverly Lockett, who is in charge of customer service at the jewelry store Caravan Gallery and serves as president of the Mongoose Junction Merchants Association.
The decline in visitors was most glaring during the day, when there was no trouble getting a parking spot at the most popular beaches. The island’s beaches have reopened but they are not equally ready to welcome guests.
Salt Pond Bay beach on the southeastern shore of the island, with an actual salt pond a short hike away, looked picturesque on a Tuesday morning, with beachgoers bobbing among catamarans in the water or lying on the sand and sitting under umbrellas. A protected cove, its waters were calm even as the nor’easter dumping snow in the United States was roiling the Caribbean with huge waves.
By contrast, Cinnamon Bay, a drive west along the northern shore, had drawn only a handful of surfers to its waters. One of St. John’s most popular beaches, Cinnamon Bay suffered extensive damage to its campgrounds, cottages, concessions and bathrooms, and only chunks of masonry walls remained of the Cinnamon Bay Archaeology Museum, which had been housed in a structure dating back centuries. (The contents of the museum had been removed for hurricane season.)
There had been no cleanup of the wreckage.
The amenities at another popular beach, Trunk Bay, were in better shape although bathroom facilities were closed, replaced by portable ones, and there was no running water for showers. Sitting in the picnic area, Cathy and Art Malley, the visitors from Connecticut, said newcomers may not notice the things they missed, like the palm trees and sea grapes that they said used to frame the beach and provide shade.
On the plus side, some visitors noticed that several beaches were wider. The snorkeling was still good, with plenty of fish but some damage to reefs.
“You saw some broken coral,” said Donna Siefert of West Chicago, Ill., who snorkeled in several beaches with her husband, Ernie. “The coral was covered with this dust.”
The Sieferts, who have been returning to St. John since their first visit in 1995, had their reservation for one of the cottages at Cinnamon Bay canceled because of the damage. They stayed in a condo complex far from the water and the sound of surf but were glad they didn’t change their plans.
“It’s still a beautiful island,” Mrs. Siefert said.
Many residents said they were thrilled with the pace of recovery given the initial damage from back-to-back hurricanes. They remember the impassable roads, the trees snapped in half, the sunken boats and the widespread gutting of houses and other buildings.
“The park was devastated,” said Joe Kessler, the president of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. “There was a tremendous amount of tree fall. The hillsides of the park resembled Mount St. Helens after the eruptions.”
The park, which has 27 trails and more than 15 beaches, reopened in December after a cleanup and now, Mr. Kessler said, the harder task of repairing buildings, restoring trails and other recovery work continues.
Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism, said both power and water have been restored to 99 percent of the territory. She estimated tourism was more than 60 percent down, largely because of a significantly reduced hotel inventory.
Flights are also at about half the pre-hurricane levels, officials said, but some airlines have announced more flight restorations and additions in the coming months.
“Every day gets a little better and better,” she said.
St. John benefited from some early intervention from famous part-time residents like Thomas F. Secunda, a co-founder of Bloomberg L.P., and Kenny Chesney, the country music singer. Both mobilized help, with Bloomberg Philanthropies paying experts on power restoration and other consultants to expedite recovery in St. John and the rest of the territory.
The organizations, including Mr. Chesney’s Love for Love City Foundation, remain active in rebuilding efforts along with volunteer groups like All Hands and Hearts — Smart Response, which has about two dozen volunteers helping owners, all uninsured, with debris removal. The volunteers have focused in the Coral Bay area, which took Hurricane Irma’s direct furious punch — these days parts of it have the look of a busy construction site with debris transfer areas and trucks carrying new, sturdier fiberglass power poles for installation.
At one property, nine volunteers in purple shirts were helping owner Eugene Foy, 55, remove water-damaged and moldy materials from three small wood and Sheetrock structures that had lost walls and roofs or portions of them. Many windows were broken and most of the contents were exposed. In one roofless bedroom, the open bottom drawer of a dresser held rubble. In the kitchen, a vine from the outside had found its way over to the sink.
Mr. Foy’s wife had moved with relatives in St. Thomas, he said, and so had the nephew who lived with them and had found work in recovery efforts. Mr. Foy, a construction worker, said: “I tried to do a little bit but I need the help. I appreciate it so much. It’ll take some years.”
One volunteer, Leslie Zengler, 54, of Portage, Ind., said she had once been a visitor. Twenty years ago, she had taken the ferry to St. John from St. Thomas for the day, on Thanksgiving Day, and she, her husband and friends had eaten turkey sandwiches on the beach.
Now she found “a lot of devastation,” she said, “but a lot of businesses are open and the greenery is coming back.”
The volunteers have taken over the human resources building and employee cafeteria at the Caneel Bay resort, sleeping in cots, bunk beds and outside in tents. Caneel Bay has also made room for National Park Service and federal emergency employees in 30 still-habitable rooms.
But the 166-room luxury resort, spread over 170 acres of federal parkland and built by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1950s, has yet to start its own repairs. The owner, Equis Financial Group’s CBI Acquisitions LLC, expects to spend $100 million rebuilding but is first seeking a 60-year extension on its rental agreement with the federal government for use of the site, Patrick Kidd, the resort’s director of marketing, said. The current 40-year agreement expires in 2023.
“The owners need to know that they’ll have a financial benefit from making that investment,” Mr. Kidd said.
The U.S. Virgin Islands representative in Congress, Stacey Plaskett, has introduced a bill authorizing the 60-year extension, noting Caneel Bay, with about 400 workers, is St. John’s largest employer.
Some hotels suffered only minor damage and never closed. David Guidi, the co-owner of Hotel Cruz Bay, where I stayed during my visit, said that he first housed local families in his 11 rooms, then relief workers. From his second-floor porch, I could see fallen trees, boarded-up houses and the mangled roof of the kindergarten-to-eighth grade Julius E. Sprauve School, so badly damaged that government officials are planning to have it rebuilt at another location.
Only now has Mr. Guidi started “transitioning to tourists.”
“Workers don’t spend as much,” he said. “Tourists drink until they can’t see anymore.”
But hotel owners and managers say visitors are overwhelmingly return guests, mostly from the northeastern United States, and it is very much uncertain when exactly tourism will bounce back in full.
A short walk up the street from Mr. Guidi’s hotel, the 60-room Gallows Point Resort looked unscathed but was only 58 percent filled, the general manager Akhil Deshwal said. Gallows Point has a newly rebuilt restaurant and is still repairing a handful of rooms. Many water activities — sunset sailing, island hopping — have been severely curtailed because a large number of charter boats were destroyed.
But the hotel managed to keep most of its landscape in the hurricane winds; spread over five acres overlooking Cruz Bay and the Caribbean Sea, it seemed to have its bougainvillea and tropical vibe back.
Still, some first-time visitors felt the island had a long way to go. Helen and Ted Roberts, of Boston, said they made it to St. John at the end of a weeklong catamaran trip through the Caribbean. They had already sampled five beaches.
“I felt a little sad,” Mrs. Roberts, 64, said. “Just watching them put up electric poles. That’s going to take a long time.”
Mr. Roberts, 69, said: “In fairness it has to be compared with other Caribbean places like Aruba and Cayman. As it is right now, St. John isn’t as good as those places.”
Just like in the rest of the Caribbean struck by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the U.S. Virgin Islands for a while were not suitable even for some of their own residents. St. John shed some of its own population of about 4,500 after the hurricanes as people left for the States looking for jobs and schools.
Ms. Nicholson-Doty said that the Virgin Islands, including St. Thomas and St. Croix, temporarily lost about 10 percent of its population but that many have been returning.
Many of those who never left expressed optimism that a complete recovery was not too far away.
As Mr. Foy, the Coral Bay resident, put it: “The papaya trees are already springing up.”
Mireya Navarro, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of the memoir “Stepdog.”