Two Years Post Irmaria: Rebuilding Lives and Landmarks

Minimart lays as it fell during the 2017 hurricanes. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)
Minimart lays as it fell during the 2017 hurricanes. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)

This is part of a series on the state of the U.S. Virgin islands two years after the territory was battered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria – known locally as Irmaria.

The exodus from the Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Irma and Maria may have been more than a quarter of the population. We’ll never know, since there are no official numbers – the VI Bureau of Revenue does not have a count of taxpayers and the next census won’t be taken until 2020.

However, the public school enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year is 10,718, down from 13,194 in 2016-2017 and 15,747 for the last census year, 2010-2011. Of course, 25 percent is a wild guess, because some children went to school in the states for a year or two after the storms and than returned to the islands. Also, more elderly or people without children may have departed.

For those who have stayed, recovery has been a “slog,” as one recovery leader from New York said. Even though utilities have been restored and improved with new poles and power lines, many buildings still stand at an angle minus roofs and walls or lay crumbled on the ground.

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The people and landmarks that remain bear scars and continue to struggle to reinvent themselves.

Although the east end and center of the island were left without power for days and many lost their roofs and other property, the west end of St. Croix, especially Frederiksted, seemed to have suffered the most damage from Hurricane Maria.

In the days after Hurricane Maria, neighbors lend a hand as Freedom City Surf and Teres Veho lay in shambles. (Photo submitted by Ellie Cicero)
In the days after Hurricane Maria, neighbors lend a hand as Freedom City Surf and Teres Veho lay in shambles. (Photo submitted by Ellie Cicero)

Along the west coast, Ellie “Pi” Cicero’s stand-up paddleboard business and her home disappeared during Hurricane Maria. The restaurant was the former and not-forgotten Sun Downer and the surf shop was adjacent. Cicero felt she “brought the community together” with Freedom City Surfboard and her popular restaurant, Teres Veho. Today, Teres Veho is shuttered shut and only a concrete slab remains of the shop.

Cicero also lost her home, north of Teres Veho and everything in it. She escaped to friend’s apartment in the rain forest and survived with three of her five dogs and a backpack for days.

“I didn’t even have flip flops,” she recalled.

The day before the storm, she spent 12 hours helping load her three dogs and around 200 other animals for a flight off island and didn’t get a chance to board up her buildings.

Around 9:30 the morning of the hurricane, a twister sailed in off the water and hit the cottage with Cicero and her pets inside. One dog fled and hid in the neighborhood and the Great Dane, stunned and shaking, was unable to move.

Mahogany Road was littered with downed trees after the hurricane. (Photo submitted by Ellie Cicero)
Mahogany Road was littered with downed trees after the hurricane. (Photo submitted by Ellie Cicero)

Eventually, with debris already flying through the air, they were able to make it up the hill to safety – with about 20 people and more than 10 animals.

As anyone who went through the hurricane knows, everything was brown afterward. All green was stripped off trees and bushes and the grass turned brown. Houses sat on hillsides never seen before and some people had a sea view for the first time.

That was how Cicero described the rain forest after Maria.

After the storm passed, most of the people staying with Cicero started walking down Mahogany Road to assess the damage. Trees littered the road and the water was “waist high,” she said.

“Seeing the devastation, we just stood there in awe. The mission at that point was to help other people.”

They struggled to open the road, using a tractor and several chains at one point to remove a 10-foot wide mahogany tree to check on people and help any way they could.

Children cluster around Ellie Cicero’s dogs on board the mercy ship from St. Croix to Miami after Hurricane Maria. (Photo submitted by Ellie Cicero)
Children cluster around Ellie Cicero’s dogs on board the mercy ship from St. Croix to Miami after Hurricane Maria. (Photo submitted by Ellie Cicero)

Cicero doesn’t know who put her name on the passenger list a few days later for a mercy ship leaving on Sept. 29, but she said it was a hard to make the decision to leave her home of 10 years. But she had nothing left on St. Croix and her sons were encouraging her to return stateside. Cicero was concerned the ship would not allow her dogs, even in travel crates, but as they boarded the Royal Caribbean, the crew told her to come on board with her pets. Throughout the journey, the dogs, socialized from years at Freedom City Surf, acted as therapy animals – people flocked to hug them.

One of Cicero’s sons met her when the ship docked in Miami. Since then she has been to New York to visit her parents and spent a year in Texas so her son could train for competitive bicycling. They now live in Colorado so he can train with a coach in Longmont. She’s thinking of opening the Berthoud Board Shop.

Today, as one travels through Frederiksted, broken and shuttered historic buildings are still a normal sight. On Strand Street, the Blue Moon restaurant is closed with no plans to reopen. Apothecary Hall is closed and surrounded by scaffolding. The Lost Dog on King Street was badly damaged but reopened down the street. Houses lay as they were left by Maria in some neighborhoods.

Sunshine Mall east of town is mostly empty – Kmart and the bank anchor each end of the mall. Next door, piles of debris have finally been removed from the V.I. Waste Management Authority building, leaving behind a roofless shell.

Across the street, the canopy that sheltered the Mini Mart gas pumps still lays in one piece on the ground in front of the store.

Whim Museum is still draped with temporary roof coverings after the 2017 hurricanes. No word when repairs will be made. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)
Whim Museum is still draped with temporary roof coverings after the 2017 hurricanes. No word when repairs will be made. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)

East of town, the Great House at Whim Museum lost its roof and still wears a blue tarp and other temporary covering. It will remain closed indefinitely until funding for repairs can be arranged. According to librarian Carol Wakefield, the museum grounds will re-open Oct. 3 with ground tours and some entertainment, including local crafts, cooking and music. The popular Starving Artists’ event will be held as usual the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Two years after the life-changing storms, Caribbean residents and pets still get nervous when the wind picks up. Some still tear up when they talk about their storm experiences. September is the hardest month – it is the peak of hurricane season.

“It’s been tough. It hasn’t been an easy ride. Seeing images of Dorian brings it right back,” Cicero said, echoing the feelings of many Virgin Islanders.

Other stories in the “Two Years Post-Irmaria” series are:

Two Years Post Irma: Marine Life Begins to Recover

Two Years Post Irma: Recovery of Plants and Trees Continues

Remnants of Irma and Maria: Two Years Later, Blue Roofs Still Abound

Irmaria Anniversary Sees More Homeowners Suing Insurers

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