Sunday, September 3, was a festive day for the Eastern Caribbean community in New York. More than five hundred people packed Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem to celebrate the centennial of the Virgin Islands becoming a U.S. territory while they danced to soca from the St. John–based Image Band. When Trinidad’s Super Blue sang his 1991 hit “Get Something and Wave” the crowd waved the Virgin Islands’ white, gold, and blue olive-branch-and-arrows flag, and Antigua and Barbuda’s sunrise-over-sea standard.
Three days later, Hurricane Irma blasted the Antilles, killing at least 38 people. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, just east of Puerto Rico, it knocked out electric power, running water, and cellphone service on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John, home to about half the territory’s 106,000 people. “We suspect it’ll be many months before power comes back on,” says Virgin Islands congressional delegate Representative Stacey Plaskett. The islands’ water system has been “compromised,” she adds, because the storm sprayed salt water into the cisterns people use to collect and store rainwater.
The nation of Antigua and Barbuda was also hard-hit, as Irma obliterated 90 percent of the buildings on Barbuda, forcing almost all the smaller island’s 1,600 people into shelters on Antigua. Tortola, the most populous of the British Virgin Islands, “is totally destroyed,” Benny Faulkner, a Philadelphian whose family is from the British Virgin Islands, told Voice reporter Felipe De La Hoz last week.
As the Voice went to press on September 18, a second hurricane, Maria, was bearing down on the Leeward Islands, which include the Virgin Islands and Antigua and Barbuda, with Category 3 winds.
New York’s immigrant population from these islands is not huge — it’s far smaller than that from the larger nations of Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic — but the community quickly organized to provide hurricane relief. Virgin Islanders United, which put on the September 3 festival, is collecting donations for the “Fund for the Virgin Islands” started by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, and Representative Plaskett has set up a page on her website for the fund as well. Antigua and Barbuda’s consulate in Manhattan is coordinating its own relief effort, with eight places to drop off nonperishable goods in the city.
The Ebenezer Pilgrim Holiness Church, at East 216th Street and White Plains Road in the Bronx, has collected almost half a shipping container’s worth of goods to send to Antigua and Barbuda, including clothing, food, school supplies, soap, and toothpaste, says Pastor John Harris. The immediate goal is “making people comfortable in the shelters,” he explains. Clothing is a bigger need than food now, because “most of them leave with just what is on their backs.”
Individuals have also leaped into action. Damien Singh and Ife Landsmark collected almost $2,000 for St. John Rescue, a volunteer emergency-response group in the Virgin Islands, by soliciting donations on the streets of Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood. Singh, an immigrant from Trinidad, began organizing donations after seeing posts on Facebook that “brought tears to my eyes,” he says.
Landsmark, a semi-retired psychiatrist who has family “all over the Caribbean,” says the pair collected “a dollar here, twenty dollars there,” plus contributions from a synagogue and a mosque in the neighborhood. She often had to explain that she wasn’t collecting for Texas or Florida; many people who weren’t from the islands had never heard of Tortola, Barbuda, or St. Maarten.
St. John Rescue’s GoFundMe campaign had raised $548,000 toward its $750,000 goal as of September 18. It said it had spent $70,000 on communications equipment to restore internet access to the town of Cruz Bay on St. John, $10,000 on gasoline for the island, and $50,000 to secure a helicopter.
There are tens of thousands of people with roots in the Virgin Islands in New York, says Plaskett — who grew up in Brooklyn — and the community is “very organized in terms of maintaining their culture.” Much of the help has been “very organic,” she says, with people working with business owners in the islands to ship pallets of water and goods. Diapers and toilet paper are also crucial needs, she adds.
Logistics is another issue. Landsmark says she and Singh collected money because they were told that “they can’t use goods now; it’s just too devastated.” Pastor Harris said his church had collected money too, but was trying to “verify” the best organization to send it to.
“Everybody wants to give goods, but the goods still have to get there,” says Matthew Leonard, owner of Antigua Cargo, which expects to send at least one shipping container of clothing, water, and other supplies from its East New York headquarters. His shipping company in Miami has received a container of mattresses from Sealy and thirty generators — but to get them to the Virgin Islands and Antigua, it will still have to pay airline freight charges, port charges, and dockworkers’ and security guards’ wages.
The roads on St. John are “impassable” for trucks carrying containers, he adds, so people are using boats to bring goods from St. Croix, forty miles to the south, which was not as badly hit. From the “base camp” there, Plaskett says, small boats are bringing water, diapers, generators, and batteries to St. John, St. Thomas, and the British Virgin Islands, and bringing back evacuated children, and elderly and disabled people.
While survival is the most immediate priority, bigger problems loom as the islands try to recover. Plaskett expects that the Virgin Islands will lose out on the entire October to April tourist season, its economy’s largest source of income. Children need to go to school. Housing is another problem. “Nearly every wooden structure has suffered severe damage,” St. John Rescue wrote in an online plea. Plaskett says she is talking to U.S. Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp about using cruise ships for emergency housing, and talking to Congress about establishing a “mortgage moratorium.” But to rebuild housing, especially for the poor, “we’re going to need tremendous support” from the federal government.
Virtually everyone she knows in the islands works for the tourist industry in some way, says Landsmark — as housekeepers or nannies in the all-inclusive resorts locals call “concrete jungles,” or as taxi drivers and tour guides. Fishermen, like Landsmark’s cousin whose boat was destroyed, rely on selling their catches to hotels and restaurants.
Landsmark fears that many islanders will have to emigrate, as residents of Montserrat did after volcanic eruptions in the 1990s decimated most of the island. She suggests that the “islands that were not hit” should set up a guest-worker program so hotel workers from the damaged islands “can go over the water” to continue to work in the industry and send money back home.
Antigua Cargo expects to continue collecting goods for a while and hopes to send a shipment in the coming weeks. “The sooner the better,” says company logistics specialist Danell Prescott. But “Barbuda’s going to need help for a long time.”