Virgin Islanders are getting used to the heavy traffic of equipment each morning as bucket trucks, pickups loaded with lumber and construction crews head to work. Despite the hundreds of man-hours, many blue tarp roofs and collapsed buildings still litter the island.
Already, FEMA has spent millions of dollars and other organizations have donated money, supplies and volunteer time in hopes of getting ahead of the game. But it is slow and tedious.
According to FEMA public affairs specialist Eric Adams, more than $32.9 million has been distributed on St. Croix, more than $38.6 million on St. Thomas and more than $12.3 million on St. John to more than 20,000 families.
Various programs supported survivors with rental and replacement assistance, temporary home repairs, leasing housing leasing and permanent repairs. Funding is continuing through June he said.
Additionally, more than $280 million has been provided through the V.I. Housing Finance Authority for the Emergency Homes Repairs V.I. program to more than 7,100 homes. The EHRVI program ended April 15 and will soon be replaced by the $90 million EnVision Tomorrow project, through a community development block grant administered also by VIHFA. So help is still available for weather-beaten homeowners.
“A lot of work still needs to be done,” Adams said, citing the the territory’s hospitals, schools and roads.
Currently there are about 500 roofers working in the territory and they have repaired around 7,100 homes, according to the VIHFA website.
While the paid roofers work at a feverish pace, there is another contingent of roofers who are not talked about – volunteers from the mainland. They leave their homes and come to the Virgin Islands with their own tools and maybe a few friends to spend two weeks toiling on roofs in the heat of the day for people they have never met. Most are members of stateside church groups and either travel together or one-by-one, joining a group when they arrive.
In the past, they have paid their own airfare, but during this recovery FEMA has paid the airfare for hundreds of volunteers to travel to the islands and help with rebuilding. To date, almost $370,000 has been spent by FEMA on travel for over 400 volunteers from religious groups such as United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Catholic Charities. The groups specialize in repairing and rebuilding homes, providing emotional and spiritual care and managing disaster cases.
“FEMA has been very integral to us in what we do,” said Chris Finch, director of Lutheran Disaster Response.
Lutheran Disaster Response worked on Virgin Islands rooftops after Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn. The revival of the temporary agency is headquartered with Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands in Frederiksted.
Lutheran Disaster Response alone has managed 455 volunteers in 35 groups who worked on one property at a time during their two-week stays on St. Croix. Most are from United Methodist Volunteers and there have been some Catholic Youth Group volunteers as well. So far, they have donated 27,000 hours of work time, Finch said.
Most of their time is spent replacing roofs. A few walls and wheelchair ramps have been built as well, along with a handful of windows and doors. Finch said 38 properties have been remediated so far and another 60 property owners are awaiting help from Lutheran Disaster Response.
“Some needs are so extreme – there is nothing but a slab. It’s beyond our capacity to build a whole house,” Finch said. “We’re part of the bottom of the safety net, so people don’t fall through the cracks.”
Finch and five staff members organize, schedule and transport the volunteer teams. The volunteers usually arrive on a Saturday and have an orientation meeting to learn about the projects and the island.
Some team members are highly skilled, working with drywall and lumber. Others paint and do what they can. Accommodations are not luxurious – most sleep at Sunny Isle Baptist Church. They cook breakfast and dinner together and sleep on cots with the wind and noise of giant turbine fans.
“The heart and soul of everything is the volunteers,” Finch said.
The Lutheran Disaster Response clients who spoke to the Source applied for and received some government aid, but did not get enough to do the necessary repairs.
Scholastica Calixte lives in Estate Carlton and lost her roof in Hurricane Maria. After the storm, she received a blue tarp from FEMA and $4,000. She said she didn’t know how to apply for more financial aid and she didn’t expect much because the V.I. government “has no money in the treasury.” The check wasn’t nearly enough to build a roof, so she used the money to remove mold and fix the side of her house. Then she contacted Finch, who sent a Lutheran Disaster Response crew with materials to rebuild her roof.
Grimilda Quinones said her roof in Estate Whim was peeled off in the hurricane along with a wall. Only one bedroom was left with part of the roof, which she shares now with her grown son. After the storm moved away, she was left with saturated walls, standing water and soggy, ruined furniture. At one point, a piece of the sodden roof fell on the 81-year-old retiree’s head that required stitches.
Quinones received a $500 FEMA check that was enough to fix some of the cracks in concrete and put up a blue tarp and some galvanized aluminum on the roof. Then she applied for and was approved for a $25,0000 SBA loan.
After living without protection from the weather for more than a year, Quinones had a new roof and wheelchair ramp finished by Lutheran Disaster Response, allowing her to use her loan for other repairs and to replace furniture.
Quinones said she is “very happy with the work” by the volunteers, who were from Colorado, Nevada, Tennessee and Virginia. She has lived in her house for 50 years and did not want to leave.
Finch said he climbs on every repaired roof after the work is completed. He surveys the neighborhood.
“When I look 360 degrees I still see a lot of destruction. When that changes, I’ll believe we’re in recovery,” he said.