A journal of recovery efforts in U.S. Virgin Islands: September 18, 2017

September 19, 2017

The first word about Hurricane Irma reached our cozy retirement home in southern Indiana on Labor Day, bringing with it stark memories of the terrors and hardship inflicted by previous storms on our long-time home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as fears for good friends there now and for the island community that had been so good to us.

When Irma steamrolled through the territory two days later, it was relatively kind to St. Croix, but devastated the other two main islands, St. Thomas and St. John. The hospital, the airport, two police stations, one fire station and a high — but as yet undetermined — percentage of homes were left unusable, including hundreds of subsidized housing units and countless private houses.

And there was almost no communication. Electricity was out. Cell service was down. Forget about computers, email or texts.

My husband, Michael (Mic) Akin, had spent the last 12 of our 38 years on St. Thomas as the executive director for Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands. The primary mission of CCVI was and is service to the homeless. Already disproportionally high for the small population, the client base has just expanded dramatically.

CCVI’s current director, Andrea Shillingford, was on the case immediately, assessing the damage to the agency’s soup kitchen, offices and homeless shelter (Bethlehem House) and checking on clients and staff, but she was unable to get a call out for three days. (When she did, we learned her own home had imploded in the storm.)

Knowing the communication problems and having a pretty good idea of the need, Mic contacted Catholic Charities USA for help. The response was immediate and generous.

Last weekend, he flew to CCUSA headquarters to pick up a $50,000 check to CCVI, $20,000 worth of $100 cash cards for distribution to hurricane victims and a suitcase full of practical supplies, including flashlights and bandages.

With no direct flights allowed into St. Thomas, he had to take a circuitous route that included a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he met with the local Catholic Charities director Fr. Enrique Camacho, who had already taken some supplies to St. Thomas and arranged a free overnight stay for Mic in San Juan at a parishioner’s hotel. The next day it was on to St. Croix and then to St. Thomas.

The drastic change in St. Thomas was immediately visible from the air. Instead of hillsides lush with green and dotted with flowers, the island was brown and arid-looking and pockmarked by roofless structures. Andrea and her husband, along with CCVI’s long-time shelter manager, Alvin Henley, were at the airport to meet Mic and provide a bit of security, just in case it was needed. It wasn’t.

As of Monday, Mic reports that the shelter is full. It and the soup kitchen are operating with limited electricity supplied by on site generators.

Unfortunately, he arrived just in time to greet Maria, the newest hurricane raking its way through the Caribbean island chain and expected to impact the Virgin Islands tomorrow or Wednesday.

Submitted by Bernetia Akin

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