Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Postcard from St Thomas

It took me longer than anticipated to find time to get this post out. Things have been incredibly busy around here as I wrap up various projects and get the boat ready for sea. Fallout from the stolen scooter also continues to consume time. But I am determined to get this posted before we drop lines here this morning.

My morning view from the SS Wright. Cruising boats still come and go in the harbor.

It's just over a month since I boarded a plane here in Charleston, bound for a staging area in Atlanta. At the time, commercial flights back to the USVI were just starting to get scheduled, and most volunteers had been flying on FEMA charters out of Atlanta. When I arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday, it was expected that I would be heading to the islands on a charter leaving on Friday.

Paperwork, inprocessing, orientation, and lodging were all set up in a hotel near the airport, and I took the hotel shuttle there after landing. In the course of the afternoon I met a few of the other volunteers and even went to dinner with one at one of the only two restaurants within walking distance.

The district director rallies the troops outside HQ, on a day when the generator was late getting started.

My expectations for traveling to the islands with the fairly large group that had assembled in Atlanta were short-lived. Staffing found me a seat on a commercial flight leaving first thing Thursday, ahead of the rest of the group. Myself and a small handful of other critical volunteers shuffled off to the airport at zero-dark-thirty and headed to the Delta gate. Also with us were two enormous cases containing laser printers, which flew as checked baggage with myself and another technology volunteer.

FEMA provided inter-island shuttle flights daily, mostly on a 737. Sometimes it was this enormous chopper, which brought me a satellite dish and a technologist to help set it up.

I always wear Red-Cross attire when traveling on assignment. It often greases the skids at check-in, and also tends to ensure I will not get bumped or have my luggage whisked away. In this case, the oversize fees for the printers were waived. A couple of the other volunteers were similarly attired. A great many of the passengers were islanders who had evacuated ahead of the storms, this being their earliest opportunity to return, and many of them came up to thank us for our service. One of the most rewarding parts of the job.

I passed this every morning on my way off the ship, as if I had arrived on a cruise. I missed the port lecturer telling me they were a preferred vendor.

The flight was uneventful and we landed on-time, but it was a very long wait for the printers, which, as oversized baggage, came off last. We marveled at the sheer number of portable generators that had traveled as checked baggage (allowed, so long as the fuel tanks are dry empty -- these were all new-in-box); it seems as if every returning islander brought one along.

I spent my first afternoon in the office getting the lay of the land and debriefing the existing technology staff. Operation HQ was in space lent by a large business on the island with both office and warehouse space, who was up and running by virtue of a large diesel backup generator. The generator was shut down promptly at 6pm each day, which meant we had to have everything wrapped up and shut down by then.

I had lunch one day at this dockside restaurant, just reopened. The marina now hosts mostly tenders, and you can see some serious damage across the way.

I was whisked out of the office a few minutes early on my first day so that I could get checked in to my quarters on the SS Wright. FEMA had chartered the ship to house a wide array of relief workers, and they ran their check-in desk and orientation only till 6 each day. After getting the orientation briefing and collecting my linens I spent a few minutes stowing my gear in the limited space under my berth.

A view into my hallway, one of a half dozen in this berthing area.

Louise already posted a bit about my quarters, along with some photos I was able to send her. Suffice it to say it was cramped, but I was thankful to have air conditioning, hot and cold running water, and hot meals each day. Today, two months post-storm, most islanders still have no running water and no hot water. I showered every night, a rare luxury.

This is a parking lot across from HQ. Lots of people keep chickens on the island; fresh eggs are one of the few things you can produce here. The storm liberated many (and killed more).

Few businesses were open or had power, but by my second night there, a small bar and restaurant near the pier opened for business, at least up until curfew, which at the time was 7pm. If you could get out of HQ and to the pier quickly enough, you could get a drink, and I managed to get one beer with my good friend Glen, who had zipped over from Puerto Rico in the morning to help us get a satellite dish installed.

Glen and I having a moment of relaxation.

Louise and I first worked together with Glen and his wife, Julie, a decade ago, responding to Tropical Storm Ernesto in Richmond, VA. We've since visited them a few times in the bus. It was great to see him again, although I missed seeing Julie, who remained in Puerto Rico. Glen and Julie are on loan from the International response group, and Glen brought along another of his international colleagues, Craig, from the Finnish Red Cross, whom I very much enjoyed meeting.

One of the military patrols prepares to depart the pier.

My elation at being able to get a beer in between HQ and the ship (no alcohol allowed on board) was short-lived. The very next day I came down with a horrendous cold, some crud I must have caught on the plane. It lasted a full ten days, and during the worst of it, it was all I could do to wolf down some dinner after work before stuffing myself into my coffin berth and falling asleep. About the only upside to this routine was that I woke nightly at 3am, congested, and the four tiny shower stalls in the community shower room were blissfully free at that hour.

Some of the damage I passed every morning on my way to HQ from the ship.

Any notion I had to stroll the area or maybe even drive around town a bit before curfew each night, which shortly pushed back to 8pm, fell by the wayside as I struggled mightily to put in my eleven hours or so and then try to get some rest. I tried to eat alone whenever I could and kept as much distance as possible from everyone to avoid giving it to anyone else (my efforts seemed to be successful; I'm not aware of anyone who came down with it). In any event, I did not see (or photograph) nearly as much as I expected to due to the illness.

Many agencies brought off-road vehicles, like this quad belonging to the NJ State Police. The Red Cross rented lots of Jeeps to get around the rougher parts of the islands.

After two full weeks I finally managed to take a day off, which I spent driving around the island. HQ is in Charlotte Amalie, the capital, on the south side of the island. The damage was far worse on the north side, which took the brunt of the wind. The terrain is mountainous to begin with, making driving around the island a challenge even in good times, and the storm damage made things all that much worse.

The Air Force built a large base camp out at the airport, with their own fleet of high clearance vehicles.

In many sections the roads are washed out. Elsewhere, downed power and telephone lines sit across the roadway. Trees and utility poles lean out over the road narrowing it to a single lane. Virtually no street signs survived the storm, and I made more than one wrong turn and needed to backtrack. It gave me more appreciation for the bulk distribution, feeding, and damage assessment teams that had to navigate the island daily.

By the time I made my excursion, a month after landfall, blue "FEMA roofs" were already springing up around the island. But the destruction is overwhelming. The roads are lined with piles of debris, the unsalvageable remnants of people's homes and lives and livelihoods. Excavators and front-end loaders and a conga line of 20-yard dumpsters were chipping steadily away, but had barely made a dent in the mountains of debris.

Looking beyond the damage, the islands are as beautiful as ever. Sweeping vistas like this one are common on the mountainous roads.

Also on my day off I took some time to visit with some fellow boaters who now call the island home. I connected with them on Facebook before I left the mainland, and it was a pleasure to meet them in person and have a beer together at their favorite watering hole, Abi's Beach Bar. We'll be sure to stop there when we finally come through in Vector, and I hope to see them again.

Abi's beach bar. A bit off the beaten path from the land side.

Aboard the SS Wright with us were quite a range of relief workers from myriad agencies. We shared the berthing areas and the chow hall, and at any given moment I might be in line with National Guardsmen (Army and Air Force, from VT, PA, and others), FEMA workers, NJ State Troopers (some toting automatic rifles, even in the chow line), Department of Homeland Security Police, the NJ EMS Task Force, linemen from the Western Area Power Administration, other volunteer agencies like All Hands, and even the Danish Emergency Management Agency.

The Ocean Constructor, which we had passed in Vector on the Louisiana Coast. Some of our female volunteers were berthed aboard. They had more room and better food, but more restrictions than aboard the Wright.

There were 278 bunks on the Wright, and perhaps another hundred or so on the Ocean Constructor, an oilfield construction ship that FEMA also chartered. And yet these were not enough; by the end of my second week the ships were full, and FEMA moved a larger ship over from St. Croix, replacing it there with an even larger ship, and sending the Wright and the Ocean Constructor on their way.

The myriad vehicles of the NJ EMS task force, staged to leave the island after a month-long deployment. That's the remains of the Crown Bay Marina in the background, littered with wrecks but again functioning.

The replacement ship was more comfortable, with twin beds in double staterooms instead of coffin-size bunks, extended meal hours, and no more no-alcohol policy. More importantly, it could accommodate over 1,500 relief workers, and in no time at all the number of power linemen working on the island had doubled. More National Guard also arrived, in the form of MPs; up to this point it had mostly been medical detachments, including one that treated me when I came down with the bug.

New utility poles are staged around the islands. A shortage of pole installation trucks means restoration is slow going.

Between the MPs, the DHS Police, the NJ Troopers, and the private security contractors that FEMA hired to protect the ships, docks, and relief supplies, all carrying sidearms, I've never seen so many loaded weapons moving around a ship. Many of the law enforcement personnel were on nighttime schedules; each morning on my way out I passed a detail of MPs coming back from patrol.

Downed power lines are ubiquitous and threaten to puncture tires with every crossing. Here it's necessary to also cross to the oncoming side of the road (the right in the VI) to pass under the parts that are still attached.

My roommate on the new ship was a FEMA disaster reservist in the logistics department. An advantage of being from different agencies was that we were on slightly different schedules, and so we seldom competed for use of the facilities. It was also interesting to get a slightly different perspective on what was happening on the ground.

This utility pole also forced me to the wrong side of the road. I crossed dozens and dozens of downed lines and leaning poles.

On the work front, the daily struggle on this operation was connectivity. Like any major business moving tons of equipment and supplies, the Red Cross runs on computer systems that, in today's world, require network connectivity. Our host company supplied some Internet access, but it was down frequently for one reason or another, and we used our own satellite equipment for backup.

That satellite equipment is aging and finicky. We use more modern equipment on the mainland, but the satellite foot print for that system does not reach the Caribbean. I spent a good deal of my time tinkering with the satellite terminal trying to keep it running. In order to get a clear shot over an adjacent roof, the dish was set atop a 15' tall platform made of warehouse racking, and during my final week I spent a bit of time up there with it.

Replacing the transmitter (BUC) on our satellite terminal. I had to climb the 15' on the vertical part of the racks.

I worked right up until it was time to leave for the airport mid-day Wednesday. While things were certainly in much better shape than when I arrived, I felt like I was leaving many things unfinished. Of course more folks came in behind me, and eventually it will all get handled; this is the nature of relief work -- there is always more to do and it always feels like you could have stayed just a little bit longer.

My flight back to Atlanta was full and oversold, and I ended up in a middle seat. That would have been tolerable, had not the guy in the window seat gotten airsick twenty minutes into the flight. I spent the next twenty minutes in the aft galley waiting for the flight crew to clean up the mess, and while they could not move my seat, I got a couple of free drinks out of the ordeal. The flight from Atlanta back to Charleston was much more pleasant.

Overlooking Charlotte Amalie, the peaceful anchorage belying the utter destruction all around.

As of when I left the islands, according to FEMA, there were still 5 shelters open with 309 residents, St. Thomas had only 29% of residents back on the electric grid, St. Croix 1.6% and St. John still no power at all, and there were no fully functional hospitals on any island. It's now a full two months since Irma made landfall, and the situation in the USVI has passed completely from the consciousness of most mainlanders. Much remains to be done, and the Red Cross and other agencies will be in the VI for a long time to come.

I've been back now almost two weeks and things are just now getting back to normal here. I'm no worse for the wear although I did lose a hat on the operation. I felt bad because Louise donated the hat to the cause, sewing a Red Cross patch over the whimsical "Geek." that was embroidered on it so I would have something to wear in the Caribbean sun. A week later a local Red Crosser came around selling hats and I bought a new one.

The stunningly beautiful Magan's Bay from above. The famous beach here is still closed, and destruction along the shoreline continues hundreds of yards inland.

Watching the cruising boats coming and going in the harbor and seeing the waterfront restaurants coming back to life gives me hope. Boats headed to the Caribbean from the mainland generally stop in St. Thomas, and I encourage them to do so. The water is still beautiful, and the local economy needs the business. The beaches will seldom be this uncrowded. Fuel and some provisions are again available, and even some marina slips can be had.

As for our own cruising, tomorrow morning we drop lines and leave the dock, it being exactly four months since we first tied up here. Louise joined a choir while I was gone, and she's agreed to sing on the 12th, so we'll drop the hook in the anchorage here until then. The scooters will remain ashore and we'll come back to the dock in a week to get them.

This hazmat suit lies outside an empty and partly destroyed fire station atop a hill. Emergency services are mostly provided by my shipmates, for the time being.

We still have no concrete plan for where to go after that. We have a week to figure it out.

1 comment:

  1. We wondered if you two were still involved with the Red Cross. Thank you for continuing your service to others in need at a terrible time in their lives. And hope you got over the crud for good. Great update!


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